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Crew at local car dealer focuses on local economy

Marion Hunsberger of Clearwater checks out a Jeep Compass on Thursday as Dayton Andrews salesman Chuck Foehner, left, talks with her husband, Al, at the Clearwater dealership. “They’re better prices then I was expecting,” Marion said.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Marion Hunsberger of Clearwater checks out a Jeep Compass on Thursday as Dayton Andrews salesman Chuck Foehner, left, talks with her husband, Al, at the Clearwater dealership. “They’re better prices then I was expecting,” Marion said.

CLEARWATER

The flat-screen TV in the waiting room of the Dayton Andrews dealership broadcasts the latest misadventures of the Big Three automakers.

Jim Wolff would prefer the TV screen fade to black. He's the sales manager at the Clearwater dealer and has been moving Jeeps, minivans, PT Cruisers and pickups for 26 years.

"I'm trying not to get caught up in the media," says Wolff, 44.

Dealerships are an integral part of the economic symbiosis between Americans and the automobile industry, which nourishes an estimated 10 percent of U.S. jobs. In Florida alone, 945 new car dealerships employ 76,000. Auto sales accounted for $3.3-billion in state sales taxes last year, about 17 percent of the total.

But plunging sales and tight credit threaten these once lucrative cornerstones of local economies. The CEOs of the Big Three appeared in front of a congressional committee Thursday in hopes of getting $34-billion in loans. Even if Congress ponies up the money, the National Automobile Dealers Association expects a net of 700 dealerships to close nationwide this year.

The Tampa Bay area isn't immune. For dealerships like Dayton Andrews and sales personnel like Wolff, the equation is the same: Figure out a way to sell cars in this environment or find a new line of work.

Wolff — husband, father, fine-tuned selling machine — is digging in for the fight.

"I'm not making plans to change careers," he says.

• • •

Wolff started at Dayton Andrews at 18 as a "redistribution technician," a fancy name for a lot boy. He graduated to the showroom and inked his first sale — a red Chrysler New Yorker — in 1984.

A firm believer in the "buy American" philosophy, he has personally owned 30 Chryslers. Without glancing at a car's specs, he can distinguish between infernal red, flame red and deep crimson.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, his phones harangue him nonstop. His office door could use a turnstile so frequent are the drop-ins.

Neil O'Donaghue, one of 30 employees Wolff supervises, steps in clutching a sales form and quickly debunks the notion that the "checking with my manager" line is always a ruse.

"Is that the least expensive I can go?" the 55-year-old former place kicker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Cardinals asks his boss.

"Yes. The Dodge minivan has the G package. It's got Stow and Go," Wolff says.

Wolff's boss, dealership vice president Elliot Andrews, joins the conga line moving in and out of the office.

"Jimmy, here's that body shop bill," Andrews says.

Within seconds another salesman leans through the door.

"Got a deal on the van here," the man says.

Wolff says, "I'll get to it real quick."

Sales at Dayton Andrews crested at 150 per month in 2003. Recently, the dealership strains to reach 120. Some reasons are demographic: loyal older buyers slowly moving out or dying off. Others are systemic: Japanese carmakers eating into sales of American automakers. Chrysler has struggled to find its next big hit after the decline of its once stellar minivan business.

Wolff blames the perception — altogether false in his opinion — that foreigners design better cars than Americans.

The dealership has kept its sales team slim. Most salespeople earn commissions on sales of eight to 15 cars a month.

"With the economy you try not to put a ton of people here," Wolff says. "They're going to starve."

• • •

Dayton Andrews has been at the same location on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard since 1964, when it set up shop in the shade of an old oak tree. The oak became the symbol of the family-run business, stamped on the $2 bills that talk-oholic founder Dayton Andrews handed out to customers and their kids. Pancho, an African gray parrot, has whistled "Yoo Hoo!" catcalls to customers from his cage in the heart of the automobile showroom for 30 years.

When Dayton Andrews died in June, more than 800 attended his memorial service. Elliot Andrews — the 29-year-old grandson dubbed "Dayton's clone" — holds court on the sales floor these days overseeing 80 employees.

The younger Andrews knows the numbers. Chrysler's overall sales plummeted 47 percent in November. The sales slide has been more or less consistent all year. He has seen some long time competitors close up shop — Bob Wilson Dodge, Autoway Dodge, Autoway Chevrolet of Tampa Bay and Bill Heard Chevrolet. Ernie Haire, one of the state's biggest Ford dealerships, filed for bankruptcy protection last month.

To shore up business, Dayton Andrews paid seven figures for Autoway Dodge in November. It helps make up for Chrysler's 2001 retirement of Plymouth, a brand Andrews sold.

There will have to be a lot of mutual sacrifice, he says, and some dealerships will close.

"It's an exciting — but scary — time," Andrews says. "We're going to be here in some way, shape or form."

• • •

The hyperkinetic morning at the dealership has given way to an idle afternoon. The TV has been blaring only bad news. Pacing the sales floor for about a half hour, Andrews finally spots a man and woman kicking tires in the distance. He flags down a salesman.

"Chuck. People walking right there," he says and points out the couple strolling among rows of PT Cruisers and Ram pickups.

Salespeople use their down time differently. Some make cold calls to old customers. Others like to lounge in the shade on a golf cart waiting for business.

The market forces the dealership to make "shorter deals" these days, Andrews explains. They're also clobbered on the service end as car owners postpone repairs to save pennies.

"I'd rather make $1,000 on a good deal than piss someone off and make $1,500," Andrews says.

In the center of the showroom is the dealership's prized possession, a hot red Dodge Viper convertible with 600 horsepower and an equally overwhelmingly price tag of $99,000. If a dealership sells a couple a year, it's happy.

Internet salesman Steve Swart explains the Viper's appeal. It's too thirsty for city driving — only 7 miles per gallon. It's not right for long highway trips either — too many miles on the odometer kills resale value.

"It's basically for a 70-year-old who needs a chick magnet," Swart says.

Two 70-something men enter the showroom. But they aren't here for the Viper. They're retired, live in Lake City, and want to pick up the Chrysler 300 they've already paid for.

They request Jim Wolff. No one else will do. Wolff's up to his chin in paperwork but heeds the call from the receptionist.

"Don't get caught speeding back to Lake City," Wolff jokes as he shakes hands all round. "Let's go find a golf cart. Let's go find that car."

Wolff returns to his desk. The TV now buzzes with news of a possible bailout from Congress, redemption for the auto industry.

For Wolff, fine-tuned selling machine, it's just a distraction.

For most car dealers, a prolonged dry spell

Among the top 10 selling makes of cars in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater area from January to September, only Honda saw an increase in sales from the same period last year.

Rank Make Jan.-Sept. '08 new vehicle registrations Percentage change from 2007
1 Toyota 21,605 -20.7%
2 Honda 14,431 9.5%
3 Ford 12,330 -34.5%
4 Chevrolet 11,330 -28.3%
5 Nissan 11,321 -10.9%
6 Hyundai 8,059 -12.5%
7 Dodge 4,609 -44.9%
8 Mazda 3,972 -1.8%
9 Kia 3,317 -12.8%
10 Jeep 3,080 -30.5%
Sources: R.L. Polk registrations for auto/light truck - no fleet sales; Newspapers First

Crew at local car dealer focuses on local economy 12/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:40pm]
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