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Fiat’s U.S. dealers, once optimistic, are in the dark on the brand’s future




In the U.S., more Jeeps are sold every four days than the number of Fiats likely to be purchased in all of 2019.

That’s the bleak reality for Fiat, a brand whose stylish Italian veneer and youthful energy have been sapped by an unforgiving market.

Lower gasoline prices removed a major selling point for the brand’s small cars, and its road map has no clear destination. One Fiat dealer described the factory’s guidance about the brand’s future as “radio silence.”

This wasn’t how the late FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne drew it up. The hard-charging executive compiled a list of successes with his stewardship of the profitable Jeep and Ram brands, but a U.S. comeback by Fiat isn’t among them.

“They came out thinking Fiat was going to be Gucci, that it would be this sophisticated thing,” said one Northeast dealer who was awarded a Fiat franchise in 2010 but backed out before building a store. “As time evolved, it became obvious to us that this was a dream in someone’s brain named Sergio Marchionne.”

Fiat targeted U.S. sales of 50,000 vehicles in 2011 and 78,000 in 2013. Instead, after peaking at 46,121 five years ago, sales are on pace to fall short of 10,000 this year, and its market share sits at less than one-tenth of 1 percent. Fiat entered May with nearly six months of inventory, according to the Automotive News Data Center, the most in the industry.

Former Fiat dealer Lisa Copeland remembers when things were different. Copeland said her Texas store thrived initially because it understood its base and the experience it needed to provide. Fiat of Austin captivated visitors with a fashionable mystique — complete with an in-store runway — that made it a powerhouse within the brand’s dealer network. Its 972 deliveries in 2012 led all Fiat dealerships and earned a visit from Marchionne.

But a few years later, mounting challenges were taking a significant toll on dealers, including Copeland.
“Issues with production, dealer profitability. As all of that started to wane, you had dealers disengaging. It got really tough,” she said. “I still fundamentally believe that it’s a really cool car with a cool heritage. I don’t think we did a great job of carrying that messaging into the U.S.”

Asked about the brand’s future, an FCA spokesman said Fiat “continues to offer an attainable all-turbo lineup of Italian-designed, fun-to-drive cars” in North America with the 500, 500X, 500L and the 124 Spider. The spokesman, in a statement, said that, “as outlined in the five-year plan last year, Fiat (together with Chrysler and Dodge) will get 25 percent of investment spend and represent 20 [percent] of net revenues.”

But at the brand’s current sales trajectory, there soon won’t be much left in which to invest. In April, Daimler said it was pulling the plug on its small-car brand, Smart, amid similar struggles.

Fiat has 377 U.S. dealerships, which it calls studios. Of those, 281 are tied to Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram showrooms, 90 are paired with Alfa Romeo and six are standalone stores.

As the brand’s challenges mounted, FCA agreed in 2016 to no longer require separate Fiat showrooms. It also offered rent assistance to dealers who continued to operate standalone stores.

But the help came too late for Kelly Automotive Group, which gave up its Fiat franchise in December 2015, said COO Brian Heney.

The Danvers, Mass., group opened one of the first Fiat stores in New England in December 2011. Heney said the initial excitement surrounding Fiat was done in by a shallow product portfolio, and the group ended up losing millions on the brand.

“We always said Fiat would be fine if we could move it into our Jeep-Chrysler store and put them together,” Heney said. “They told us, ‘No, no, no.’ Then after we turned it back in, that’s what they allowed dealers to do. It was too little, too late for us.”

Early optimism
The opening act of Marchionne’s quest to revive the brand in the U.S. began in 2010 when the automaker began selecting 130 pioneering dealers.

Optimism abounded as dealers crafted business plans for their standalone operations. The fledging network launched with just one vehicle, the fuel-friendly 500, and dealers hoped their Fiat stores would eventually gain Alfa Romeo and become posh Italian car boutiques. Fiat customers would “have a strong appreciation of design, style and fashion,” Chrysler said in 2010.
John Yark, president of Yark Automotive Group in Toledo, Ohio, had an open building that could accommodate a Fiat store. He liked the lineup he saw before the brand launched and said getting into the Fiat business was an “easy decision.” “I was impressed with the leadership of Sergio,” Yark said. “Sergio was like nobody I had ever seen in my career.”

