Redoing a store? Check the trash, save some cash
N.H. dealer pockets $80,000 with upscale Dumpster diving
When John Lambert learned in 2007 that he would have to double the size of his Claremont, N.H., Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership, the scrounging began.
Through the recession, Lambert collected used siding, granite curbing, parts shelves, service tools, a service lift, furniture and interior signs to use when it came time to renovate his dealership. His biggest score: the arched window at the front of his store, Chrysler's signature design element for dealerships.
By mid-2010, Lambert was ready to put his salvaged items to use. He completed construction of the 10,000-square-foot Lambert Auto Sales building a year ago. Lambert figures he shaved $80,000, or about 10 percent, off the cost of his $800,000 renovation.
At a time when many dealerships were struggling to survive, that resourcefulness helped enable a renovation Chrysler demanded in exchange for approving Lambert's acquisition of Chrysler and Dodge franchises. Lambert's approach isn't for everybody.
"Most dealers would mind their business and make money selling cars," Lambert said, laughing. "And for me, throwing something away is wasteful. We're not that big a store."
Through June, the dealership averaged sales of 13 new and 13 used vehicles a month, up 20 percent from 2011.
Lambert found his window, now at the front of his store, at a Chrysler dealership in Peabody, Mass., that was about to be torn down. The window was just 3 years old. Lambert paid $1,200 for it, plus $800 for transport, instead of the $20,000 a glass company quoted him for a new one.
He stored the window and other materials in an old woolen mill he rents near his dealership for parts storage. Lambert Auto Sales specializes in selling old parts to other dealerships and repair shops. Lambert and his parts manager often attend auctions to buy liquidated parts inventory; that was how they spotted the arched window in Massachusetts.
Lambert says his penchant for scrounging is inbred. His father opened the dealership as a Rambler store in 1968 in Claremont, a rural mill town near the Vermont border. It was among a half-dozen businesses started by Paul Lambert, who never completed elementary school and died in 2010 at age 94.
"Dad, he liked recycling," Lambert said. "It was culture for my family."
John Lambert picked up the habit in his personal life, using recycled materials to build his own home in the New Hampshire woods in the 1970s.
He got a license to blast dynamite to clear the half-mile driveway to his house, which included a salvaged furnace and slate roof.
It would have cost $15,000 to connect the house to the electricity grid, so Lambert and his family lit the home with gas lanterns and used a windmill to pump water to a scavenged bulk milk tank Lambert put in the home's attic for water storage.
After 10 years they finally got electricity -- and their first conventional refrigerator.
By living and operating his business so frugally, Lambert stayed out of debt -- until the dealership renovation. The loan he took out for the expansion is his first mortgage, business or personal.
It was a big risk. Lambert Auto Sales lost money during the worst of the recession in 2009, and the outlook for Chrysler was grim. Chrysler allowed Lambert to hold off on the renovation awhile. When construction time came, Chrysler was pretty good about giving Lambert flexibility, he said.
"They just wanted the finished product to look a certain way," said Lambert, who didn't tell Chrysler about his recycling. "It doesn't show. There's nothing that looks used here."
And Lambert is optimistic about the long term.
After hovering at breakeven through construction, the dealership is making money again. Next up: leveraging software tools and improving customer processes to boost the vehicle sales side of the business, said Lambert, a parts and service specialist.
Not for everyone
For other dealers facing renovations, Lambert acknowledges that his level of do-it-yourself involvement isn't for everyone.
Using scrapped materials can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth, he said, recalling the hours employees spent peeling plastic film off aluminum composite siding. The heat in the warehouse where the previously unused siding was stored had made the protective film adhere to the siding, and only a high-pressure car wash and heat gun would remove it.
But a handy dealer working closely with a contractor can save money with used materials.
"Not everyone can do that, and if you're in a metropolitan area, good luck," said Lambert, noting the higher cost of storing materials, plus the bigger scale and quicker time lines of big-city projects.
"It's the smaller country dealer that [can]."
You can reach Amy Wilson at email@example.com.