The Auto Industry and Main Street
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Bill Tornovish is a man who does not waste time fooling himself. He has run the auto dealership on Polpis Road for six years. Before that he ran it alongside his dad, Bill Sr., since 1988. The place is still named after his grandfather, Don Allen. In 1967 Bill’s grandfather, along with his dad and uncles, bought the place from Harry Gordon.
When you have been selling cars for that long, and listening to your father and uncles talk about it for even longer, you understand the cold calculus of the business.
Last week you could not turn on the television or look at a newspaper without seeing a sea of talking heads giving their opinions on whether the federal government should bail out the big players in the American auto industry. But here on Main Street, or more to the point on Polpis Road, there in no bailout coming.
Tornorvish has seen good times and bad times over the last 20 years, as the economy went through its ups and downs. His family has always managed to pull Don Allen Ford through. He says that these times are as bad as anything he has seen come before.
He is the kind of guy who knows how to do business and how to take care of his customers. As a matter of disclosure, I would probably not be driving my old truck if he had not helped me find the right one at the right financing.
These days he watches the scenes in Washington, D.C. unfold. He sees the auto industry CEOs hammered for flying to a Congressional hearing in their private jets. It was a combination of Capitol Hill grandstanding and poor public-relations judgment.
“I think they got blindsided in D.C.,” he said. “They just did what they do every day. But they didn’t go there with a plan and that was a mistake.”
Congressional committees are the sideshows of government. The real problem came weeks before, when news of the credit crisis sent Wall Street into convulsions. One morning he was watching it on MSNBC and the next morning there were e-mails from Ford detailing how they were going to tighten up their credit policy.
“They had a video conference and dealers were up in arms,” he said. “But there was nothing we could do. The credit crunch is really the problem and that is reflected in sales. Ford is looking three years down the road, but I’m looking three months down the road.”
Credit, of course, is how you buy a car. Until this all happened, you could buy a car for no money down and pay for it with financing that did not require equity.
“It seemed like overnight the credit was stopped,” he said.
When it becomes more and more difficult for your customers to get that credit, you lose business. When you lose enough business you begin to think in terms of what it will take to keep the doors open. There is no getting around it.
“October and November are generally pretty good months for us,” he said. “And there are people who buy a car around New Year’s, or who buy a car every two years or so, or who buy the newest thing on the market. But now everyone is looking long-term at this economy and asking themselves how long will it last.”
It is not just the car business, of course, but if there is a canary in this coal mine it might be car sales. Tornovish said he gets e-mail from other dealerships and they all are having the same problems. He turns on the news and watches stories about car dealerships closing their doors.
“I’m nervous as hell right now and looking at my options,” he said. “Our service area is busy, but that can’t carry us. We already had to lay off some employees for the first time. You cut people’s hours to try and save their jobs. You cut way back on the money you spend on advertising.”
This is a business that has gone out of its way to be part of the community. The Booster’s Club, the Boy Scouts, or one of any number of nonprofit groups, have always known they could turn to the folks at Don Allen Ford. They have raffled off cars to raise money for the hospital and the Rotary Club.
Community is not just an idea for guys like this; it is something you do. When times are good you chip in.
In a small town it is not just the name on the sign of a business, not some national chain, that is threatened with going under, but your friends and neighbors. You know what it all really means. It is not just some story you saw on the national news. It is not about how Ford or GM is doing, but about how a guy you have known for years is doing.
Tornovish knows that there is enough bad news to go around. His business will pick up when real estate begins to sell again, and when contractors begin filing building permits, or if the scallop season is better than expected. His business will pick up when everybody’s business picks up. Until then you try to hold on any way you can.
“I feel like I have to find a solution real quick,” he said. “Right now I do not see any real answer. But I keep looking. I need to find one before Christmas, or I need to make more decisions.”
– John Stanton