Auto dealer Shelby recounts challenges, heads in new direction

Auto dealer Shelby recounts challenges, heads in new direction

CHAMPAIGN — Jennifer Shelby studied psychology and had experience selling plants, software and cars.

But she never expected to have to rescue an auto dealership in the midst of Chrsyler Corp.'s bankruptcy.

Nevertheless, that was the job that fell to her after her husband, Mike Shelby, died in 2008 at the age of 57.

As it turned out, Shelby Motors, the Dodge-Jeep dealership in Champaign, not only survived, but also ended up gaining the Chrysler franchise.

Now Jennifer Shelby, 48, of Champaign is selling the dealership to Dave Taylor, who owns Taylor Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in Bourbonnais.

She's also outlining a new life for herself.

Shelby, who has overseen the dealership for five years, joined Shelby Motors as a sales representative in 1993, became finance manager in 1997 and married Mike Shelby in 1998.

Ten years later, her world changed when her husband suffered a fatal heart attack on Oct. 21, 2008.

"He died so unexpectedly," she said. "He had no will, no estate plan. He had two grown children from a previous marriage. All of a sudden, we had to sort things out. Nothing was in writing."

Plus, 2008 had not been a good year for the dealership. Shelby Motors' general manager, Scott Johnson, had died the year before. The bottom line for 2008 was a bracketed figure, meaning the business was not making money, Jennifer Shelby said.

"I firmly believe that stress was the final straw" for Mike, she said.

But something someone said at Mike's visitation made Jennifer Shelby determined to persevere. An auto dealer said when it got too hard for her, she might want to turn the business over to him.

After hearing that, she decided, "It won't get too tough. I can do this."

Several people tried to talk her out of it since Chrysler Corp. was heading toward bankruptcy. It would file for Chapter 11 reorganization in April 2009.

Shelby credits attorney John Phipps and Mike's uncle, Richard Shelby, with helping her get a handle on what needed done.

Phipps pointed out the dealership's staff had no leader. "You have to go in there and lead the show," Jennifer Shelby recalls being told. "So I did."

Richard Shelby, whom Mike had bought the dealership from, combed through papers, identifying vital ones. He also talked to the mechanics, who hadn't worked for a woman before, and assured them. "She can do it. It's going to be fine."

Jennifer Shelby decided to buy the dealership from Mike's estate. After negotiating with Mike's kids and getting dealership approval from Chrysler, she became the official owner in December 2009.

The road wasn't easy. "They (Chrysler) lost my paperwork to become dealer-principal three times, and I submitted it three different times," she said.

Even when her position was secured, her travails weren't over.

As Chrysler planned to cut its dealer network, "we were on the list to be shut down," Shelby said.

Chrysler representatives "came in and held court," and Shelby outlined her five-year plan for the dealership. She didn't find out whether Chrysler would keep her as a dealer until "literally the day the letters went out."

During the lean times, the dealership didn't let any staff go, though some left to pursue other opportunities, she said.

Shelby said she leaned heavily on the advice on others, both in and out of the dealership.

In addition to Phipps and Richard Shelby, she relied on attorney Phil Knox and on Craig Hays, Lee Smith and Kim Martin for counsel, as well as Joyce Rahn and Walt Hoult, whom Jennifer Shelby said has been her "partner in and out of the dealership" in recent years.

"They knew how to get me to think or rethink" things, she said.

One example came this year when Shelby got two calls asking whether her dealership was for sale. She told both callers "no."

"How do you know?" she recalled Phipps telling her. "You didn't let them make an offer. You might want to know."

She thought about his words a couple days, then listened to a proposal.

"It took me a long time to make the decision. I felt responsible to the employees, and the family name had been in the community since 1942. It was a big deal to me," she said.

Mervin Shelby, Mike's grandfather, was the founder of Shelby Motors. Mervin had three sons — Robert, Richard and Larry.

Richard and Larry followed their father into the car business, with Larry eventually opening his own dealership in Urbana.

Robert sold hearing aids, but his son, Mike, went to work for Richard when he was college-age and eventually acquired the business from his uncle.

Jennifer Shelby called her decision to sell an "emotional" one. "Just looking at the dollars and cents would have been easy," she said of the offer from Taylor.

"The number was right, and I feel the person is right," she added. "Dave has the energy and passion for the car business, and mine is not that strong."

A Champaign native, Jennifer is the daughter of Jane Eisner Green and Steve Meyer. She graduated from Central High School in 1983 and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Indiana University in 1987.

She considered graduate school, but decided that although counseling might appeal to her, psychological research did not.

Instead, she turned to the plant-care business, working for The Plant Connection and later operating a similar firm, Greenhouse Effect.

For a couple years in the early 1990s, she worked in sales for Urbana-based American Software and Hardware Distributors. After leaving that job, she was surprised when a couple people suggested she sell cars.

Her dad had been a car and motorcycle buff. Jennifer enjoyed cars and could identify what vehicles were coming down the road.

She saw an ad for a job opening at Shelby Motors, applied and got the job.

At the time, she was the only woman selling cars at the dealership, though three others worked in the office and a fourth was a part-time receptionist.

As a saleswoman in an industry dominated by men, she learned to develop a thick skin.

She said some customers laughed at her, thinking a woman wouldn't know the answers to their questions.

If she didn't know the answer, she told them she would get the answer.

That impressed one male customer, who had asked the same question of salesmen at other dealerships and been given wrong answers.

As a result of tracking down the right answer, she got the sale.

Jennifer Shelby that in 1995, she was thinking of going out West to work for a Mercedes-Benz dealership when Mike Shelby "totally out of the blue asked me out." They dated a few years before marrying.

Now, with the dealership scheduled to change hands this week, Shelby is planning new challenges for her life.

She's laying the groundwork for an online children's clothing business, and she's hoping to help her brother, Rob Meyer, open a bar in California.

Plus, she's preparing for a run for an at-large seat on the Champaign City Council in 2015. She said she can bring "a business perspective" to the council.

Shelby is also serving as co-chair of a comprehensive capital campaign for Blackburn College in Carlinville, one of seven work colleges in the nation.

In addition to taking classes, Blackburn students work to provide services essential to the college's operations, with students also managing much of the work.

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