Yark’s Fiat store, which later combined with Alfa Romeo, was selling 200 to 300 cars a month during its best years.

Yark said the brand’s celebrity-driven marketing featuring singer Jennifer Lopez and actor Charlie Sheen broke through the clutter. An early Lopez spot, though, turned into a polarizing event because it appeared to show her driving through the Bronx when she actually filmed her part in Los Angeles. A double was used in the New York scenes.

Despite the brief controversy, several dealers pointed to Fiat’s advertising as a strength.

Steven Wolf, who owns Helfman Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram in Houston, said Fiat expanded his consumer base. The brand, housed in a separate building, drew import buyers who Wolf said wouldn’t set foot in a Chrysler dealership.

Wolf said Fiat was a building block that helped him earn Alfa Romeo and Maserati franchises. All three brands are now sold together at Helfman Imports. But what was supposed to be synergy ended up contributing to Fiat’s troubles.

“Once Alfa and Maserati started going, they cooled the Fiat advertising,” Wolf said. “There are lots of incentives and programs to help sell them, but there’s not a lot of marketing behind it.”

Bullet dodged
For some dealers, frustration about being passed over for an early Fiat franchise turned into relief after they watched the brand over the years.

Maine dealer Don Lee said he saw potential in Fiat but wasn’t offered a franchise in 2010. Lee, president of Lee Auto Malls, which sells FCA vehicles, had a building ready to go and thought Fiat’s allure was simple: Chrysler lacked a small import, so Fiat could fill a hole.

But missing out on Fiat freed him up for a more lucrative opportunity in 2015, when he turned that extra building into a Ram Truck Center.

On the flip side, the Northeast dealer who was chosen for a Fiat franchise and later changed his mind relishes that decision. He ended up building a dealership for a German luxury brand on a $1 million piece of land he bought instead of a Fiat store.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” said the dealer, who spoke to Automotive News on condition of anonymity. “Now guys are throwing it away, closing down.”

Fuel-price effect
When Fiat launched, small cars appeared to have big potential. U.S. gasoline prices spiked to an average of $3.91 a gallon in May 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration, two months after the Fiat 500 reached dealerships.

Gary Brown, who sells Fiats and Alfa Romeos on New York’s Long Island, saw the brand as an opportunity to grab additional market share and offer his customers an alternative to the revived Dodge Dart.

An entry-level option with good fuel economy made sense to him as fuel prices seemed to keep rising. He remembers being excited about the chance to sell Fiats. Now, gasoline prices have been averaging less than $3, and he wonders where the brand is going.

“I think one of the big opportunities is overall communication from the brand itself. What [do] they want to be in two years and how are they going to get there? That’s one thing dealers really need to know,” said Brown, a former chairman of Chrysler’s national dealer council. “Without that vision and communication of that vision, we’re in the dark on what to do.”

‘We tried every trick’
Copeland, who was Fiat of Austin’s managing partner and sold her stake in 2016, remembers being excited to have a brand she considered a blank slate. While many other Fiat dealers had multiple brands to juggle, Copeland could give all of her attention to Fiat because it was the only store in which she had equity.

She said that singular focus gave the store a better chance at success, and she had faith in brand leaders such as Laura Soave, who ended up leaving the company in November 2011, and her successor, Tim Kuniskis.

Copeland studied small-car company Mini along with Subaru and Volkswagen — iconic brands that know how to play to their audiences, she said. Copeland believed Fiat could be in the same league.

She built her store’s marketing strategy with inspiration from what she called those brands’ tribe-building abilities. Fiat of Austin nurtured relationships with women, millennials and the LGBT community. It attracted early adopters and reeled in affluent buyers.

