Dealership employees fear falloff

America's collective mind was not on everyday business last week, which was painfully clear at auto dealerships. Traffic was way down, and the usual humor was absent. Automotive News reporters visited three dealerships - in Virginia, Michigan and California - to gauge the mood and outlook.

McLEAN, Va. - Tiny U.S. flags adorn the antennas of new Lincolns in front of Cherner Lincoln-Mercury here.

The show of patriotism reflects the owner's view that commerce must continue or terrorism will get the best of us. But inside the showroom, the sales office and the finance office, employees are not feeling particularly patriotic - just scared.

The dealership is in the middle of the Tyson's Corner business district, packed with office buildings, shops and restaurants, but even during the lunch hour Wednesday, Sept. 19, the showroom is deserted.

Jonathan Cherner, co-owner of the store, was at the Frankfurt auto show when terrorists crashed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. In the few days since his return, Cherner has visited with employees at his two multi-franchise dealerships and five body shops in suburban Washington.

"Everybody has a story about the way they heard about the tragedy," Cherner said. "Everyone is sharing those stories."

He wants to help employees talk through their grief so they can get on with their lives and the car business. But his employees, who were nervous about a possible recession before the attack, are not easily assured.

Carolina Garrido, the Lincoln-Mercury store's 21-year-old receptionist, came from Lima, Peru, seeking a safer place to live. Garrido shifts uneasily in her seat when asked about the attacks. The day of the explosions, many customers canceled appointments - and she couldn't blame them.

The dealership is near the Tyson's Corner Mall, and having come from an environment of political unrest in Peru, Garrido knows malls often are terrorist targets.

"When I was 13 I wanted to go out with my friends to the movies, and I couldn't do that. You could go to the movies and two minutes later be blown up," she said. "This is not what I expected when I moved here."

Nooruddin Ali, senior business manager, pointed to a rack supporting a handful of orange folders, each containing paperwork for pending vehicle deliveries. He said the rack should be crowded, but sales volume is worse than during the Persian Gulf War.

"Business is negligible," Ali said. "There is no activity."

As a Muslim and a Pakistani who has lived in the United States for 30 years, Ali faces the added fear of discrimination because the terrorists allegedly were Muslim. "I heard there was a (Muslim) woman who was chased in the parking lot at a Giant (supermarket). Some guy wanted to beat her up," said Ali. "I can't believe that happened in McLean."

Mitchell Sulkess, a sales consultant at Cherner for eight years, cajoles customers over the phone to come to the dealership. So far, his customers are only interested in maintenance and repairs. Even with his large owner base, the sales slowdown makes Sulkess nervous. If he can't live off commissions, he may need a loan from the dealership to pay his bills.

Said Sulkess: "I have to put bread on the table."

Tags: Sales

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