With help from AutoNation and Ford, a battered Florida car dealership’s managers and employees look ahead

Hurricane Michael devastated AutoNation Ford Panama City’s used-vehicle showroom, top and bottom. Since reopening Nov. 1, the store’s sales team is using trailers as offices. Photo credit: SPENCER THOMAS

Since the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael, Lori Adair has been driving more than two hours from a relative’s house to get to work.

The service adviser at AutoNation Ford Panama City, in Florida, can only bear to return to her house, a 10-minute drive from the dealership, once a week.

A few toys are strewn amid the rubble that was Adair’s home before it was clobbered by the storm. Her roof is obliterated, and all that remains is a carcass of a house.

Even though she works five to six days a week, she returns to her house weekly to check on her storage shed. “I don’t like going back to our house because of all the emotions it brings up, seeing your life just in shambles.”

The dealership and Adair’s house were devastated by Hurricane Michael last month. The community, which includes a row of at least seven dealerships near AutoNation Ford, looks like a war zone, Adair said. Still, even though picking through the debris at the dealership is another reminder of the hurricane’s destruction, Adair and many of her colleagues have found a sense of normalcy and routine in returning to the battered store.

Hurricane Michael made landfall on Oct. 10 near Mexico Beach, Fla., with sustained winds of up to 155 mph, making it the strongest storm on record to hit the Florida Panhandle. The storm continued on a destructive path through Georgia and into the Carolinas and Virginia, demolishing communities and businesses along the way. Dealerships in several states were damaged, but in terms of concentrated wreckage, Panama City, Fla., appeared to be ground zero.

Of AutoNation Ford Panama City’s 90 employees, 20 lost nearly everything in the storm but there were no injuries or deaths, said General Manager Steve Martin.



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Getting ready to rebuild

The dealership has finally finished cleanup and is ready to begin reconstruction, Martin told Automotive News last week.

Before the storm, the dealership’s showroom was being remodeled and was expected to open in the third week of November. The storm destroyed the building, pushing the open date to late in the first quarter of 2019 or early in the second quarter.

Service adviser Lori Adair gathers the strength to return to what remains of her house, left, once a week. She says she has been touched by the generosity of AutoNation and dealership employees. Photo credit: SPENCER THOMAS AND LORI ADAIR

The three-lane service center next to the showroom shifted six to 12 inches and lost its doors during the storm, Martin said. And the dealership’s used-vehicle building needs to be rebuilt. It likely will reopen in the second quarter. Meanwhile, employees will continue to work out of trailers, and inventory will be displayed outside.

“We’re starting from square one,” said Martin. Fourteen new vehicles and 97 used vehicles had to be totaled, and 42 new vehicles need repairs from damage caused by debris, he said.

The dealership reopened Nov. 1, using two trailers as temporary offices for its sales team. The trailers get electricity from generators. To make the environment more customer-friendly, the sales team placed picnic tables outside the trailers. The sales department is the dealership’s only fully functioning operation.

“It’s going to be a while to rebuild that store, and we’re doing everything we can, including supporting our teams that are up there,” said Marc Cannon, AutoNation’s chief marketing officer.

Steve Martin, the dealership’s general manager, at left wearing cap, says 20 of the dealership’s 90 employees lost nearly everything in the storm, which also wreaked havoc on the store’s break room, above, and service center, below. Photo credit: SPENCER THOMAS

In the service department, “we currently continue to get lifts up and running and are doing regular maintenance on vehicles,” he said. “A couple hundred customers have come to AutoNation Ford looking to either purchase a vehicle or needing service.”

The sales department at the Panama City dealership has about 200 new vehicles and nearly 100 used vehicles that employees can sell to customers, Cannon said.

The vehicles are a combination of those that AutoNation Ford stored before the hurricane and that AutoNation Inc. has shipped to the dealership.

Martin said AutoNation immediately responded to his dealership’s needs after the hurricane. As a part of CEO Mike Jackson’s “no disruption on payroll” policy, AutoNation provided full pay for the store’s employees through October, said Martin. In addition, the company helped employees with more money and gift cards.

Moving heaven and earth

“AutoNation Inc. has done so much to help alleviate the emotional distress and devastation for our associates,” said Martin.

AutoNation also raised more than $42,000 for employees in need and provided them with temporary phones so they could have open communication with each other and their family members.

Ford Motor Co. has also been supportive, Jackson said.

Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, “was in touch with us the same day as the storm. Ford has always been there for us through trauma,” Jackson said. LaNeve “moves heaven and earth to help us and support us.”

Ford has a disaster response team that was formed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, said Paul Russell, manager of Ford sales operations and communications.

“The Ford Disaster Response Team engages as soon as any major storm or event is identified and remains engaged throughout the relief and recovery efforts,” he said.

Still, much of the community remains in ruins. “Panama City residents are still trying to understand what happened,” said Martin. “What the community is going through is still surprising and shocking. I’ve never seen commerce shut down as long as this, just store after store of emptiness.”

Adair said she was moved by the generosity of AutoNation and the dealership employees.

“It goes to show that there still are decent people in the world that are willing to go the extra mile to help others in need.”

Hannah Lutz contributed to this report.

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