Copeland said the store catered to its base without “worrying about the rest of the world.” The rest of the world “was never going to come buy our car,” she said.

“I knew the brand wasn’t for every consumer. We stopped advertising to the masses,” Copeland said. “It was knowing who our customer was and speaking directly with them.”

But after that auspicious beginning, gasoline prices steadied and later declined, and consumers shifted from cars to crossovers. Quality fell short of expectations — a resurgence of the “Fix It Again, Tony” image that led Fiat to bow out of the U.S. in 1983 — and dealers jumped ship as profitability waned. U.S. sales dropped to about 33,000 in 2016 and to fewer than half of that in 2017, as the brand was relegated to pushing out special-edition models to spice up its portfolio. In the first five months of 2019, sales have plunged 39 percent.

In addition to all of the negative external factors, Copeland is unsure Fiat ever decided what it wanted to be in the U.S.

“I don’t know that we ever knew who we were going to be when we grew up because we were such a young brand,” Copeland said.

“Nationally, we tried every trick in the book to sell cars.”


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YouTube gaming star Desmond “Etika” Amofah dies at 29




amofah a.k.a. etika

Daniel Desmond Amofah, a.k.a. Etika, a popular gaming vlogger with more than 800,000 YouTube followers, has died at age 29.

The New York Police Department confirmed on Tuesday that a body found on the evening of June 24 has been positively identified as Amofah’s. He had been considered missing since June 19, when authorities found and recovered his belongings, including his cellphone and identification. His belongings were found following an alarming video titled “I’m Sorry,” which Amofah posted to his secondary YouTube channel. In the video, which has since been deleted, he spoke about his mental health while walking through Manhattan. He had expressed similar thoughts in previous public statements like videos and tweets over the past eight months.

While the NYPD said that it is still investigating the circumstances surrounding Amofah’s death, he appeared to have been experiencing mental health issues for some time. Best known for Nintendo-related content, particularly involving the fighting game franchise Super Smash Bros., Amofah began posting videos that seemed to suggest suicidal ideation last fall.

In October 2018, he reportedly uploaded pornography to his primary YouTube channel in blatant disregard of the platform’s policies, resulting in the deletion of content on his account. Following that incident, Amofah posted an erratic video in which he seemed to be exhibiting signs of mental unwellness and left messages on social media and internet communities that alarmed many of his followers about his safety.

Amofah continued to reference suicidal ideation in posts on platforms like Reddit and Twitter. In April, he was banned from the popular live-streaming platform Twitch, on which he was also an active creator, after posting anti-Semitic and homophobic content. He apparently reacted to the ban by live-streaming on Instagram a police response to a call at his residence, where he had allegedly been threatening self-harm. The police, dressed in riot gear, eventually entered his home. Amofah was reportedly treated at mental health facilities after both the October and April incidents.

Amofah joined YouTube in 2012 and quickly made a name for himself posting humorous gaming reaction videos. Prior to his YouTube days, he worked as a model. His fans referred to themselves as “joycon boyz” following one of Etika’s more well-known videos about the debut of the Nintendo Switch.

In his final, since-deleted video, Amofah spoke of having pushed away support and of being “consumed” by internet communities. “Let my story be one that advises caution on too much of the social media shit,” he said. “It will fuck you up and give you an image of what you want your life to be. … Unfortunately, it consumed me.”

Friends of Amofah’s and members of the gaming and YouTube communities had expressed concerns in the past over his mental health and repeated those concerns throughout the week while Amofah was missing.

After the NYPD confirmed Amofah’s death, “Etika” became Twitter’s top trending topic worldwide as his followers mourned. Many of his followers also changed their profile names to “joycon boyz” in tribute.


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Uber, lyft and other taxis

Do You Understand the Fine Print of Your Loan Agreement?




loan agreement

Make a bad investment? You’re only going to lose the money you put down. Sign a shoddy loan agreement? You may end up in bottomless debt.

