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January 20, 2010 > A community icon battles corporate arrogance

A community icon battles corporate arrogance

Don Signer sits in a sales office that was once busy selling automobiles to a loyal local clientele. Now the phone rings and he explains over and over again that his business has closed... not by choice but as the as the result of General Motors terminating his dealer agreement in 2009 along with 1350 other dealers. As GM's recent action followed years of struggle between Don and the corporate giant, the rise and ultimate demise of Signer Buick-Cadillac is a unique twist to the fate of many other automobile dealerships in the United States as economic woes unraveled GM, one of the country's bastions of free enterprise.

Opening a dealership in the Tri-City area was the extension of a family tradition for Signer. As a young man, he remembers his father, a factory man with Pontiac, decided to buy a dealership in Oregon. Moving was nothing new to the young high school sophomore. Born in Portland, Oregon, Don's family had moved between Spokane, Seattle and the Bay Area and now back to Oregon. The untimely death of Don's father forced his mother to step into a management role of the Buick-Cadillac-GMC dealership in anticipation of Don's college graduation. "I became sales manager a week after graduation knowing very little about it," said Don. He learned quickly and remained at the dealership until 1980.

Buick recognized the acumen of the young entrepreneur and in October, 1979 named him as the exclusive operator of proposed dealership in Fremont. In partnership, the two young men opened the Buick dealership in a new facility in November, 1980. Within fifteen months, Don was able to buy out his partner and assume complete ownership of the dealership. He remembers, "We ascended pretty rapidly; we were among the leaders of the Bay Area."

In the late 1980's, the concept of an Auto Mall began to take shape for Southern Fremont. Catellus Corporation, an offshoot of landowner Southern Pacific Railroad, sought rezoning and accommodation of host of automobile dealerships. While actively participating in the Auto Mall formation, Don sought Fremont's first Cadillac franchise, which he acquired in June, 1990, with agreement to GM's Fremont Auto Mall relocation requirement. A goal to represent Cadillac had been achieved and he was "where I wanted to be." In 1991, he purchased DiGiulio Pontiac-GMC with plans to relocate it to the Auto Mall as well, but Pontiac disapproved and stopped the purchase. It is at this point that the relationship between GM and Signer began to unravel.

In 1992, GM began to promote its chosen site on Balentine Drive in Newark to Don. Pontiac-Olds-GMC had committed to move next to Fremont Ford, but Don had moved forward with plans to relocate to the Fremont Auto Mall although it was slow to form due to the dismal economy. Finally Don succumbed to GM pressure to move Signer Buick-Cadillac to Newark. His commitment to quality and the community were rewarded by loyal patronage from the Tri-City area and many surrounding Bay Area communities.

On the surface, all appeared well as Signer Buick-Cadillac continued its tradition of excellence in sales and service of its automobiles. Below this calm exterior, however, lay another story that could be used as a plot for a best-selling mystery/suspense novel. In a continuation of the Signer story, a different view of GM's use and control of dealerships emerges.

Note:
Part II of this article will be published in a following edition of TCV. Additional information can be found at www.donsigner.com.

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