MOUNT JOLIET, Tenn. -- Bill Pearson is a man on a mission, undaunted by the stifling mid-August heat here at Manheim Nashville's used-vehicle auction lanes.
Pearson, co-owner of Finish Line Ford in Peoria, Ill., races through a maze of cars and trucks, eyeing his goal: a charcoal gray Ford F-150.
The off-lease 2007 pickup has new tires, an upscale Lariat trim package and a Triton V-8. To the untrained eye, the truck looks practically new.
With a series of winks, nods and hand motions, Pearson vies with other bidders for the truck. He bids as high as $24,200. Then he drops out. The truck sells for $25,500.
"I was willing to go to market value, which I think was $24,200, so why do I owe you another $500?" Pearson, 39, says as he wipes sweat from his forehead and cleanly shaven head with a white face cloth.
"It's a matter of principle. It means he has too much in the truck. Why should I jump in the same boat he's in?"
It's time to move on. Pearson, dodging moving vehicles with an energetic stride, is undaunted. He has about 599 other vehicles from which to choose, and about 2 1/2 hours to do it.
Pearson's race through the auction lanes is nearly a race for survival. He and other dealers are grappling with one of the toughest used-vehicle markets in memory. With the economy still soft, shoppers are turning to used cars for lower payments to match their budgets. Demand is strong.
But supply isn't. Rental and other fleets have been holding onto their vehicles longer. Slumping new-car sales over the past two years has meant fewer trade-ins.
For Pearson, soaring used-vehicle prices bring a daily challenge. Can he find the right used vehicles at the right price for his market?
Sales of used cars and trucks traditionally are one of the most profitable operations at a dealership, far more critical to the bottom line than new-car sales. Pearson and his two used-car buyers are constantly on the prowl for fresh inventory well beyond Peoria. They scour more than half a dozen auctions a week, both online and in the physical lanes. They are regulars at auction sites from Riverside, Calif., to West Palm Beach, Fla.
Pearson attends at least two or three auctions a week. The day before he bid on the F-150 pickup in Nashville, he was in Orlando buying retired rental vehicles.
Now, wearing navy blue shorts, a light blue golf shirt and running shoes, he is trolling mostly for off-lease cars and trucks.
With Pearson is Ashley Bradshaw, a dealer in training and niece of Pearson's partner. "I've bought cars online, but not in the lane," Bradshaw says. "I'm here to learn."
Pearson's shopping list includes 2007 and newer Ford Escape and Edge crossovers and F-150s. He's also looking for a few Infiniti G35 and G37 luxury sedans and Nissan Murano crossovers and Altima sedans.
Given the state of the used-car industry, Pearson figures he has to pay top dollar for high-quality used cars and trucks. But he won't buy those with high mileage.
"If I'm going to pay top dollar, I'm going to get good miles," he shouts over the auction noise. "Good miles is under 30,000 for rentals; for lease cars, it's 15,000 per year."
Wanna get his hackles up? Mention paint work. "I've seen paint work that looked like it was done with a brush and a bucket of paint -- it was that bad," he fumes.
Back in the auction lanes, a red 2010 Corvette Grand Sport with dual stripes on its front fenders is drawing a lot of attention. Pearson is not impressed.
"You'd gamble on that car at 55 grand," he says soberly. "If that thing is still sitting around in three months, you're looking at a $48,000 car."
Pearson scoops a bottle of water from an ice-filled tub between auction lanes and turns his attention to a black 2008 Ford Escape with a sunroof and about 13,000 miles on its odometer. A quick but thorough visual check reveals no broken parts or pieces, no unusual wear and tear and no hints of smoking or pets.
Pearson scans its vehicle identification number with a cell-phone-sized gizmo that instantly displays the Escape's estimated wholesale price, retail price and vehicle history report.
This one, which has been leased by Ford Motor Credit Co., is a keeper. Pearson beats out the competition with a bid of $16,600.
He buys three Nissan Altimas today — a 2007, 2008 and 2009. He also snares three 2008 Ford Escapes, a 2007 and a 2008 Explorer SUV and a 2007 F-150 pickup. He also buys a 2010 Cadillac SRX crossover.
The number of vehicles is far short of the 20 to 30 Pearson typically would have bought. Many of the prices were higher than Pearson was willing to pay. He bid on a lot more vehicles than he bought.
"The prices are still up there," he says. But he thinks that will change. "They'll come down after the first of October," says Pearson. "If I'm going to make a mistake, I'd rather make a mistake going into winter, not at the peak of the market."