For thousands of New York taxi drivers, however, both ended up being the case. According to a New York Times expose published this spring, much of the profession’s financial ruin – and, tragically, rampant suicide rates – can be traced to the deliberate overpricing of taxi medallions (the city’s taxi license) and the predatory loans cabbies took out to afford them.

There’s little argument that the taxi drivers weren’t taken advantage of, with many lacking the English language skills to do their due diligence. The problem is that not all predatory loans are unlawful loans. While usury laws can cap interest rates and payday loans are outright banned in some states, many unethical lenders are still able to operate within the realm of legality.
Failing to read the fine print of a loan agreement can have life-altering consequences. If you’re a small business owner who has been approved for a business loan, the hard part may be over, but don’t let your jubilance get the best of you. Read the fine print.

You’ll know you’ve been thorough if you can answer these seven questions:

1. Is the interest rate fixed or variable?
In a variable interest rate loan, the borrower pays the market’s interest rate plus or minus a fixed percentage. A variable rate commonly seen in business loans is the Wall Street Journal Prime Rate plus 2.5%. As the prime rate changes, so does the interest a borrower pays.

A fixed interest rate, however, is not affected by the market – the percentage remains the same. Variable rates tend to accrue less interest than fixed rates, however, this comes with greater risk, especially for loans with long amortization periods. A fixed interest rate secured when interest rates are low can shield borrowers from market changes.

Look out for interest-only loans. In a standard amortizing loan, borrowers pay off a bit of their principal, or the amount initially borrowed, in addition to interest for each installment. An interest-only loan, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like – but it doesn’t last forever. After the interest-only period, borrowers can either convert to a standard amortizing loan, pay off the whole debt in one balloon payment or refinance. [Interested in finding the right business loan for your small business? Check out our best picks and reviews.]

The advantage of interest-only loans, for those willing to take the risk, is that the initial required payments are lower – this can be a lifesaver for a cash-strapped small business. As with any other risky lending practice, however, they can also be used by predatory lenders to mislead inexperienced borrowers. Indeed, this was one of the many schemes The New York Times reported were used against taxi drivers, by leading borrowers to think they were slowly paying off their debts when they were only paying interest.

2. What is the annual percentage yield?
The annual percentage rate (APR), a combination of the total interest payable and all other fees averaged out over the term of the loan, provides a useful way to evaluate and compare loans with one quick figure. What APRs don’t factor for, however, is compounding interest, which is why borrowers should look at the annual percentage yield (APY), or earned annual rate (EAR), for a more accurate read on what they’ll have to pay. This is because unlike APR, which multiplies the interest rate by the number of times it’s applied (e.g., quarterly or monthly), the APY includes compound interest, or interest paid on previous interest.

Since APYs are higher – not to mention much harder to conceptualize – they’re less likely to be quoted by lenders. If that’s the case, borrowers can use this online calculator instead.

Look out for factor rates. It’s common for short-term loans or merchant cash advances to quote interest in the form of a factor rate – this is not to be confused with APR. While APR reflects interest charged on the remaining principal – meaning the more debt you chip away, the less interest you’ll owe – factor rates reflect interest for the entire principal, regardless of the number of installments or how quickly it’s paid off. Thus, a factor rate will accrue more interest than an APR of the same percentage.

That’s something Glenn Read learned the hard way when financing his small business, Allegra Marketing Print Mail, after being turned down for a traditional bank loan.

“I was forced to take out merchant cash advances (MCAs) and high-interest line of credit loans just to meet payroll and keep the lights on,” said Read. “One of the first MCAs I took out, the amount I was given was $40,000 and the payback was $56,000 for a one-year term.” As it happened, the merchant cash advance had charged a factor rate of 40%.

3. Whose credit rating is important?
“It’s important to understand the language of the nonbank lenders,” said Read. Whose credit rating is it based on?

A business loan is often based on a combination of both business and personal credit scores. For small businesses yet to prove creditworthiness, the owner’s personal credit score is especially critical.

