BELVIDERE, IL – For decades, if you were spotted in a newvehicle here, there was a good chance you bought it from a Wolf.
C.J. “Doc” Wolf opened a namesake Chevrolet dealership in the midsized city west of Chicago in 1924. He survived the Great Depression and taught the business to sons Bill and Jack who began working at the store when they were old enough to help wash cars.
In the early 1960s, Jack, the younger brother by four years, jumped at the chance to buy a Pontiac-Cadillac-GMC franchise. “I thought it was time I did my own thing,” the 79-year-old recalls.
By 1987, the two Wolf businesses, Wolf Chevrolet and by then Jack Wolf Pontiac- Cadillac- GMC-Jeep, had settled on Belvidere’s western edge across the street from each other.
They were friendly but fierce competitors and sort of unofficial ambassadors to anyone entering Belvidere from the 150,000-resident city of Rockford to the west.
“There was always some confusion,” says second-generation dealer John Wolf, who took over Wolf Chevrolet from his father, Bill. “We’d get calls for Jack and he’d get calls for us.”
He adds: “Here’s a little known fact. My official name is John T. Wolf. My uncle Jack’s official name is John T. Wolf. We have our mother’s maiden middle names. We’d get his mail. He’d get mine. When I had a paper route as a kid, he once got my paycheck.”
But the friendly family competition has come to a close. Wolf Automotive, which lost its Chevrolet franchise as part of the GM dealer consolidations of 2009 and 2010, was unable to survive as a used-car store.
In Belvidere, a city of 25,000 people, and nearby Rockford, GM originally was going to pull Chevrolet and Cadillac franchises from four dealers, intending to create one dealer in two counties with both of the GM brands. The Buick dealership in Belvidere also was pulled at that time.
When that didn’t materialize, GM allowed Jack Wolf to keep his Cadillac and GMC franchises – Pontiac had been discontinued – but nephew John Wolf was unsuccessful in saving his Chevrolet franchise.
Like many dealers who lost their franchises as part of GM’s bankruptcy reorganization, John and Bill Wolf appealed the decision to the automaker. They got an hour in Detroit to try to change minds.
“My father and I flew out there and showed GM what we had done in the past, what we were willing to do and what we willing to invest,” John says. “It was a generally positive meeting. They said they really wanted to keep us in this market, but it was simply a numbers game.”
Enhancing the irony, about a month after GM told John Wolf it was taking away his Chevrolet franchise,pulled a Dodge franchise from another dealer in Belvidere and gave it to Jack Wolf to add to the Jeep and Chrysler franchises already in his dealership portfolio.
In Belvidere, the Dodge franchise is a big deal. The Illinois city is home to many dedicatedbuyers because of a nearby Chrysler assembly plant that has 4,500 workers who have made Dodge products since the 1960s, including the Omni, Dynasty, Caliber and now Dart.
The dealership that lost the Dodge franchise closed in 2012, a victim of Chrysler’s government-ordered bankruptcy reorganization.
One of President Obama’s re-election messages was that his administration saved the U.S. auto industry. It played well in Midwestern states such as Michigan and Ohio.
But here, many continue to criticize the government-mandated dealer consolidations that were done to help two troubled automakers cut costs.
In Belvidere, Jack Wolf went from potentially losing his Cadillac and GMC franchises to adding Dodge and keeping his Chrysler and Jeep franchises.
On the other side of the street, John Wolf tried to reinvent his business, which employed 35 people.
“We made a decision right away that we would be an ‘almost new’ pre-owned store and wouldn’t be a buy-here, pay-here dealership,” says the former Chevy dealer.
But that business model proved to be limiting, he says. “It restricted the types of customers we could attract. Providing the level of service we’d always provided as an independent was much more difficult than as a franchise dealer.
“We had good months and bad months. But we had to continually pour many, many of our own dollars into the business.”
The store went from selling about 100 cars a month to 35. “We got to the point where we were starting to jeopardize our family’s financial futures.”
John Wolf observed his 60th birthday by agonizing over the decision to close the dealership. He broke the bad news to his remaining staff, then tried to help them find jobs elsewhere. Several went across the street to work for Jack Wolf.
His father, Bill, now 83, still went to the office most every day until the end.
“Seeing the empty display lots and service center, for my dad, our family and our community, was like being punched in the gut every time,” says his son, who closed Wolf Automotive and then went on a vacation with his family.
“I turned everything off, especially my phone,” John Wolf says. “We didn’t have TV or Internet. I’ve spent nearly 40 years working six days a week from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. We needed some time.”
Then he returned to a showroom containing no staff and inventory, just antique cars they’d kept over the years, to begin the process of selling off what’s left of the family business, which had included John’s son, two brothers and a nephew.
Jack Wolf no longer runs his two dealerships on the northern side of Belvidere’s State Street. His daughter, Amy, is in charge of day-to-day operations. The Jack Wolf dealerships, which employ about 70 people, have thrived with the addition of Dodge as well as the elimination of three nearby new-car competitors.
Belvidere now has just three new-car dealerships. Jack Wolf owns two of them. But how it happened bothers him.
“If a business fails because it was poorly run, that’s one thing,” he says. “That wasn’t the case here with John or Belvidere Motors (the dealer that owned the Dodge franchise). For the first time anyone can remember, the federal government came in and just shut down well-run businesses. It was … it was un-American.”