Future of Beartooth Ford in limbo
Five months ago, the future of Beartooth Ford in Columbus was looking brighter than ever.
After having turned down numerous offers to buy the dealership over the course of 15 years, owner Tonya House finally got an offer too good to pass up.
RFJ Auto Partners Holdings, Inc., which owns Dave Smith dealerships in Idaho, proposed creating a partnership with House in which she would run the business. Employees would get better benefit packages, there would be opportunity for advancement and the staff of 14 would grow to 75 people within five years.
With the increased jobs would also be an increased tax-base and increased traffic to other businesses.
“It’s a game-changer,” said House Tuesday morning, announcing the stalled merger for the first time publicly.
A buy-sell was in place and submitted to the Ford Motor Company on Feb. 13. House and RFJ continued to make transition and expansion plans awaiting final approval.
The wheels of progress stopped turning abruptly on March 15 when two representatives from the Ford Motor Company arrived at House’s dealership with some news. The company was exercising its right of first refusal and assigned the right to a company called Columbus Spartan, LLC, which had been formed on March 8.
Columbus Spartan, LLC, is owned by Don H. Jones Jr. and Garry Brayko. Jones owns Laurel Ford and Brayko owns Archie Cochran Ford in Billings, according to a press release from Beartooth Ford. Columbus Spartan, LLC has filed suit in the 22nd Judicial District Court in Columbus seeking clarifications on House’s deal with RFJ.
According to court documents, the employment agreement between House and Ford includes the following:
•House would serve as the general manager and executive.
•House’s base salary would be $20,000 per month plus benefits for three years.
A right of first refusal means the party to which the right is assigned must make good on the original agreement with the original buyer, said House.
House said her concern is that the dealership will be closed so it won’t be a competitor to Ford dealerships in Laurel and Billings.
And House is fighting to keep that deal in place.
“My opinion is that they want to buy my dealership so they can shut it down. They don’t want the competition,” House said. “But I never would have sold to anyone who was even thinking of closing it. I was trying to give my longtime employees more opportunities and create jobs in Columbus.”
WHY IT MATTERS SO MUCH TO HOUSE
Rick Ford, the CEO of RFG, first approached House in August of 2016, at which time she turned him down.
“I just didn’t think I needed money that bad,” she said,
In the next six months, Ford did his homework and learned about House’s involvement in the community through the backpack program. He showed her parallels between Columbus and Kellogg, Idaho, where the main dealership is located — both are situated along I-90, both are mining towns and both are small.
In January, he proposed another merger in person, again emphasizing what it could mean to the employees and community.
“I thought when am I going to have the chance to better myself, my staff and my community,” said House.