“Few small businesses have a long enough track record to have a sufficient credit history,” said Brian Cairns, who runs his own consulting company ProStrategix Consulting Inc. After securing his own small business loan, Cairns now helps many of his clients do the same.

According to Cairns, personal credit concerns not just the founder, but any equity-holding partner. “If you or one of your partners owns a material part of the business (usually about 20% or more), your personal credit can affect your chances of getting a small business loan,” Cairns said.

Look out for unjustified risk-based pricing. A subprime loan, or a loan given to a borrower with a poor credit history, will often pay a risk premium of either higher interest rates, higher fees or both. Some predatory lenders take advantage of this reality by telling the borrower they have bad credit to ramp up interest rates, a practice known as unjustified risk-based pricing. This is an easy trap for inexperienced borrowers unaware of their own creditworthiness. Thus, an awareness of your personal and business credit rating can help you make sure you’re getting a fair price.

4. Do you have to put up collateral?
A secured loan means that the borrower must offer some sort of asset as collateral, or something that can be taken over by the lender in case of default. In mortgages, this is the property itself. An unsecured loan does not include any collateral.

While credit cards and student loans are common examples of unsecured loans, business loans will almost always require some sort of guarantee. Only well-established companies with long credit histories will stand a chance of getting an unsecured business loan.

Look out for personal guarantees. It’s common for small business loans to include a personal guarantee for the same reason personal credit scores come into play – many small businesses have yet to build creditworthiness on their own, making the owner liable instead. On top of that, small businesses may be lacking in assets that can be used as collateral. However, banks may not always be upfront about this.

“Most people don’t read the fine print and can be surprised when they learn that they put some of their personal finances at risk,” Cairns said.

The assertion comes from personal experience. “We caught it in our fine print that the bank was using our founders’ personal retirement savings as a personal guarantee for the loan.”

5. What is the payment and amortization schedule?
Interest rates and APR aside, business loans can also vary by payment schedule. This includes not just the number of payment periods per year, but the inclusion of grace periods, late payment fees and prepayment penalties.

One thing lenders don’t often explicitly specify in the fine print is the amortization schedule, or the schedule of how much of the debt is repaid each month. Remember that in each installment, some of the money a borrower is charged pays off the principal, or the amount of money they were initially lent, and some of it is paying off the interest, which can be seen as a fee for the lender’s services. As a loan reaches maturity, the proportion of each installment paid toward principal increases while the proportion paid toward interest decreases.

The difference between an amortization schedule and a payment schedule is that with the latter, the amount of principal and interest owed each installment is added together into one total amount charged. An amortization schedule, meanwhile, lets borrowers see the exact breakdown, showing how much debt they still hold at any given time during the life of the loan.

It’s important for borrowers to know where they stand with their debts, as these can affect their credit rating. A savvy borrower can also use the amortization rate to calculate how much they’d save in interest by paying off their loan early. Thus, borrowers are advised to plug their loan details into an online amortization calculator.

Look out for prepayment penalties. Getting penalized for paying a loan off early may sound counterintuitive, but the earlier the borrower repays the principal, the less interest they’ll have to pay over the life of the loan if it’s a standard amortizing loan. Since lenders rely on that interest to make a profit, charging a prepayment penalty can offset some of that lost future interest. The good news is that while common for mortgages, prepayment penalties are rarely included in small business loans.

6. What is the lender’s definition of default on payments?
Some borrowers will hang on to the fine print word for word, only to give a cursory glance to the part about defaulting – no one wants to entertain that possibility. What they don’t know is that some lenders may have strict interpretations of what it means to default, creating expensive mistakes down the line. This is why Jared Weitz, founder and CEO of small business lender United Capital Source Inc, stresses the importance of doing your homework.

“One piece of language and content to look out for is the time period allowed to make amends after receiving a default notice,” said Weitz. “If you read this prior to signing and default your loan, you will already know what to do and how quickly it must be done.”

There are some instances in which a borrower can pay on time and still go into technical default. This is a result of violating other terms of the loan, such as failing to provide tax returns or taking on additional debt.

