In late 2009, longtime Livonia car dealer Kit Tennyson was counted out.
The Chevrolet store on Plymouth Road that bore his surname was barely making ends meet. It sold about 120 new and used vehicles a month despite its desirable location that could easily deliver double or triple that amount.
So that year, General Motors put it on the list of 2,400 U.S. dealerships it would terminate under federal bankruptcy protection over the next year.
The showroom was stale, the service area needed upgrades. The staff was downtrodden and defeatist, recalled Jay Feldman, owner of Feldman Automotive Group.
Yet Feldman saw potential in the store and its location. He would end up being the guy to team up with Tennyson to turn it around, restoring the dealership’s revenue and Kit Tennyson’s reputation.
“The best part for me was Kit. In everybody’s eyes he was going out of business,” Feldman said. “But when he retired, he retired as one of the biggest Chevrolet dealers in the country, and I thought that was pretty cool. That was cool for his family.”
A May-December friendship
Christopher “Kit” Tennyson, who lived in Grosse Pointe Farms, retired in 2017. He died this past October of “a brief illness” at age 73, his obituary said.
His dealership, now called Feldman Chevrolet of Livonia, is part of Feldman Automotive Group, owned by Feldman. It has nine dealerships in Michigan and employs about 800 full-time and part-time employees. Jay Feldman’s five Chevrolet stores sell the most Chevrolet vehicles in Michigan, GM said.
Feldman Chevrolet of Livonia sells 400 to 500 total cars each month, Feldman said. It is in the top 50 best-selling Chevrolet stores in the country, a Chevrolet spokesman confirmed. There are about 3,000 Chevrolet stores in the United States.
The store’s success is a story of a young, eager car dealer befriending an older veteran amid one of the most volatile times in the auto industry’s history.
Tennyson and Feldman both grew up in the business; their fathers were car dealers. Kit took over the dealership from his father, Harry, in the 1980s, Feldman said. At that time, Feldman was still selling cars for his dad, Marty, and wouldn’t become a dealer until the early 1990s. There was a 24-year age gap between Tennyson and Feldman, who is just 49.
“But he and I knew each other for a long time, being a fellow Chevy dealer since the early 1990s,” Feldman said. “We were very friendly. We weren’t close friends or anything, but we talked on the phone over the years and had been on dealer trips together.”
But their business friendship almost came to an end in 2009.
The unspoken wind down
Feldman is reluctant to talk about what he said was Tennyson getting “caught up in the GM wind down in 2009. He was not receiving cars from the factory. I don’t know what he did to stay afloat; it probably was not easy.”
Part of Feldman’s reticence is the fact that GM doesn’t like its dealers to talk about that period when it went through a federally guided bankruptcy and government bailout.
But here’s what happened. At the end of 2008, GM was in the red by $30.9 billion. GM’s CEO at that time was Rick Wagoner. He led an auto delegation that included Chrysler Group and Ford Motor Co. to Washington seeking government funding to save the industry and keep GM out of bankruptcy.
But ultimately, Chrysler and GM needed to restructure under federal bankruptcy protection. On June 1, 2009, GM filed for bankruptcy protection, and that sent a shiver down thousands of dealers’ spines.
A month earlier, it was widely reported that GM would cut 1,100 of its dealerships in the first wave of the company’s restructuring to reduce its dealership count. In total, the company planned to eliminate about 2,400 of its 5,969 stores at that time.
In the end, Chrysler terminated 789 dealerships in 2009, about a quarter of its pre-bankruptcy total. GM told about 2,600 dealership owners that they would be closed in the fall of 2010, a 40% cut to total dealership count, Automotive News reported in 2017.
Chrysler and GM eventually reinstated some dealerships, but most of the terminations stuck.
Not ready to go
When GM sent termination letters out, Tennyson Chevrolet got one. Livonia’s mayor at the time, Jack Kirksey, lashed out at GM and Chrysler for closing three dealerships along Plymouth Road, a strip that was a car dealership corridor.
Besides Tennyson, John Rogin Buick and Livonia Chrysler-Jeep, owned by the Holiday Automotive Group, were to be closed down, too.
But in a reversal of fortune in March 2010, GM sent letters to 661 dealers indicating they will be reinstated. One of those was Tennyson Chevrolet.
“This is a tremendous boost to the city, we’re overjoyed,” Kirksey told Crain’s Detroit Business.
Livonia Chrysler-Jeep eventually got reinstated, too. But nearby John Rogin Buick is now RightWay Auto Sales, a used-car dealership.
Feldman said that Tennyson convinced GM “to give him another shot.”
