When he thinks back on the dark days of the Great Recession, the first thing Bill Wallace remembers is the dizzying speed at which the bottom dropped out of the market.
"At the peak of that thing, our new-car volume dropped 35 percent," says Wallace, now 70, owner of Wallace Automotive Group in Stuart, Fla. "We immediately started cutting back on inventory, though the manufacturers fought us every step of the way. It was hard to right-size the ship fast enough."
Wallace has seen four or five recessions since becoming a dealer in 1979. But he believes the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and lasted 18 months, outweighed all the rest combined.
The depth of the trough forced Wallace and his team to come to grips with every aspect of how they managed the dealerships. No stone went unturned — from sales floor to service drive to the face in the mirror every morning.
For Wallace, this worst of all recessions taught him to fix the things he could control and manage for the best in those areas he couldn't.
A severe housing crisis in which mortgage foreclosures soared hammered Wallace Automotive, which consists of eight dealerships and 11 franchises. His market area along South Florida's Atlantic coast was one of the areas hardest hit by the national disaster.
"They were building houses like crazy and buying them up like crazy. People were flipping these houses — buying a house for $500,000 and selling it for $600,000," he recalled.
Then it all collapsed. "All of a sudden people woke up and realized they were underwater on their house and the house they had speculated on. They'd have a million [dollars] in home mortgages in houses that were worth $500,000."
On every block, properties fell into disrepair as houses went unpainted and lawns went unmown.
"It was terrible," Wallace said. "We live and breathe on the boom and bust of construction. Everybody we knew had a housing horror story. They weren't in the mood to buy a car. They were worried about getting their house repossessed. That hit us in the solar plexus."