Somewhat surprisingly, Pontiac's dealer organization, now numbering 3500 outlets, is a little smaller than it was in 1956-58. Partly for this reason but mostly because of the booming sales, Pontiac's sales-per-dealer has risen drastically from 61 a year in 1958 to about 200 cars a year in 1964.
"There's been just the normal turnover in our dealer body in these past several years," Bridge said. "A few dealers have dropped out. Sometimes they've been replaced and sometimes they haven't. The dealer body was reduced by a couple hundred in 1958 and '59, but there hasn't been much change at all in the past five years."
The reductions in 1958 and '59 took place to some extent in all GM divisions after the corporation surveyed the marketing situation for all dealerships. The plan was to find and eliminate illogical dealer locations - in areas where people had moved away or where slums had grown up. Essentially, GM merely persuaded some dealers to move from the inner cities to suburbia, as their customers had.
Commenting on the size of the Pontiac dealer group, he said, "We've been very careful — and the corporation insists that we be very careful — about overloading any area with dealers. This is important to both the dealer and the customer."
A source of satisfaction to Bridge is that a lot of ordinary Pontiac dealers a few years ago have become very good operators in the past few years. "Again, I give credit to the cars for this."
Questioned about the kind of people who've taken on Pontiac dealerships in recent years, he said, "We like to get people who have experience in the auto business. And it doesn't have to be all new-car experience. We've taken in used-car dealers, dealers from competitive lines, and general managers or sales managers of existing dealerships. Quite a few sons and sons-in-law of dealers now have franchises. We like young, aggressive people, and they're screened pretty well. We haven't made too many mistakes."
Bridge and General Manager Estes keep in close touch with their dealers by visiting each of the division's 27 zones twice a year. Yet, they don't travel together. They'd rather visit the various zone cities separately. Bridge travels about 100,000 miles a year. He tries to get close to and to be on a first-name basis with as many sales managers, salesmen, service managers, and parts managers as possible. These men have come to know Bridge and other Pontiac executives through the closed-circuit telecasts held every year at new-model time and in the winter. Bridge admits that he gets a good feeling whenever he walks into a small town in some cranny of America and a dealership employee greets him by name.
Bridge, who started in the auto industry as a salesman in Rapid City, South Dakota, 38 years ago, says, "I especially like the salesmen. They're the guys who make this thing go. And I try to shake hands with and introduce myself to every salesman."
Duplicating a press conference format somewhat, Bridge's dealer meetings usually consist of a few opening remarks by him. Then he throws the meeting open for a completely free question-and-answer session. "The guys get up and tell us the things they don't like. They ask a lot of very pointed questions," he said. "I try to answer in as straightforward a manner as I can. Sometimes, these questions have resulted in product changes and different policy enforcements. Naturally, you also get a lot of nits and lice, but I think this is the best way to hold a meeting. My objective is to give them as much information as possible and also to gather as much information as I can.