Bidders bet they can rebuild Heard

4 dealers aim to rescue stores after empire collapses

A second-generation Michigan dealer with Detroit blood in his veins. A retired NFL player who turned a bad car-buying experience into a career. A Texas megadealer who built a Chevrolet empire with a laid-back approach.

The prospective buyers of Bill Heard Enterprises Inc.'s bankrupt dealerships are a diverse group of dealers with a shared belief: They have what it takes to turn the struggling stores around.

"The past is the past. The future is what we're going to make of it. It's a new team," says Joe Serra, president of Serra Automotive Inc., a 23-store group based in Grand Blanc, Mich.

Serra is the sole bidder so far for Heard Enterprises' Chevrolet dealership in north Las Vegas. The past president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association said he tried to buy the store from a previous owner several years ago but was outbid by Heard Enterprises President William Heard Jr.

The bidders
Established dealers are the lead bidders for the stores in Bill Heard Enterprisesí former empire. Here are the bidders so far.
Carl Black, 58. Bid for store in Kennesaw, Ga. Owns 5 new-car and 2 used-car stores in Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. Dealer since 1993.
Tom Durant, 58. Bid for store in Plant City, Fla. Owns 6 Texas stores. Dealer since 1972.
Mac Haik, 62. Bid for 1 of 2 stores in Houston. Owns 5 Texas new-car stores. Dealer since 1980.
Joe Serra, 48. Bid for 1 of 2 stores in Las Vegas. Owns 23 stores in Michigan, Colorado, New Jersey, Tennessee, Ohio and California. Dealer since 1999.

Second chance

Now that Heard Enterprises has filed for Chapter 11 reorganization and put its 14 dealerships on the market, the son of late Michigan dealer Al Serra has a second chance.

On Oct. 24, Joe Serra submitted agreements to U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Alabama to buy both of Heard Enterprises' Las Vegas-area stores: Vista Chevrolet and Bill Heard Chevrolet in nearby Henderson, Nev.

Five days later, Serra withdrew his offer for the Henderson store, saying he had been presented with information that made that location "less desirable."

Serra declined to elaborate. But his change of heart is indicative of the challenges facing the new owners of Heard's dealerships, several of which have a long history of consumer complaints on file with watchdog groups and government agencies.

Tom Durant, owner of six Texas stores selling Detroit brands, is well aware of that history. On Monday, Oct. 27, Durant entered a bid for Heard Enterprises' Chevy dealership in Plant City, Fla., near Tampa.

Last year, the Plant City dealership and another Heard dealership near Orlando agreed to pay the Florida Attorney General's Office $400,000 in fines resulting from a yearlong investigation into the stores' misleading advertising practices.

Durant, 58, a Chevy dealer since 1972, said he hopes to rebuild the store's reputation with the same slogan he used to expand his six stores in Texas: "Relax, and enjoy the difference."

His 50-acre flagship store in Grapevine, Texas, sold more Chevrolets in 2006 and 2007 than any other store in the country. The feat is reminiscent of "Mr. Big Volume," Bill Heard, himself.

'A better way'

"His ideal is pretty much the same as mine. It's just that I've got a better way of hanging onto my customers," Durant said. "You've just got to start over, one customer at a time, and you've got to rebuild it."

Durant's operating partner for the Florida store, Steve Hurley, went to a high school 10 miles from the store. Hurley said he hopes to keep the Heard store's business, parts, body shop and service staff but will hire new salespeople who share Durant's sales approach.

Carl Black Auto Group — which owns five new-vehicle dealerships in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia — has bid to buy Bill Heard Enterprises' store in Kennesaw, Ga., where it has one GM store.

Neither Black nor company President Mike Bowsher could be reached for comment.

Mac Haik, who last week submitted a bid for Bill Heard Chevrolet in Sugar Land, Texas, knows what it's like to have a bad experience at a dealership. The former college football All-American and Houston Oilers wide receiver opened his first dealership in 1980 after what he has described as a "horrible" car-buying experience.

"I thought, This is ridiculous. It seems like there's got to be a better way," Haik was quoted as saying in an April 2006 newsletter of the Houston Automobile Dealers Association.

Haik, who owns five new-car dealerships in Texas, declined to talk with Automotive News about his bid for the Sugar Land store. The dealership holds the record for most complaints against a dealership ever received by the Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston and South Texas, almost three times the number of its closest competitor.

Walter Wainwright, president of the Houston dealers association, knows of the record. He said Haik would be a "natural" for taking over the dealership.

"Mac is an established dealer with a good reputation in the community. So I don't think it will be near as much of a challenge for him as it would be for somebody from, say, Seattle or L.A. coming in," Wainwright said. "They may be good operators, but nobody's ever heard of them."  

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