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Brent Parsons
05/22/2014 2:00 PM

Some weeks ago, I wrote about an auto dealer still standing, Jeff Holman. One who isn’t was not only Amador’s largest, but also, in my opinion, the county’s most recognizable and active public figure.

The collapse of the auto industry and closing of the brand-spanking-new Prospect and Amador Toyota dealerships, in the fall of 2008, shocked the community by knocking a 25-year pillar off his footing. Some months ago, I asked Frank, as he was setting up to broadcast one of his son’s Argonaut basketball games, if he would give me an interview. He jotted down his number and I finally called and left a message. He returned my call after getting home from business in Ukiah, and we arranged to meet under the oaks at the new transit center. I was interested in his life story and I hoped that he would talk about the events of 2008, but I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t. He did. The recollection was painful. We didn’t need sunglasses in the breezy shade except to hide some tears.

Frank Halvorson grew up in Stockton, attended St. Mary’s High and the University of the Pacific on a baseball scholarship. He was recruited as a good-hitting second baseman, but moved to left field his junior year, where he was twice selected all–league and won a Most Valuable Player award. Lori, Frank’s wife, was an underclassman when they met and began dating. Frank didn’t have a career choice on graduation and answered a call from an Oldsmobile Regional Manager who was in town recruiting corporate reps. GM had dealerships in virtually every town in those days and was riding high with 50 percent of the U.S. market. Frank was flown first-class to Oldsmobile headquarters, in Lansing, Michigan, for a two-week crash training course. Frank thought first class was pretty cool for a kid, but, in retrospect, sees that expense as emblematic of a company spending money the wrong way.

St. Louis was his assignment, and he rented an apartment and lived by himself. Frank went home for the holidays in 1979 and proposed to Lori, who had another year in school. The wedding was set for August 31. On July 15, Frank was called into the boss’s office. The OPEC embargo was on and gas was scarce and expensive. Frank’s company was built on gas-guzzling V-8’s and the consumer no longer wanted them. People were fired and Frank, being a low man on the totem pole, was out. In 45 days, Lori would be marrying an unemployed man. He began searching the Midwest job market, but got a call from California. Manteca Datsun, which had a product better suited for a gas crisis, needed a salesman. Frank returned home and took the job.

Curly Harder, who owned the Datsun dealership, had another motive for wanting Frank. He sponsored an A division fast-pitch softball team and had his sights set on going to the national playoffs, which were being hosted by Stockton that year. With Frank in center field, he made it and they finished fourth in the nation. A week after Frank and Lori’s three-day honeymoon, Oldsmobile got Frank back by offering him a district manager’s position in California. He and Lori moved to Fresno and she rode the train to school in Stockton twice a week to finish up her degree. Frank handled all the Olds dealers between Lodi and Porterville. “And there was a heck of a lot of them,” said Frank. There are now none.

Things appeared to have stabilized and they bought a nice house right before the auto turmoil struck again and he was transferred to the Bay Area. “Interest rates were at 18 percent and prices were high,” Frank remembered. “We finally found a model home above Hayward State and Lori commuted by Bart to work in the city. We were strapped by the mortgage and moved a kerosene heater from room to room to cut our utility bill. But the Bay Area was an exciting place and we found a lot of free things to do. It was a good time.”

When Bill, Frank’s dad, called in 1983, it didn’t seem like much. Bill made a lunch date to talk and they met. Bill had bought into the Prospect GM dealership, in Jackson, with a partner, in 1974. The partner, Ron DeJulio, had died suddenly and Bill wondered if Frank was interested in replacing him and buying in. Frank and Lori were stunned by the offer, and the changes, if taken, it would bring. The fact that Lori was a small-town girl, raised in Weaverville, up on the Trinity River, swayed their decision. They sold their mortgage burden and bought a small home on a piece of land in Amador. “All I did was work — 12 days on and two days off,” Frank recalled. “But it proved worth the effort. Prospect Motors was a success. We bought Sutter Creek’s Amador Motors in 1986, the same year the twins, Amanda and Lauren, were born. They were my Father’s Day present. Toyota called in 1987, mainly because of their interest in our fleet business. We were presented a choice of a dealership in Tracy or in Amador. I chose here, That was a ‘no-brainer’”

A new facility in the near future was part of the agreement. Frank spent 20 years looking for the right place. He found it at exactly the wrong time.

