NASHVILLE -- Buying a Chevrolet dealership in October 2008, just as the U.S. economic meltdown was beginning, was not the biggest of Ben Freeland's challenges. The bigger problem was rebuilding the store's reputation.
It had been a Bill Heard store -- part of a 14-store auto retail group that was notorious for questionable sales practices and unhappy customers.
Everyone Freeland talked to about buying the Heard Chevrolet dealership here tried to warn him away from the deal. He listened to the advice -- and then went ahead.
To the casual viewer today, it might not be apparent that the acquisition was a success.
Under Heard, the store sold 3,500 new vehicles a year. As Freeland Chevrolet Superstore, it is selling about 1,500.
Heard employed 300 people and was the biggest Chevrolet dealership in Tennessee. Heard operated a fleet of 25 trucks that delivered parts around the region. Freeland Superstore has about 150 employees and is down from Heard's service, parts, fleet and commercial sales.
But Freeland has made progress on a turnaround of a more profound kind -- of personal reputation, of community standing and of organizational culture.
How? By abandoning the practices of the past and taking on the role of a committed member of the community. Heard is out of business; Freeland Superstore is profitable and growing.
"We may not be the most opportunistic dealer around, but we're not going to have to close down, either," says Freeland, 46. "We'll build more volume when the market frees up.
"My plan is to just run the business smart. I don't want to start doing crazy things to try to make the store as big as it used to be."
Freeland's ownership is day-and-night different from the days when Heard owned the point, says Kathleen Calligan, CEO of the Nashville Better Business Bureau. The Heard Chevrolet store generated hundreds of complaints to the BBB annually, requiring a full-time staffer to do nothing but sort out Heard issues.
Calligan herself traveled to Georgia to meet with company president Bill Heard to implore him to clean up the Nashville store's sales practices, she says. But the troubles continued. Local TV news crews positioned cameras across the street from the store to interview disgruntled customers and hear tales from employees whose identities were hidden by scrambling their voices and concealing their faces.
In 2007, Heard sold the store to AutoFair Automotive Group of Manchester, N.H. But Nashville failed to recognize the change. Customers believed it was still owned by Heard, even though the troubled Georgia group had in fact been liquidated. The Nashville store continued to spiral downward until a year later, when Freeland happened upon the scene.
He had relocated to Nashville just a few years before from Naples, Fla., flush with cash after selling four import-brand stores to Sonic Automotive Inc. Freeland's father, brother, both grandfathers and some great uncles were auto dealers. But in Nashville, Freeland was pursuing a new life chapter: used-car Internet sales, consumer finance, even real estate development.