When Fields Automotive Group outgrew its cramped Mini store in downtown Orlando in 2008, it found the perfect site less than a mile away -- a vacant Infiniti store with an all-too-familiar "For Sale" sign.
The Fields group bought the shuttered Infiniti dealership for a song during the height of the recession.
"We basically paid for the building and got the land for free," said John Mantione, vice president of the Winter Park, Fla., group. "There are a lot of vacant dealerships lying around here."
Mini, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in the United States, is one of the few franchises adding dealerships and seeing lots of existing stores expand voluntarily. And many of its dealers are taking advantage of all the vacant stores on the market -- the result of industry consolidation and the ravages of the recession.
In Orlando, renovating the Infiniti building to meet Mini's new design standard cost about $1 million, bringing the total cost for land, building and construction to $5.5 million. By comparison, the group's new Chrysler store in Sanford, Fla., cost $11 million for the land and an all-new building, Mantione said.
He said the new 9,000-square-foot Orlando Mini store is three times larger than the old store. Since 2009, Mantione said, revenues have increased 20 percent.
McDowell: Dealers can save money with conversions.
Jim McDowell, head of Mini USA, estimates that about 40 new Mini stores that opened in the past several years are housed in dealerships that were victims of the recession or consolidation by other brands.
"Of the dealers that have upgraded, half of them upgraded by moving into another franchise and making it a Mini building," he said.
"A conversion could be $2 million" vs. considerably more for a new greenfield store, McDowell said.
Mini has 115 dealerships in the United States, and 70 stores have been renovated to meet the new design standard, which calls for a predominantly black interior and exterior. Mini is adding new stores as well. Seven have been approved, and more may be coming.
"We look for opportunities; it is not like we have a preset goal," McDowell said. "The emphasis is for our existing dealers to upgrade."
The Mini Paceman crossover coupe is to go on sale next year. It is a three-door version of the Countryman.
He said dealers are investing because Mini is adding products -- its seventh model, the Paceman crossover coupe, comes next year. It's the coupe version of the Countryman.
"I am confident this will be our best year yet," said McDowell, although he declined to give a specific forecast. Through July, Mini's sales were up 10 percent to 37,914. In 2011, it sold a record 57,511 vehicles.
The seven largest Mini dealerships are expected to sell more than 1,000 cars each this year. The race to be the No. 1 Mini dealership is turning into "a hotly contested title" with stores in California; Washington, D.C.; the New York area and Boston in contention, McDowell said.
One of the biggest stores is Crevier Mini in Santa Ana, Calif. It moved across the street into a former Jaguar-Land Rover store in July. The owner of the Jaguar-Land Rover store had two dealerships with the same brands and closed the one in Santa Ana, said Al Parajeckas, Crevier Mini's general manager.
Parajeckas said he expects to sell 1,000 new Minis this year and 1,200 next year thanks to the larger, 69,000-square-foot store.
He said: "It was the perfect time to invest; people are starting to come back into the market."
Mini has been expanding and updating its U.S. sales network.
•115 dealerships today
•7 new stores have been approved
•70 have been renovated to meet Mini's new design standard