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Wheels Up

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:20 a.m. February 1, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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The Christmas season was certainly good to Ernie Withers and his team at Mercedes-Benz of Sarasota.

The entire month of December, actually, was the dealership's best month ever. Plus, the Mercedes-Benz corporate office named the dealership a Best of the Best for 2012. That puts it among the top 25 out of 364 Mercedes Benz dealerships nationwide. Withers, general manager of the dealership, which is owned by Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation, declined to disclose total sales for the month or year.

“To win that award,” says Withers, “you have to be on top of your game every day.”

Still, a record-setting sales month or top 25 year wasn't a sure thing back in early spring 2011. That's when the dealership made a counterintuitive move invest $25 million into its facility on Clark Road. Auto sales nationwide were struggling back then, and in the preceding years, when growth plans were put in place.

Times have changed. “The economy seems to be coming back,” says Withers. “And from all indicators, it looks like 2013 will be even better than 2012.”

Of course, says Withers, it helps to sell a high-end brand with stellar customer loyalty, like Mercedes-Benz. The plan behind the new facility, in fact, was to create something that resembled a boutique hotel, with comfy chairs, fresh fruit in the lobby and a concierge to help clients one-on-one.
The high-end approach, says Withers, who has been in the auto business since 1980, is paired with a sales staff trained in the finer arts of quick customer service response. “It's not rocket science,” Withers says. “People like to do business with people they find trustworthy.”

AutoNation bought the dealership, formerly Glauser Mercedes-Benz, in 2004, when it was on Tamiami Trail. A Fortune 500 company with $13.8 billion in annual sales, AutoNation decided to move to the new Clark Road location in 2007. The firm bought the land, 10.4 acres, for $6.02 million in 2006 from the Culverhouse family, according to Sarasota County property records. The Culverhouse family developed Palmer Ranch, a nearby master-planned community.

The glistening dealership, which has now been open almost two years, is loaded with high-end, environmentally friendly features. It includes a delivery room, where customers can get a bow on their new Mercedes, and large bay windows where customers can watch technicians work on their car.

Mercedes-Benz of Sarasota, which also sells Smart cars and Sprinter vans, has a few other competitive advantages, in addition to its high-end products and services. For example, there's geography: It's the only Mercedes-Benz dealership in the Sarasota-Bradenton region. There are others in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers.

Withers has also added to the employee base at the dealership in recent months. He doubled the sales staff, from 10 to 20, and he also added several repair technicians. One goal with all the hires, and the growth, says Withers, is to ensure employees know customers are there to get something special. “When you are in a Mercedes product,” says Withers, “you can feel the difference.”

Car Country
The auto industry rebound has a Florida leader in AutoNation.

New-vehicle sales at the Fort Lauderdale-based auto sales giant increased 20% in 2012 over 2011, the firm recently reported. More good news: Sales were up 15% in December 2012 over December 2011, and year-over-year fourth quarter sales rose 16%.

With $13.8 billion in annual sales, AutoNation, founded in 1991 by prominent South Florida entrepreneur Wayne Huizenga, is the largest retailer of new and used cars and trucks in the country. The firm has 220 dealerships in 15 states, including 60 Florida locations. Its Gulf Coast presence, under brands such as AutoWay and Courtesy, ranges from Ford dealerships in Bradenton and St. Petersburg to Mercedes-Benz of Sarasota to Fort Myers Toyota. The Sarasota Mercedes dealership ranked in the top 25 among 364 Mercedes dealerships nationwide for sales in 2012.

AutoNation Chairman and CEO Mike Jackson says the recent sales success, in December especially, shows the resiliency of consumers. The publicly traded firm projects sales growth to continue through 2013.

“That the industry, despite the drama in Washington with the fiscal cliff, put up such strong numbers says the American consumer is moving on with their life,” Jackson told CNBC Squawk Box Jan. 4. “They now view Washington, D.C., as a political soap opera, drama, that is somewhat contrived.”


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