Car dealers, especially ones selling luxury vehicles, are at the top of the list of recession victims. One Gulf Coast dealer, however, has risked more than $1 million to reverse the trend.
The real recession — the Great Depression — was just a few years removed from Jack Urfer's mind when he made his first dollar having anything to do with automotive engines.
It was the mid-1930s in rural Kansas. Urfer, about 10 years old, fixed up a broken down tractor on his family's farm. He sold it to a neighbor for $30.
Urfer is once again trying to make a go during a difficult economic period in the auto industry — an industry he has been in for 50 years.
Only this time, instead of fixing tractors Urfer is trying a more novel approach: He is aiming to become one of the first auto dealers in Florida to sell India-made, diesel-fueled Mahindra trucks and sports utility vehicles. Mumbai-based Mahindra & Mahindra, which started out building post World War II Jeeps, is a dominant force in motor vehicle sales in India.
Mahindra's American-based distributor sought domestic dealers for the vehicles a few years ago. Urfer jumped at the chance, saying he was one of the first to sign up.
The effort isn't mere window dressing. Urfer's family-run dealership has spent more than $1 million to build a glossy 1,500-square-foot showroom for the trucks on Clark Road in Sarasota, next to the family's flagship Land Rover dealership.
“We've been trying to do this for years,” says Urfer, the 83-year-old patriarch of a well-known philanthropic family in Sarasota.
Chip Bennett, who runs the Land Rover dealership for the Urfer family, says the first Mahindra trucks and SUVs could be in Sarasota as early as February. Prices for the vehicles haven't been set yet by Mahindra executives, some of whom personally visited Urfer's operations last year.
Bennett hopes the vehicles will inject some energy into the lethargic luxury auto market, where, at least at his dealership, “it takes a lot more effort to sale a car” these days.
“We have had a huge amount of interest in this already,” says Bennett. “Everyone is asking about it.”
The interest rests partially in the fact that Mahindra is considered to be a step ahead of American and many Japanese automakers in the race for today's auto trend: going green.
Indeed, Mahindra's diesel-fueled vehicles get at least 30 miles to a gallon. The company already exports its trucks to countries in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East. Mahindra has also sold farming equipment in some American cities for the past few years.
Urfer has been in the car business almost as long Mahindra. He moved with his family from Kansas to Sarasota in the 1960s and opened a Volkswagen dealership. He would go on to sell Toyotas, Audis, Porsches, BMWs and now Land Rovers.
Urfer sold the BMW operation, just east of the Clark Road Land Rover dealership, in early 2008 — a few months before the national credit-crunch crushed the auto industry. The Urfers got $14 million for the land alone.
Urfer has sold cars and trucks so long that when he adds Mahindra to his list, he can also add this irony: The Land Rover brand was recently bought by Indian billionaire Ratan Tata, owner of one of Mahindra's biggest competitors.
— Mark Gordon