The recent collapse of Bill Heard Chevrolet, the largest chain of Chevy dealerships in the world, has left former customers with a slew of problems. I spent an afternoon outside the now barricaded entrance of Bill Heard Chevrolet in Ike-ravaged suburban Houston speaking with former customers left hanging in limbo for this exclusive story of the fall of Bill Heard's dealership empire.
Nothing Leaves On any other Saturday at Bill Heard in Sugar Land, Texas, the dealership's main sales lot, one of the largest in the state, would be filled with salespeople and prospective buyers. This Saturday it's empty but for two armed security guards who claim they were hired by GM to make sure that "nothing leaves" the lot full of product. The two guards were out-of-state, called in to guard locations affected by the recent Hurricane Ike, and were reassigned to this shift last Thursday after the last dealership employees left. A line of unsold trucks sitting unattended on the Bill Heard Chevrolet lot in Sugar Land, Texas. Instead of protecting damaged banks and buildings along the Gulf Coast, the two guards are the only sources of information for customers driving up to the dealership looking for answers. There's not much the guards can tell people, other than the dealership is closed. For most people, it's just a matter of having to look elsewhere for a new car. But for others there are serious unresolved issues. One man drove three hours from Corpus Christi with a check, expecting to pick up a truck for his son, sitting in the passenger seat. The resolution to that issue is fairly simple: they're going to have to try and get the same price somewhere else. Another man, a recent immigrant who only wanted to go by the name Eric, needs the license plates for the Chevy Express work van he recently purchased. There are numerous others in this exact predicament. When Eric arrives at the dealership he pleads with the guard to let him inside to get his plates. The guard attempts to explain that he's sympathetic to the man's circumstances but there wouldn't be anyone there to help him even if he did go inside. Eric shows that he's paid for the van and then shows him the expired paper plates. To make maters worse, the maintenance light on the van has already illuminated, indicating that there could be a problem with it. He's actually better off than some. Eric has ownership papers and should be able to get plates elsewhere. Those lacking those papers will have to go through other channels to get proof of ownership before they can go to the state to apply for permanent plates. Exacerbating the situation is the fact many people in the Houston area still don't have power and haven't seen the news that the dealership is closed. It isn't until they're stopped at the gate that they realize something is amiss. Working Late To Help Customers? Empty chairs, family photos and deflated balloons from the sudden closure and departure. Inside the dealership's main offices it looks as though the entire showroom floor was frozen in time. Deflated balloons hang off of cubicle corners and showroom models. A loan application sits on a desk, unfinished. A framed picture of a family going down a roller coaster at Sea World hangs above an uncleared desk, one of many family photos that indicate the suddenness of the announcement. If you're to believe one of the managers of this particular dealership, the employees stayed late into the night helping customers get their plates processed and out the door. Contradicting this is an article from Wednesday in the Houston Chronicle in which the operations manager of Bill Heard Sugar Land, Linda Patterson, claimed they were selling vehicles into the night and would continue to stay in business. But by the next morning it was announced they would be closing, possibly for good. This leaves customers in the process of buying a car from the dealership, perhaps even ones sold cars on Wednesday night, without answers. This isn't unique to this one dealership. In Georgia, people are reporting unreturned deposits and cars locked in the company's shop. A History Of Problems An engine light shines in a truck recently purchased from Heard. The owner's paper plates are expired and he said no one let him know the dealership was closing. The company claimed in a statement that "rising fuel prices, a product portfolio of mostly heavy trucks and sport utility vehicles, economic recession, unfavorable local market conditions for vehicle sales, the crisis in the banking and financing sectors, and other factors all combined to create a business environment in which the company simply did not have the resources needed to continue to operate." It would be hard to ignore, though, the many consumer issues the company has been famous for. For the last few years, Bill Heard's dealerships generated numerous complaints for questionable business practices such as advertising cars they didn't have, selling lemons and sending out fake recall notices to attract customers. The online report from the Houston office of the Better Business Bureau includes numerous warnings, including this relevant passage:
The BBB worked in conjunction with Dateline NBC on an investigation of Bill Heard Chevrolet's advertising practices. It was alleged on film that this company did not have the cars in stock that they were advertising and that they immediately tried to sell a higher priced vehicle than the one advertised. Any time you make a purchase, it is best to comparison shop prior to making a purchase.The Office of Consumer Affairs in Georgia issued 16 actions against Heard Enterprises in the past 15 years with total fines of approximately $280,000. There is at least one deceptive advertising case pending against Bill Heard, but the bankruptcy has thrown that into question. What's Next? A bankruptcy judge will have to determine what happens to the dealerships in the near future as filings show the company has between $500 million and $1 billion in assets and debts. Much of the money is owed to banks and various states in taxes. While other sources have pointed out the implications for the industry of this dealership failure, it isn't until you visit with customers on the ground that you realize how close to the consumer this failure is. In the meantime, customers who still have unresolved issues with Bill Heard will have to wait and see.