I had heard about Prospect’s fleet business when I was on Sutter Creek’s City Council, and we were trying to lure Frank’s dealerships to the corner where Walgreen’s is now. I thought the magnitude of the fleet operation was exaggerated. It wasn’t.

Frank summarized the business, which reached a zenith in 2004. “We got into the business when, if run right, it could be lucrative. The margins per vehicle were incredibly low and so volume was the key. We were the largest in the country at one time, moving 144,000 vehicles in a single year. And not one of them came through here.”

Prospect Motors, in little Jackson, California, became known as “The” fleet dealer of the entire country. “California registration laws created a serious bottleneck. We buried all the local DMV’s and still could not keep up. By chance one evening at a Kings’ game, Stan Lukowitz invited me up to his suite for a drink. The DMV director was there, and we talked. The next day, one of his tech people called and we eventually set up the only dealership-operated DMV in the state. We were able to completely license and register all the vehicles we sold in-house.” But the fleet sale bubble burst. The corporations realized that essentially giving cars away just to keep the assembly lines running was not good business, especially when ex-rentals with very low mileage showed up on competing lots at unmatchable low prices. The American auto industry had learned another lesson relatively late.

Frank continued to feel pressure for updated facilities, especially from Toyota, which also wanted a segregated one. Jackson was his preference, but nothing could be worked out with his “month-to-month” location where he was, and no suitable site could be identified. His developer friends, Ciro Toma and Wayne Havens, approached him with a solution. They were working on a project on the closed mill property and could carve out the perfect, high-profile auto sales location in what was destined to be the business hub of the county. Frank ran the concept past all that could or would have input. It was the late 1990s, and the economy was looking good and forecast to be even better. The reviewers approved and GMAC agreed to finance. The auto dealer became a developer. The project was submitted to the county and approved on a “negative declaration,” which is a planning determination that generally fast-tracks a project, but not this time. The development was delayed as it navigated the convoluted maze of compaction, contamination, Native American sites and the biggest obstacle of all, Caltrans. Frank was “all in” as the expenses piled up and the economy started giving off some subtle, but troubling, signals. Ground was finally broken in 2005, and Prospect Motors, Amador Motors and Amador Toyota opened in the spring of 2006. The facilities’ life, two-and-a-half years, would be considerable shorter than the time it took to build them.

The last part of this story was a very difficult one for Frank to replay. He hesitated and regrouped several times as he recounted how a lifetime of work ended with a voice mail.

“Things started well,” he said. “Sales were good and the public pleased. But the ominous signs increased as the economy dragged through 2007 and the bubble burst in 2008. GM was bankrupt and GMAC, the financer of my property and flooring costs, was in no position to help. Its credit rating was so bad, it could not borrow to lend. Toyota tried real hard, but they couldn’t take a second position to GMAC. Without the GM incentives, things wouldn’t pencil out. One afternoon, I had a phone conversation with GMAC and then went to watch my son, Ryan, play a junior high basketball game. I thought things were worked out. I returned to a devastating phone message. GMAC had pulled the plug. I was finished. One week before Christmas, I had to tell 120 of the best employees a boss could ever hope to assemble that they had no job. It was the hardest thing I hope I ever have to do. I let them all down.”

The sunglasses couldn’t hide what was going on behind them. All he had left was his family and his home. He was a broken man. Life doesn’t pause when you are broken, especially if a dependent and supportive family is there, such as Lori, his wife of 28 years at the time, along with Amanda, Lauren, Ryan and Elle. Frank brokered cars for awhile and Lori went to work for ATCAA. He had offers, but they all required a move, and that was a deal killer. In 2010, he got a call from an insurance executive. “How about flying out and meeting our team in New York?” He went and spent a week. When he returned, he studied and passed his state insurance license exam and now represents USI, the fifth-largest group health benefit insurance brokerage in the country. His office is in Stockton, where his parents still reside, and clients are spread over northern California. His brothers, David and Jimmy, own and operate American Chevrolet, in Modesto. I asked if he missed the business. He predicted there won’t be another new car dealership in Amador or Calaveras in his lifetime. “Capital costs are too high and the manufacturers’ requirements too lofty,” he explained. I know he doesn’t want the distinction of being the last, but that didn’t answer the question. I didn’t push it. You can’t miss something until you are over it, and some things take awhile ... quite awhile.

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