Dealers wait for power, people to return after Irma

on Sep12

Florida dealer Larry Zinn was holed up in a hotel room Monday, blindly assessing from afar the impact Hurricane Irma had on Warren Henry Auto Group’s stores.

Zinn’s uncertainty extended to his own logistics of when he will be able to fly back to his home and if he will have enough staff to run stores when they can reopen.

“The bigger problem is many people were evacuated so we have staff who are all over the country right now,” said Zinn, general manager of Warren Henry Auto Group in Miami with six stores in Florida. “Some areas are not allowing people back in yet. Miami Beach, for example, will start allowing people back in tomorrow at noon. We’re waiting for the airports to open back up.”

Zinn caught the last flight out of Miami Friday morning. So far, he has relied on reports from his team on the ground to assess store damage. The photos they’ve sent show trees crushing some vehicles and blown-out store signs. Irma left much of the state without power and debris blocks roadways. All of this is troublesome, but some dealers say a people problem is a growing concern.

“If you take one of my stores, it can operate [sales] on a lighter staff,” said Ali Ahmed, owner of Atlantic Coast Automotive in Miami Lakes, Fla. “But on the service end, you talk about technicians. We can only fix the cars so fast. So making sure everyone on the service end is taken care of and back to normal as soon as possible is key. I see that as being the leading edge of our traffic and business more so than the sales side.”

Miami Lakes Automall.

Road to recovery

Atlantic Coast Automotive owns nine dealerships in Florida, selling about 18,000 new and used vehicles a year, Ahmed said.

The stores have been closed a full week and all but one, Hollywood Chrysler-Jeep, have power, Ahmed said. Ahmed hopes to have most of them open by Tuesday morning.

Hollywood Chrysler-Jeep, which will likely open Wednesday, experienced wind damage with “several service bay doors blown in” and “a couple of light posts” down, but no inventory was damaged there, he said.

Southside Kia in Jacksonville.

Ahmed said he lost five new cars at University Dodge-Ram and one used car at University Mitsubishi, both in Davie, Fla. In Miami Lakes, the four stores in his auto mall sustained damage to signs, awnings and landscaping. Despite the destruction, Ahmed is trying to keep track of his staff.

“We had about half of our employees evacuate to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina,” said Ahmed. “Most are returning tomorrow and at the latest Wednesday, but it’s really unclear what kind of traffic they’ll see coming back in” that may delay them.

Stores spared

Larry Morgan, owner of Morgan Auto Group in Tampa, has 25 stores in the state and one store in Missouri. His group sells about 50,000 new and used cars a year.

Some of his employees evacuated to nearby states, he said. Morgan also turned some of his stores on the western side of the state into shelters for his employees. Morgan, who lives in a condo in Clearwater Beach, stayed at a friend’s home on the mainland as Irma tore through town, he said.

The vehicle detailing operation at Miami Lakes Automall.

“It was a little frightening at times,” said Morgan. “If it had truly been a Category 4 or 5 [hurricane], I wouldn’t be talking to you today and my story would be much different. We were really lucky. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Morgan started closing some stores late Thursday so employees who wanted to evacuate or prepare their homes could do so. Most, he said, were en route back Monday.

“We were very well prepared,” Morgan said. “We’ve had a hurricane emergency plan in place for years. Every general manager of every store has every employee’s cellphone number so we know where 95 percent of our people are right now and when they’ll be back to work.”

Most of Morgan’s stores and inventory are intact, said Morgan. “The best thing that happened to Florida is that it was thought that Irma would come up the west coast, but it turned,” he said. “With most of our stores on the west coast, that spared us.”

Miami Lakes Automall.

Awaiting more

Meanwhile, dealer Warner Peacock remains in the dark as to damage to two of his dealerships: Peacock Ford and Peacock Subaru in Orlando.

“We have around 800 vehicles in stock there and that’s far too many vehicles to take anyplace and put them inside,” said Peacock, CEO of Peacock Automotive in Hardeeville, S.C. “The inventory has typically not been an issue for us in past storms. We haven’t had any damage to facilities, either. But I can’t tell you that is the case right now because I don’t have boots on the ground there to tell me what’s going on.”

He is also on edge about his eight stores in South Carolina and two in Georgia as Irma heads in that direction. Power was on but there was little Peacock could do to protect his inventory.

“That’s not called the low country for nothing,” said Peacock. “It’s not practical to transport all the cars” 100 or so miles to higher ground.

So he watches the Weather Channel “nonstop” where reports warned of a storm surge at high tide causing flooding. High tide hit at 1:30 p.m. EDT Monday, he said.

“There’s lots of flooding on Hilton Head Island that will affect our customers,” he said. His inland dealerships are not flooded, but a large tree toppled, he said.

As for Zinn, he continues to rely on reports from “people who’ve been able to get to the various stores. The store cameras are out with the power out. It’s really nerve-wracking being out here, away from everything.”

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