Talk about timing.
On July 1, 2008, a few months before the economic collapse, Mullinax Ford opened in Kissimmee, Fla. During its first six months, the dealership lost $225,000.
"Back in the fall of 2008, I used to tell friends: 'This was either the smartest thing I did or the stupidest thing.' The whole automotive industry was melting down," said Chris Baron, the dealership's general manager. Baron holds a 30 percent stake in the Kissimmee store; Ed, Jerry and Larry Mullinax own 70 percent.
But Baron kept his business model intact. Baron and his partners bought the store intending to invest and expand. The dealership turned a profit in 2009 and more than recouped the 2008 loss.
That was a huge success. The local economy is based on tourism and service businesses, two industries that have taken a beating. Walt Disney World is the region's main attraction.
The area's unemployment rate today is about 13 percent, Baron says.
Today, Baron, 43, is still working with the same growth strategy. "Through April we are up 45 percent over 2009 sales," he said.
When Baron and the Mullinax family purchased the Ford dealership, it had been selling about 200 new and used vehicles annually. The dealership had 22 employees. Today, Mullinax Ford employs 35 people and is looking for a few more.
The dealership sold 720 new and used vehicles in 2009.
The new owners radically changed the business model. In July 2008, the dealership instituted no-haggle pricing. Then it started "spending $10,000 per month with AutoTrader, spending money on inventory, management systems and things like that," Baron said.
"We had to ratchet it up and basically build awareness for the store," he said. "We were unprofitable because we were still trying to bring in new processes."
Among the other changes that increased business, Mullinax Ford:
-- Boosted inventory: The previous owner kept about 85 vehicles on the lot. Baron pushed the inventory to about 250 vehicles to give customers a wider selection but dialed back to about 150 as the recession deepened in 2009.
-- Expanded parts and service hours: Saturday hours were instituted, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The plan is to go to a full day, but no date has been set.
-- Added medium-truck business: The dealership signed a five-year contract with Walt Disney World for sales and service.
Baron's advice: It "comes down to the old expression, 'Attitude is everything.' Don't let the bad news suck you in because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."