Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lessons Learned and Forgotten

It has been over a year since GM Canada began notifying many dealerships that they would be required to close their doors. Several of the dealers who lost their dealerships have experienced financial distress and may never recover. What is very sad to the outside observer is that many dealers saw, or should have seen, the writing on the wall years earlier, but were so ‘emotionally attached’ to their dealership that they were not able to react appropriately. Many kept throwing good money after bad until it was too late. Granted, the ‘dethroning’ of the largest auto manufacturer in the world may never happen again, but the lessons that could have been learned from this seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Businesses, and more specifically auto dealers, continue to be emotionally attached to their product preventing them from operating objectively. The auto industry is becoming ever more saturated and individual dealers are seeing more and more risk in managing cash flow and liquidity. There are a vast number of dealers out there who feel that as long as they weather the tough economic climate, they will eventually prevail. Are they taking on too much risk for themselves and their families?

As an accountant, I profess that I have a conservative bent while dealers tend to be entrepreneurial risk takers. I agree that it takes risk to make money, but the risk needs to be controlled. Strong business plans and financial forecasts help entrepreneurs make informed decisions about the level of risk they are assuming, and strong creditor proofing can mitigate the amount of capital being put at risk, however often times little to none of this preliminary work is done. Usually it’s, “Let’s make a deal and then worry about the legal and accounting aspects.” I have found that the preparation of even a simple financial forecast can significantly change the decision making process and as a result I recommend my clients do this when budgeting for the following year or consider acquiring a business.

The demand for vehicles varies each month and fluctuates by manufacturer. Honda may be the hot product for 2011, but Hyundai could be the front-runner for 2012. Many dealers structure their businesses on the premise that they will attain certain sales numbers per month, however when those sales numbers don’t materialize, what is the back-up plan? Usually there isn’t one. I tell all my dealership contacts to ensure they have diversified their product lines so that when one hurts, the others can take over. A strong body shop, used car dept, leasing, parts and so on can help take over if new car sales drop.

Another way to weather the storm is to run a lean and mean operation. Too often I see dealers reacting to low volume in sales by suddenly cutting 10-30% of their overhead. Why is this only done when times are dire? If the dealership could survive on less, why would they maintain such excess? I guess GM set the tone by running ‘FAT’ for many years, and then, when sales volume plummeted, GM reacted just like the dealers by cutting costs and running lean. With increased competition, I hope that running lean will be the new norm rather than a cyclical short-term fix.

In conclusion, it is not only important to set aside money in the boon years, but it is also vitally important to critically review your dealership (with an outside advisor) to ensure you do not have tunnel vision and your rose colored glasses are not the wrong shade. In a later blog I will discuss some of the ‘savings’ options for your company.

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