“He wasn’t totally ready to get out of the business and it’s a great market,” Feldman said, noting Bill Brown Ford, one of the largest in the nation, is almost next door. “It is a great town to do business.”
Let’s have lunch
In fact, the store had caught Feldman’s eye years earlier.
“I knew it could be a lot more successful than it was,” he said. “It was a good market with a lot of traffic and decent income in Livonia.”
Feldman has a knack for turning struggling stores into a success. In 1992, he became a finance manager at Jay Chevrolet, and the store was struggling. His dad wanted to sell it. But Feldman was undeterred. He paid off Motors Holding as part of a year-long plan to get its debt off the books and boost its revenue.
In 1992, Jay Chevrolet’s revenues were $25 million. Today, Feldman Automotive Group’s total revenues are $1.2 billion, he said. That includes the dealerships in Ohio that he owns with movie actor Mark Wahlberg.
So in late 2011, Feldman called up Tennyson with a proposal: “I’d like to talk to you about buying you out or partnering.”
Tennyson declined, saying he was not ready to do a deal. Feldman invited him to lunch anyhow at the California Pizza Kitchen at 12 Oaks Mall in Novi.
“We just talked about the business, family and what his long-term goals were,” Feldman recalled. “His three daughters were not in the business, so eventually he knew he had to do something … build a new building and a lot of things he wasn’t really excited about.”
Tennyson assured Feldman he felt they would make a good team and if something changed he would let him know. So the two kept in touch a little here and there and Feldman trusted that, “Kit was that kind of guy to not do anything else without talking to me.”
He was right. In the spring of 2012 the two met for lunch again, this time at the Cheesecake Factory in Novi, to “talk about what a deal would look like,” Feldman said.
By the third quarter that year, the two signed a five-year partnership.
A brand new dealership
There was a lot to get done to turn things around at the dealership.
First, it needed a whole new building because “the old facility was really, really old.”
To do that meant they could not store any cars on the lot while builders constructed a new service lane and showroom. So, given that Livonia Chrysler Jeep down the street was still in its termination process and not open for business, Feldman leased the parking lot there from the owners and stored the Chevrolet inventory there for a year.
Tennyson and Feldman started construction on the new facility in 2013, building an entirely new showroom and service lane. He declined to disclose the cost, but said it was “a significant amount.”
“We doubled the size of the service department, put in new floors and paint,” Feldman said. “We added 15,000 square feet to the building, repaved the entire lot, put in new landscaping and new lighting.”
It took about 18 months to complete but by then, Tennyson had “the confidence to then see the way we operated our business and he trusted me a lot. I had the energy, I was younger than him, to push things along and he wasn’t ready to do that again.”
Merging company cultures
One of the more difficult things to do was make the cultural change that was needed to truly get the store’s sales going. That means letting go of those employees who were downers.
“We just had to change the culture. We had a good number of people that worked there who had so many years of being the red-headed stepchild in the area and going through the whole wind-down process, they didn’t see what I saw,” Feldman said. “Some of them did — we maintained a lot of the staff — but manager wise, there was a general manager who was pretty negative.”
He said some people left on their own when they realized it was not a fit there. The culture Feldman wants is one of “winning” and creating a fun work environment that will lead to long-term career-oriented employees, mitigating turnover.
“We want to win and keep our staff informed of all the things we’re doing,” Feldman said. “Before COVID, we’d have quarterly lunches at every single store and give prizes, recognize birthdays, other employees would nominate employees for awards. … It’s a culture of having fun. We work hard, we push hard, but have a happy atmosphere.”
In 2014, Feldman changed the name on all his stores to Feldman to be consistent and created a brand, so Tennyson became Feldman Chevrolet of Livonia.
A first partnership
After Tennyson retired at the end of 2017, Feldman bought out his half of the partnership. The two men stayed in touch.
“We would have dinner together, the couples, even meet up in Florida together and sometimes the Detroit Athletic Club,” Feldman said. “Emily, his widow, I talk to and she is heartbroken because he died way too young. He got ill and it was fast.”
Feldman said he retains a soft spot for Tennyson, his first business partner, long before he met Wahlberg. Wahlberg and Feldman own a small empire together that includes three GM dealerships and a recreational vehicle store in Ohio, five Wahlburgers restaurants in Michigan, two in Ohio and two in Georgia, and they are investors in F45 Training, which specializes in high-intensity group workouts.
For Feldman, his partnership with Tennyson remains special. He learned the value of consistent service to customers, but the ability to always evolve, too, “because the business is always changing.”