As Hurricane Rita bore down on the Texas coast, George Mulkey, a dealership manager in Beaumont, Texas, was sounding like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.
Jimmy Stewart's character in the 1946 film classic did some fast thinking to cope with a run on Bailey's Building and Loan during the Great Depression. Bailey appealed to his customers' heartstrings, asking them to withdraw only as much money as they needed to get by.
Likewise, Mulkey was handing out cash to about 80 employees at Group 1 Automotive Inc.'s Mike Smith Auto Group on Sept. 22 as they prepared to evacuate Beaumont. But he asked them to take just what was necessary to tide them over. The problem was that the workers' paychecks weren't valid until the following day.
"We got about $50,000 cash" from the bank and handed it out, Mulkey told Automotive News last week. "It was a like a scene out of It's a Wonderful Life."
Disasters such as hurricanes Rita and Katrina highlight the human side of managing an auto dealership. Though not as large-scale as Katrina, Rita still had dealers in eastern Texas and western Louisiana scrambling to secure their stores, then to reopen them and reconnect with employees.
Some will have to rebuild their homes, too.
When the storm hit, Mulkey, a resident of Nederland, Texas, had to find temporary housing, along with his wife and 13-year-old daughter. He moved into a relative's house in the Houston area with 13 other family members.
"I never thought I'd have to share a bathroom with eight other people," he said. "It got to be 20 people, so I moved to a hotel. We're doing what we can."
Late last week, Mulkey still had not seen his home. But he was at his dealership along with a skeleton crew of employees and Group 1 Automotive managers from Houston. They were shoveling debris as the heat index hit 115.
Group 1 workers from Houston joined employees of the Mike Smith Auto Group last week to shovel debris at the dealership in Beaumont, Texas. The dealership was hit hard by Hurricane Rita.
The dealership's six buildings, which represent 11 franchises, had roof damage and other exterior damage. They also had no power or water as of late last week. The area was off-limits to the public as of Thursday, Sept. 29.
"We're going to have to open with our own generators for power," Mulkey said.
Meanwhile, he said, his employees are scattered across Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Auto dealer Philip Tarver, along with his wife, two sons, in-laws, niece and nephew, are living temporarily in motor homes in Jena, La. That is 135 miles from Tarver's Toyota and Scion store in Lake Charles, La., another town hit by Rita.
Tarver told Automotive News that he and his employees were forced to evacuate their homes and the dealership. "We all got out," he said. "I haven't talked to everyone since, but I'm 99 percent sure everybody evacuated."
Lake Charles was off limits to the public, but Tarver was able to trail a special convoy that had access to the city. The dealership is still standing, though there's roof damage and three doors are off in the service area. Tarver said he's "in no hurry to get back."
"We will not be allowed back into our community for at least two weeks, and therefore it probably will be three to four weeks before we resume operations," Tarver said in an e-mail last week. He said he expects Rita to cost his dealership a minimum of $100,000 in profits.
About 200 dealerships in Texas and 21 dealerships in Louisiana were in areas affected by Rita.
Tom and Tabby
Houston did not bear the brunt of the hurricane, but dealerships there lost business because of Rita. Houston dealer Ramsay Gillman said his employees were given three days off with pay during the evacuation. Meanwhile, his family stood watch at his 11 Houston-area stores.
"We were battening down for the worst," Gillman told Automotive News/i>. But he said his stores were open for business on Monday, Sept. 26.
Gillman said Rita caused a shortage in supply of Honda Accords, Civics and Odysseys as American Honda Motor Co. moved units out of the area for safekeeping. He estimated that Rita cut his Houston-area dealerships' September sales by about 20 percent to 1,450 units.
Late last week, Mulkey, armed with "two gigantic generators" was leading the clean-up at his store. He said he looks forward to reconnecting with employees and getting back to business. He plans to have temporary living shelters with air mattresses at the dealership for some employees.
"The first thing I did when I arrived back at the store was to check to see if Tom and Tabby, our adopted cats, were OK," Mulkey said. "We made sure they got bottled water and food. Everyone will want to know that."
You may e-mail Gail Kachadourian at [email protected]