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Time magazine's Dealer of the Year, Tom Castriota, shares outlook for 2011 and beyond

Tom Castriota, owner of Castriota Chevrolet, in his Hudson showroom. Castriota is this year’s chairman of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Tom Castriota, owner of Castriota Chevrolet, in his Hudson showroom. Castriota is this year’s chairman of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association.

Tom Castriota's Chevrolet dealerships in Hudson and Port Richey in Pasco County (and another family-owned dealership in Pittsburgh) survived GM's notorious bankruptcy, federal bailout and dealership purge. And like many other GM dealerships and most other automakers, Castriota is enjoying a good sales rebound at the start of 2011.

No time to rest. Castriota is this year's chairman of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, a position that requires the Chevy guy to represent the interests of dealers of all makes and models in Florida. That means Castriota, 57, is tackling some broad-based industry challenges that include finding ways to recruit more young people into the ranks of auto mechanics and technicians.

Castriota relocated to Florida from Pittsburgh in 1993 after learning the trade from his father, who sold Cadillacs as far back as the 1950s. Castriota acquired his current Chevrolet dealerships from the Hendrick Automotive Group. At the National Automobile Dealers Association conference in San Francisco in February, Castriota was nationally recognized with Time magazine's Dealer of the Year Award. He recently spoke to the St. Petersburg Times.

You can especially see how the drop in auto sales during the worst of this recession hurt our state revenues?

Yes. Four or five years ago, when auto sales were 16 million a year nationwide, sales tax revenues from auto sales made up nearly 20 percent of the state tax base. Last year it was off nearly 7 percentage points.

But auto sales are starting to look up this year in Florida, right?

So far. Sales in 2011 will be better than 2010, but we're still not out of the woods.

So what are the hot buttons this year for Florida auto dealers?

There are three. Banks. Economic conditions. And finding quality people.

So let's take one at a time. Are banks finally making car loans again?

Yes. But what used to be a good credit score of 700 is now average. You have to have a credit score over 800 to be considered excellent. If your credit score is 650, you might get a loan worth 85 percent of a car's value.

Some lending beats no lending, I guess. What's an auto dealer's take on the Florida economy?

There's still lots of uncertainty out there. A good half of my customers are retirees, and they are aware of what things cost. People are still wary about keeping their jobs and they are watching gas prices. In west Pasco, we're seeing the children of people who moved here in the '70s and '80s starting to live in their parents' homes, so the average age is going down. But we're still 18 months away from getting off this bottom.

One of your big issues that you recently lobbied for in Tallahassee is getting young people more access to training to become auto mechanics. Recruiting kids in high school is getting tougher?

Finding quality people to work is a matter for all businesses. Repairing cars used to be changing spark plugs and transmissions, but now it's about understanding engineering, diagnostics, computer diagrams and electronics. Florida used to have 59 vocational-technical programs. Now there are much fewer. At FADA, we support the AYES (Automotive Youth Educational Systems) programs in high schools. It's the job of someone at FADA to visit schools and encourage the adoption of this program. It's hard with such tight educational budgets.

Are you hiring any AYES graduates?

Florida dealers hired about 59 last year, and the year before that, about 150. At the peak, we were hiring 300 to 400. Gov. (Rick) Scott talks about creating jobs in Florida. This program would help.

Where does your own dealership find mechanics?

We hire mechanics moving from the North to the South. They come for the weather or just want a change. Their kids are gone and it's more affordable here. So most of our technicians are transplants.

What about the young people?

We do have some young kids coming through ranks. It is a hard and long process. They do not have the $3,000 to $5,000 needed to buy the tools they need.

Hold on. Explain that to me. They have to buy their own tools?

As dealers, we supply the basic tools that the auto manufacturers require. But mechanics own their own day-to-day hand tools. And those, plus a tool box, run several thousand dollars. Many kids do not have that kind of money these days.

Let's say they do manage to get their tools. What can they expect in a mechanic's career?

Many start as lube and filter technicians. We try to send them to GM schools for training. It can take a minimum of three to five years before they become a line mechanic. And 10 years before they can be a master mechanic with certifications.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Time magazine's Dealer of the Year, Tom Castriota, shares outlook for 2011 and beyond 04/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 3, 2011 6:18pm]
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