In the field
The building has glass that is hurricane-proof for winds up to 150 miles an hour. Staff stocked the command center yesterday with food, water and other items including air mattresses and sleeping bags. CEO Mike Jackson will be staying in a secure location in town, but Cannon said it’s not certain yet whether he’ll be in the command center.
On Thursday evening, Cannon said the storm seemed to skirt to the east at the last minute. AutoNation updated its plans: It closed its command center at 8 p.m. ET tonight. Its 24 stores in South Florida will reopen at 7 a.m. Friday. Its headquarters in Fort Lauderdale will reopen at 9 a.m. Friday.
That will leave 23 stores closed on Friday. AutoNation is already in the process of moving some of its generators north to the other areas affected by the storm.
Some executives, such as COO Bill Berman, already have moved out to safe places in the field so they will be ready to mobilize on Friday to restart the stores.
No one is staying at the stores through the storm, but the dealerships were also stocked with water and other supplies for the reopenings. Vehicles were gassed up, and generators were moved out of storage to the stores. Gasoline for generators is on hand.
“We started early this time,” Cannon said. “Nobody wants to be caught short. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to be caught short out there.”
Cannon recalled Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which hit in late October. Electricity and water were out in some areas for weeks, he said, and there was a shortage of generators and gasoline. AutoNation wasn’t back fully operating until Thanksgiving after that storm.
The company reworked its storm protocols after Wilma. Before Wilma, AutoNation had a 10-page plan to guide it through storms. Now it’s a 40-page document, Cannon said.
Jim Dunn, general manager of JM Lexus in Margate, Fla., also remembered the destruction Wilma brought to his store, the largest Lexus dealership in the world. Everything Dunn’s team went through with Wilma resurfaced as they prepared for Matthew, he said.
“I don’t think preparing for a hurricane is ever a routine. You want to be as prepared as you can possibly be, because these events are so unpredictable,” Dunn said. “At least within our power, we’ve left no stone unturned.”
‘Off the front line’
Dunn prioritized the stores’ nearly 1,300 vehicles before “pulling them off the front line” and away from the precarious palm trees. He started with sold but undelivered vehicles, followed by the more exotic and expensive inventory.
Employees put storm shutters on the store and made sure everything that could be bolted down, was.
Dunn said a team of volunteers will come in Friday to return cars to the lot and prepare to reopen the store for Saturday. He closed down Wednesday to let his 422 employees go secure their own homes. He said he also has a call tree set up to make sure his employees are safe.
“We’ll be checking the calling tree to see who hasn’t responded and check in on them and be there to help if they need it,” Dunn said.
‘Let’s crank it up’
AutoNation started putting its own plan in place mid-day Tuesday when it became apparent the hurricane would be big. Jackson “came in and said, ‘Let’s crank it up, guys,’” Cannon recalled.
The first priority was making sure employees would be safe and advising them to follow evacuation advisories for their areas, Cannon said.
“The safety of our associates is most important. We will take no chance on safety. I am spending [Thursday] making sure folks are safe and ready,” Jackson wrote in an email.
The company then turned to closing down the dealerships and getting vehicles to protection.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” Cannon said. “They can move through and get a dealership down now in two hours.”
After the storm passes, if it sticks to the predicted timetable, AutoNation is planning to reopen its Broward stores first during the day on Friday and moving to its Palm Beach stores later on Friday. If all goes to plan and damage is minimal, all stores should be operational by the weekend.
“What we’ll be doing tonight is: We’ll be on the phones, we’ll be monitoring the stores, we’ll have vans ready to go out,” Cannon said. “We’ll be equally as nervous tonight waiting and watching. I don’t think anyone will get much sleep.”
Rick Case Automotive Group, which is No. 23 on Automotive News’ list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., has nine stores in the South Florida area with about 3,000 total vehicles on the lots and 1,200 employees.
“It’s going to be a mess down here in South Florida,” CEO Rick Case said. He closed his stores Wednesday after employees finished moving vehicles and securing the stores, all of which have hurricane glass.
Case said he jam-packed vehicles into his parking decks and filled the service shop with leftovers, storing cars on lifts and putting more beneath them.
The only store that remains open is the Rick Case Honda Powerhouse Store, which sold over 100 generators Wednesday. Case said he sold more generators that day than he has all year as everyone anticipates needing back-up power after the storm hits.
If Hurricane Matthew passes through as expected by early Friday, Case said he and his employees will be back at the dealership to clean up. But opening the stores will depend on if they have power, he said.
Case said the amount of recalled and stop-sale vehicles sitting on his lots added to the mess: “We’ve got a lot more inventory than we normally would have because all these recall cars and stop-sale cars, so it was a wild and crazy day yesterday,” he said.
The association’s Smith said he won’t really know what to expect until after the fact, so he’s ready to respond as needed. After Hurricane Charley in 2004, Smith started the Florida Automobile Dealers Charitable Foundation.
FLADA’s foundation, much like the National Automobile Dealers Charitable Foundation Emergency Relief Fund, will be in place to support dealership employee losses from the hurricane.
Tom Worobec contributed to this story.