Financially strapped Bill Heard Enterprises is closing its 13 automotive dealerships today, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
It was originally believed the company would close Friday, but that timetable has been pushed up as word of the closings leaked.
Employees at the Columbus flagship dealership were packing up and leaving today at 3 p.m.
As Heard Enterprises was making decisions to close its stores it has also been in talks to sell dealerships. The company has been in serious negotiations this week to sell its flagship Columbus Chevrolet dealership, a source,familiar with the talks confirmed. The source declined to disclose the name of the potential buyer.
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The talks have taken place over the last three days, the source said.
Heard executives have also been in talks with Charlotte, N.C. automobile dealer Rick Hendrick, a source said. It is not clear which dealerships Hendrick is interested in, the source said. In addition to an ultra-sucessful NASCAR operation, Hendrick also owns more than 70 car dealerships.
The news comes as Bill Heard Enterprises is in a serious financial squeeze brought on by the sagging automobile sales and the decision last month by GMAC to cut off the company's credit for inventory.
On Sept. 12, Heard Enterprises closed its Scottsdale, Ariz., store.
Heard officials and attorneys have been meeting for weeks to discuss ways to keep afloat the business, which started as a single Columbus car dealership in 1919.
After closing the Arizona store, Heard Enterprises released the following statement when asked if any of its other dealerships were being sold or closed:
"We continue to develop and implement a plan to restructure our business so that it can operate successfully in the long term," the statement read in part.
A real estate Web site -- globest.com -- reported Wednesday that Bill Heard Enterprises sold 31 acres of land in Gwinnett County to BrandsMart USA for $15.3 million. The property is at the southwest quadrant of Interstate 85 and Georgia Highway 20.
Bill Heard Enterprises was the nation’s largest Chevrolet dealer for more than two decades, earning the title "Mr. Big Volume."
In 2007, it was the 11th largest automotive dealership group in the country -- down from No. 7 six years ago -- with $2.144 billion in total revenue.
In a rare interview in late July, Chief Executive Officer Bill Heard Jr., whose father founded the company at the end of World War I, identified three reasons his company is struggling:
-- Bill Heard Enterprises didn't react fast enough to the economic downturn.
-- It is Chevrolet-exclusive.
-- Banks tightened requirements to grant buyers loans.