Look out for Confessions of Judgment. A Confession of Judgment (COJ), or cognovit vote, is a written agreement signed by the borrower that forfeits their rights to dispute any actions taken by the lender upon default. This means that if a borrower defaults, the lender can present the COJ in court and obtain a judgment without the borrower ever being notified, let alone given the opportunity to defend themselves.

“These days, it seems the No. 1 predatory lending scheme that SMBs are prone to is the use and misuse of Confessions of Judgement,” said Weitz.

According to Weitz, such predatory lenders profit by enforcing the COJ as soon as the business owner defaults before owners are even given the chance to cure the default in the time specified in the loan agreement. “These predatory lenders go into the financing agreement with the intention of default so that they can seize the business and personal assets of the business owner.”

Luckily, COJs are not a necessary evil. “There are many lenders out there that will work with you without the use of a COJ, so when shopping around make sure you mention that you will not agree to any terms that involve a COJ,” said Weitz.

7. How does the lender make money?
The best thing small business owners can do to get a fair loan agreement is to ascertain where the lender’s profits are coming from.

A fair lender should be turning most of their profit from interest rates reasonably based on the borrower’s credit history. Look out for lenders raking in profit from penalties or seized collateral, however. If the lender earns more money that way than from interest, then they’ll be incentivized to reverse engineer loan agreements to force borrowers into default. Indeed, this is exactly how many predatory lending schemes are conceived – which is why no borrower should enter a contract in which the lender profits from their failure.

It’s unlikely that your lender is going to let you read their income statement, but such loans are usually made obvious by the too-good-to-be-true interest rates, excessive fees and lack of any grace period. You can also look up your lender’s rating on the Better Business Bureau.

Bottom line
The takeaway is not that some loan terms are bad and should never sign the agreement. The takeaway is that you should never sign a loan agreement until you understand every term in the fine print. Do not hesitate to consult a lawyer if that’s what it takes.

Many of the same terms used in predatory lending schemes are also effective financing tools for borrowers willing to take a bit of risk, as long as they know what they’re signing onto. By that same token, lenders deemed safe may still include unexpected terms and conditions that end up ruining borrowers who didn’t do their due diligence. In conclusion, read the fine print!


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7-Eleven now delivers Slurpees in Central Park




7 eleven

Craving a Slurpee from 7-Eleven but you’re stuck in the park?

Not to worry: The convenience-store chain is launching a service that lets customers order everything from its famed frozen drink to a battery charger and have it delivered to a public place like a park or a beach.

The retailer told The Associated Press that more than 2,000 7-Eleven “hot spots” including New York’s Central Park and Venice Beach in Los Angeles will be working starting Monday. Customers need to download 7-Eleven’s 7NOW app and select “Show 7NOW Pins” to find a hot spot near them.

The chain foresees eventually having 200,000 hot spot locations, said to Gurmeet Singh, 7-Eleven’s executive vice president and chief digital information and marketing officer.
The strategy follows a similar service run by Domino’s that lets customers order pizza and other items on its menu and have them delivered to more than 150,000 public locations.

The 7-Eleven’s delivery service is the latest move ramping up convenience for its shoppers who are shifting more of their buying online.

In 2018, the chain rolled out an app-based delivery service to shoppers’ homes in 28 major metropolitan markets. When it was rolling out that service, it found customers were asking to have items directly delivered to public places, like parks, or seeking delivery when they’re stuck at the beach and need a water or a phone charger, Singh said.

“We’ve been on this journey to redefine convenience,” said Singh. “This makes it easy for people to stay in the moment.”

The company says there’s no minimum order required. The same fees apply to both delivery services. The chain charges a flat delivery fee of $3.99. And for orders under $15, customers pay an extra $1.99. For all orders, it promises average wait time of 30 minutes. For both services, the orders are fulfilled from its 9,100 stores.

For the delivery service to public hot spots, 7-Eleven will be using Postmates. For the delivery service to customers’ homes, it uses DoorDash in addition to Postmates.


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