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Published: Tuesday, 6/9/2009

Penske deal gives hope to Saturn of Toledo

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

As hundreds of auto distributorships hit the end of the road Tuesday, Toledo dealer Frank Kistler, Jr., and his staff are relieved that they have escaped the crackups shattering dealerships nationwide.

"We're not breaking out the champagne yet, but we're optimistic," said Mr. Kistler, owner of Saturn of Toledo Inc.

General Motors Corp. announced Friday that it had reached a deal to sell its Saturn brand to racing legend Roger Penske. Without a buyer, the Saturn brand might have disappeared.

Mr. Penske, a former race car driver, is one of the industry's top retailers. His Penske Automotive Group operates 310 franchises worldwide.

If the deal goes through, Mr. Penske plans to continue to buy Saturn-branded vehicles from GM for the next two years, Mr. Kistler said. After that, Mr. Penske expects to buy from dealers such as Renault, through its Samsung Motors unit in South Korea. The sale is expected to be completed by late summer.

Sixteen bidders, including Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna International were said to have submitted bids for Saturn. Mr. Kistler, whose family has been selling vehicles in Toledo since the 1960s, said he is pleased Mr. Penske won out.

"Penske has retail automotive experience and he perhaps has a greater reputation in the industry than some of the others," Mr. Kistler said. Dealers were "very upbeat" during a conference call Friday, he added.

GM and rival Chrysler LLC are using bankruptcy laws to hone their dealership networks by trimming hundreds of outlets. Chrysler plans to terminate the franchise agreements of 790 dealers effective today. GM has announced one round of cuts for next year and is expected to make further reductions soon.

Saturn of Toledo, at 6141 West Central Ave. in Sylvania Township, has 28 employee. The dealership's 20th anniversary is in November.

For a time, Mr. Kistler wasn't convinced the firm would make it. "I was getting anxious," he said. "Things seemed to be going in the wrong direction."

Slow sales forced him to close his Saturn dealership in Findlay on March 31. The firm continues to sell used vehicles. But new car sales and parts and service departments - along with 18 employees - are gone.

Mr. Kistler said that if U.S. auto sales revive and the new Saturn under Mr. Penske thrives, he might reopen the Findlay dealership. He recalled the Saturn brand's start as an independent unit of GM to compete with Japanese models. "We're returning to our roots as an independent company and that's where we think Saturn should be," he said

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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