Q&A WITH GEORGE NAHAS | GEORGE NAHAS CHEVROLET

Bouncing back in 'a different world' of car sales

Nahas
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Florida dealer George Nahas, the 2002 Time Quality Dealer Award winner, lost two General Motors franchises: Oldsmobile in 2004 and Saturn five years later.

In October 2011, he bought a Chevrolet store in Wildwood, northwest of Orlando and 23 miles west of his former Saturn dealership. Now, Nahas is enjoying some stability. George Nahas Chevrolet is located in the sweet spot of central Florida's burgeoning growth.

Nahas, the current treasurer of the National Automobile Dealers Association, is running for the vice chairman's post. He also owns Montgomery (Ala.) Subaru, but he leaves a general manager to run it while he stays at the Florida store.

Nahas, who is in his mid-60s, spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett.

Q: You've been a dealer since 1979. After GM killed Oldsmobile and then Saturn, you could have called it a career, but you didn't. What made you want to put your heart and soul into a third store in less than 10 years?

A: It was not just about me. It was about the people who work for me. They needed jobs.

The Oldsmobile and Saturn stores were economically viable to the community, and it was important to the community for the sales tax revenues. When they went away, I felt some empathy for the community and the employees. You get an empty storefront in a small community, and it has a deleterious effect. So we did everything we could to get another franchise.

How is your Chevrolet store doing?

We've got a great facility here. We're propitiously located right across the street from The Villages [a retirement community with 110,000 residents], and we've got a great clientele. We do get import customers. In fact, we've taken in a few BMWs and Mercedes on trade for the new Impala. We're selling about 80 to 100 new and used each month.

When I had Oldsmobile, there were months when I sold 100 new Oldsmobiles, but the whole market is different today than it used to be.

With the average used car now about 11 years old, are good, clean trade-ins hard to find?

Used-car prices are to the moon. I never thought we should sell cars with 100,000-plus miles. But these cars are in better shape than they ever were, and people are taking better care of them.

I've got a Subaru store in Alabama. If I get a car with too many miles on it, there's a better market for it there than there is here. Most of my buyers are primarily new-car buyers since we are located in a high-end retirement area.

Aren't lenders reluctant to finance older, high-mileage vehicles?

No. It would have been a few years ago. But if the car is in good shape and the lender knows the reputation of the dealer and the customer's credit is good, they'll finance the loan.

Do you use eBay Motors or any of the other online services to sell cars, especially vehicles that are collectible or a little out of the ordinary?

Sometimes, we'll put certain cars on eBay. We just listed a Dodge Viper. We put them on Craigslist as well. We get a lot of traffic. I sold a car not too long ago to a customer in Rockford, Ill. It was a Saturn. The guy was looking for a specific car. He called and said he wanted to buy the car. We sent him pictures, and he flew in and bought the car.

Are you selling many cars online to customers outside your usual service area?

It's a different world than it used to be. I think it is a national market now. I have sold cars in Reno, Nev., and Ventura, Calif. I have a customer in the North who wants to buy a car from the South that he knows has not been exposed to the salt and the snowy roads. He said he wants to buy a car from down here. I have put cars on a transporter and sent them across the country. Every month or two, we've had customers fly in from Georgia or Virginia. We sell a lot of cars on the Internet. It seems to be more commonplace.

Do you get a lot of service business from customers who didn't buy a new car from you, maybe people who visit Florida in the winter?

We do have a lot of people that came from other places. Even though there are 110,000 people in The Villages, I haven't sold every one of those people cars. I wish I had. But many bring their cars here for service. Now, they are spending more time here each year, maybe six months or so. And if it is time to trade, they'll come here and buy.

Has GM's ignition-switch recall affected business?

In the beginning it did. But here's our biggest problem: We have 110,000 people across the street. Until we get the repair parts for these cars, I am supposed to put our customers in other cars. I don't have 150 to 200 rental cars to put people into.

This is an issue that the dealer did not create, but we are on the front lines, and we are the face of Chevrolet. In my opinion, the dealer should not be punished for any adverse [Customer Service Index] because of the recall.

Where are you spending your ad money these days? Are newspapers still effective?

The Villages Daily Sun is right across the street from us. It's a daily newspaper, and it is a good one. Let's say we spend $60,000 a month. I'll spend $20,000 on television, $15,000 to $20,000 on newsprint and some on special events and promotions. For instance, we just did a golf ball drop with RE/MAX, our co-sponsor. We had radio and TV out here, and we raised $10,000 for the Humane Society of Sumter County.

Now, what does that do for us advertising-wise? We spent a lot of money on this promotion, but it brought literally thousands of people into the showroom. We fed everybody. I could have spent $10,000 on a newspaper ad, but it was more beneficial to have people come here and taste and touch and smell the dealership and see what we are all about.

Looking down the road five years, what are the biggest challenges dealers will face?

Three things: I've always been worried about affordability. You get some older people looking at $80,000 cars, and they might say, "Hell, my house didn't cost that much." You have kids coming up today who don't make enough money [to buy a new car], but if they do make enough, $50,000 doesn't offend them.

We need to keep our eye on government relations and regulatory issues. But the biggest thing that worries me is that we are going to have a technician shortage. We have got to develop automotive technicians.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.


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