Maine dealer gets help from neighbors, strangers after fire
Wednesday, Oct. 3, started out like any other morning at Valley Auto in Fort Kent, Maine. Dealer Carl Theriault talked to customers in his showroom as business buzzed around him.
Then, around 8:30, Theriault (TEHR'-ee-awl) heard someone in his parts department yell: "Fire! Fire!"
"It was in the attic," he recalls. "I could see the flames were 10- to 12-feet tall, so I knew a fire extinguisher couldn't put that out."
Theriault watched his Chevrolet, Buick and GMC store burn to the ground. An electrical problem sparked the blaze. For 14 years, he had built the business, which sold about 300 new and used vehicles a year and employed 20.
"We're determined to not lose those jobs," Theriault says. "We're going to rebuild."
In doing so, he is relying on the kindness of strangers, local townspeople and his staff.
Fort Kent is a farming and logging town of about 4,500 people along the Canadian border near New Brunswick and Quebec. Many residents speak French as well as English.
In 1998, Theriault was the director of economic development for Fort Kent, his hometown, when Valley Auto was losing $10,000 to $20,000 a month. Trained as an engineer, he had no car retailing experience.
"The business was dying, and I said we have to do something to save these 20 jobs. Nobody would buy it, so I bought it," says Theriault, a good-humored man who speaks with a slight Canadian accent.
Theriault set about reviving the store on Main Street in downtown Fort Kent by cutting costs and improving customer service. Within a few months, the dealership was in the black.
As the next step in improving the business, Theriault had bought many of the materials needed to renovate his store, with construction set to start in mid-October. But those materials and those plans went up in flames.
After Theriault called 911 on Oct. 3, he and his staff set about saving what they could. But they didn't have much time because the building, built in the early 1920s as a horse stable, was "tinder dry," he says.
"We had about 10 minutes to get everything out. I grabbed the computer server first. That was the first thing on my mind, so that we could reconstruct the financials," Theriault says.
His employees and neighboring businesspeople began trying to move the nearly 200 new and used vehicles in stock, get other computers and furniture moved out. It was chaos, he says.
"We had people panicking trying to figure out which key went to which car," Theriault says. "It was the Keystone Kops kind of panic."
If people couldn't find car keys, they used towropes to pull the vehicles off the lot.
In the end, four customers' cars were lost, three of them on lifts in the service bay. Many critical documents stored in a big, fireproof vault built in the 1920s that sat in the middle of the dealership were saved from the fire. But all the service tools and parts were destroyed.
Theriault estimates his total monetary loss at $2.5 million, including the building. His insurance money will cover most of his losses, but he lost more in tools than he had properly inventoried and insured.
A fellow dealer
Steve Hartley, a dealer in Newport, Maine, about 250 miles south of Valley Auto, read about the fire in his local newspaper.
Hartley, who owns Hartley's Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram, understands loss. He lost his GMC franchise in 2009 when General Motors went through bankruptcy. And in 1974, his father's Dodge dealership burned to the ground.
"Even though that was a long time ago, I can remember the pain that was involved in losing everything. We were underinsured," Hartley says.
A week after the fire, Hartley, who did not know Theriault, offered him $20,000 to $30,000 worth of GMC special tools for free.
"I inquired with my people as to what they were doing with those special tools and the consensus was they were collecting dust," Hartley says. "I called Carl and said, 'You can have them, but with one caveat: You take one, you have to take them all, dust and all.'
"It's a small-town dealership. We're a small-town dealership, too. So anything I can do to help out anyone like myself -- it was a feel-good moment for me, too."
Theriault also got about a dozen offers from local people to let him operate Valley Auto in their buildings temporarily during the long winter months until he can start rebuilding in April. Many of those offers were to do it for free, but Theriault insisted on paying.
Because Theriault had the foresight to save his computer server and because his wife, Pat, had the skills to get it all online quickly, he was able to open for business in a small ski lodge the day after the fire. For two weeks, employees worked out of the basement of the lodge, about a mile south of his former store's site. Then he rented the site of a former truck dealership about a mile outside town.
Theriault plans to rebuild on the original site. The town has agreed to close off one of the streets bordering his dealership to give him more room to park new vehicles.
Looking back, Theriault says he has learned many lessons. Among them:
Have enough insurance.
Use lockboxes on vehicles with a master key for quick access.
Keep good inventory of all tools with insurance to cover them.
Make sure critical information on the computer to run the business is backed up.
"We probably saved two months just having a computer system that worked again. If we didn't have that, there's no way we would have made payroll or would have been able to pay vendors. That computer is the most critical thing," Theriault says.
Another lesson: Don't just be good to the customers.
"Take care of your employees because they're going to take care of you. That's as important as anything," Theriault says.
"At the end of it, nobody got hurt, and we didn't lose the heart of it, which was the employees. It's wood and metal, and you can rebuild that."
You can reach Jamie LaReau at email@example.com. -- Follow Jamie on