It was any other Tuesday at work for employees at a local vehicle dealership last week — until it wasn’t.
CarOne, a dealership with locations in Kingston and Belleville, is perhaps best known to Kingstonians by its highly recognizable advertisements, particularly on the radio, which often began with the company’s owner, Trevor Cotton, enthusiastically exclaiming, “Hello Kingston!”
According to reports from people who worked for CarOne, employees on the job on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, were told just before the workday finished that the business was closing and they were no longer employed. Former employees, who will remain anonymous for their protection, said they were told the company was “going bankrupt.”
By the afternoon the next day, word that the long-time dealership in Kingston was shuttered had reached social media, with accounts of staff members arriving at the business only to be greeted by locked doors and a sign indicating the company was “restructuring.”
Whatever that “restructuring” might be, it appears it will not involve CarOne continuing to operate. According to Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) documents, while both CarOne locations remain registered with the provincial body that administers and enforces the Motor Vehicle Dealers Act (as well as sections of the Consumers Protection Act, all on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services), the “operating status” of the Belleville and Kingston CarOne locations has recently been changed to “inactive.”
CarOne employees, who are part of a larger parent company called T. Cotton Management Corp, did not want to be identified when speaking about the sudden closure or what had been happening with the business. However, more than one expressed frustration, saying the business managers and owner should have offered more notice to their employees. After all, one employee pointed out, these workers were told just one day after they found out the company was closing that their incomes would cease to exist.
No plowing has taken place at the 775 Gardiners Road location for over a week, and the vehicles that remain on the lot are topped with snow, something that rarely occurs at a vehicle dealership for longer than 24 hours. Calls and emails to CarOne from Kingstonist remained unanswered across two days.
The Facebook page for CarOne’s Kingston location – which bills the business as “Ontario’s biggest trade-in centre” – hasn’t had a new post since Friday, Jul. 22, 2022, in contrast to the multiple posts per month the account had been making since it was created in 2010.
Besides CarOne, owner Trevor Cotton – who had previously worked alongside his father at Kingston Nissan – also operates a virtual dealership, launched at the end of July 2022. Vendde, a “fully-digital, people first automotive marketplace,” became part of the T. Cotton Management Group, the parent company of the two dealerships, and was launched with great fanfare at the time, with the City of Kingston and the Downtown Kingston Business Improvement Area (BIA) touting the new business. At the time, Mayor Bryan Paterson referred to the app-based company as “forward thinking” in a statement released by the BIA ahead of Vendde’s two-day launch party. With its swanky Clarence Street offices overlooking the Confederation Basin marina, Vendde launched over the weekend from Friday, Aug. 5 to Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022 – the same weekend as the 1000 Islands Poker Run.
Capitalizing on the long-standing event that sees some of the “fastest boats in the world” parked in Confederation Basin and along the streets of downtown Kingston, Vendde’s launch party saw the company rent a massive yacht, which Vendde and CarOne employees enjoyed alongside party attendees. The yacht – like the on-land aspect of the launch party – boasted an open bar and live entertainment.
According to a former T. Cotton Management Group employee – who says they were laid off alongside a number of employees in November 2022 – the closure of CarOne seemed to be coming even then, as financial issues began to impact both companies.
Phone calls and emails to Vendde and Vendde representatives, like those to CarOne, were not returned. In fact, emails to both Vendde and CarOne addresses bounced back several times, and phone calls to CarOne were immediately disconnected upon dialing an extension.
But while the vast majority of the links on the Vendde website are now dead (inactive), and no one from the company responded to direct inquiries on whether the dealership remains operational, Vendde Corp. – which has company listings in both Kingston and Belleville, just as CarOne does – remains listed as “active” in OMVIC files as of Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
Looking back, Vendde’s extravagant launch should have been a sign that overspending might be an issue for the company, according to a former employee.
“It’s not hard to tell that there was gross overspending on Vendde and that CarOne was neglected,” the former T. Cotton Management employee, who will also remain anonymous, said, voicing sympathy for CarOne employees who are now also finding themselves out of a job.
“As soon as Vendde launched in August, it seemed like it was the only focus… Not many people know how much the company was spending, either,” the former employee said, pointing to the fact the Clarence Street office is now up for sale and to the over-the-top launch party and spa trips for T. Cotton Management employees as indicators that, in hindsight, should have been obvious.
“Financial issues were certainly a factor in the layoffs, and the apparent closing of CarOne.”
It should be noted this is not the first time that Trevor Cotton or the companies he oversees have come under fire. OMVIC records show problems with both Kingston Nissan and CarOne advertising, as well as with the disclosure of vehicle histories to potential buyers. Documents of OMVIC discipline hearings date back to 2013, and further OMVIC discipline reports show complaints against the companies and Cotton the following year.
Meanwhile, CarOne customers who are suddenly without service – some of whom are waiting to get their vehicles back after arranging service through the company – are taking to social media to voice their outrage.
“Trying to get in contact with CarOne if anyone works there or knows someone that does! We left two tires there Thursday and they said we can pick up [tomorrow] (Friday). Been there every day since but lot is closed and not answering phones. From my understanding everyone has been laid off but really would like my tires,” one Kingstonian wrote in the Kingston, Ontario Community Facebook group (public) on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.
“Our car is currently there with no engine in it that they were supposed to repair but now we’re waiting to tow it to a different garage and no one will get back to us,” another responded. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this!”