California wildfires smoke out sales, service work

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From the rear window of the Galpin Premiere Collection in Southern California, you can see fire, smoke and flames.

The dealership sits less than 2.5 miles from the raging Skirball fire near the exclusive Bel Air area. It ignited around 4:52 this morning.

“It’s been a heck of a morning for us,” said Galpin COO Beau Boeckman. “I woke up at 5-something this morning and literally saw flames out my bedroom window, we’re that close. I live 50 yards from it.”

The massive fire has affected business at dealerships throughout the area, but hasn’t yet destroyed any of them. It also forced a shutdown of one of the busiest freeways in the nation, the 405, bringing Los Angeles and surrounding areas to a halt with clogged traffic and clouded ash-filled air.

“The fires are pretty intense right around us,” said Allan, senior director of Galpin Motors Inc. in North Hills, Calif., which owns Galpin Premier Collection, Galpin Ford, Galpin Mazda, all in Van Nuys, and Galpin Subaru in Santa Clarita. “We haven’t had to close our facilities, but we have had several employees impacted by it. The smoke is so intense. We’re in the middle of it. It’s a ring of fire.”

An inventory lot porter moves a car at Galpin Motors earlier on Wednesday. Photo credit: Galpin Motors

Open, on alert

Most dealerships near the Skirball fire and some of the other ravaging wildfires in the area remain open, but on alert, dealers say. Allan and others say they do not believe their dealerships are in danger, unless the wind changes direction. Even then, the fires would have to burn down a ridge and across a valley floor to reach them, they say. But the fires have impaired traffic, keeping employees and customers away and hampering parts deliveries.

Boeckmann was “trapped” at his home all Wednesday because the freeway ramps were closed and then he was under an “evacuation readiness” alert, he said.

The wind died down and then shifted and he did not have to flee. But he said he was ready to leave with his seven dogs in carriers, his six kids on alert and all their bags packed. He said there was no danger, even though four to six houses in his area were destroyed. But the smoke was stifling, like “standing next to a bonfire,” he said.

“I’ve grown up here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything so bad,” Boeckmann said.

Air “like 1977”

Boeckmann said the stores sold about 20 new and used cars throughout the group Tuesday despite “the air quality being like it was in 1977. Normally we’d triple that,” he said. “I haven’t heard today because I’ve been doing things here but my guess is there’d be very little traffic in the store.”

Allan said his wife was holed up at their home in Hollywood Hills preparing to possibly evacuate. About 20 percent of Galpin’s staff are out. Those who made it to work were given surgical face masks to guard against breathing the thick smoke.

“Our techs, who work in the indoor-outdoor atmosphere, many of them have elected to be at home because they can’t stay inside here,” said Allan. “Retail customers — that business has been off by about 40 percent since Tuesday.”

Keyes Automotive Group of Van Nuys has 13 dealerships about four miles from the fires. Keyes Vice President Howard Tenenbaum doesn’t worry that the buildings are in danger. His problem is he can’t breathe.

Surgical masks

“The real issue is the air quality,” said Tenenbaum. “Yesterday, it looked like it was snowing with all the ash falling. The ash was so thick, even walking to my car, I had to put my face in my jacket. You can see the smoke on the ridge and the winds are strong. The whole area is grayish. “

Tenenbaum handed out surgical masks to his employees Tuesday. The air quality near him was better Wednesday, but he emailed his 1,300 employees saying, “If you can’t make it, health and safety come first.”

With that, and the Skirball fire closing the freeway, about 20 percent of his employees did not come in.

“There’s no reason to come out and buy a car today,” he said.

The dealerships most impacted were those on an auto row on the Van Nuys Boulevard, said Aaron Jacoby, managing partner at Los Angeles dealership law firm Arent Fox.

In addition, employees and customers had trouble getting to dealerships along Santa Monica Boulevard in Santa Monica and along Wilshire Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, Jacoby said.

Gusting winds

“I live not far from these fires,” said Jacoby. “You can’t see the flames, but you can see the smoke. It’s really, really bad. It’s the most major fire I’ve seen in a long time, it’s unbelievable. When you’re outside it’s really hard to breathe.”

The winds are gusting up to 40 mph, dealers said. That means the fires could change direction and intensify quickly. No matter what, it’s bad for business.

“We’re about 50 miles north of that prime fire area,” said John Pitre, COO of Motor City Auto Center in Bakersfield, Calif. “But we shut off all activity with L.A. this morning around 6 because I couldn’t count on getting any parts through.”

Pitre said his staff had to call about 100 service customers to explain to them that their cars will not be ready for a few days. He said they were understanding and he will likely issue 20 to 30 rental cars Wednesday from his internal fleet.

“There’s definitely a cost on courtesy transportation, but GM will help us,” said Pitre, who sells Buick, GMC and Lexus brands. “GM gives us the first three days, if parts aren’t available.”

Keyes Automotive Group ranks No. 13 on Automotive News’ list of the top 150 dealerships groups based in the U.S., with retail sales of 39,192 new vehicles in 2016. Galpin Motors Inc. ranks No. 37, with retail sales of 23,998 new vehicles in 2016.

Mother Nature woes

It’s been a tough year for dealers in the Sunbelt states. In August, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, causing massive flooding that left some dealerships badly damaged and many people displaced. Dealers later saw a sales boost as consumers replaced an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 vehicles lost in the flood.

In early September, Hurricane Irma hit Florida and Georgia. Many dealerships had to close to prepare for the storm, losing sales. Some suffered some damage. Cox Automotive estimated that the storm destroyed 200,000 to 400,000 vehicles in Florida.

Hurricane Maria followed later that month ravaging Puerto Rico, blowing out the power and shuttering dealerships. Penske Automotive Group Inc. was impacted by all three storms which hit the operations of 19 dealerships and three collision centers in Texas, Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico. The company’s California stores are not in the area affected by the wildfires, a spokesman said.

Keyes Automotive’s Tenenbaum said ultimately business will return to normal.

“The fires don’t help, but it’s a day or two and it picks back up,” said Tenenbaum. “I’m not taking the goals down or making it okay to not hit our goals this month. If it stays like this for a week, that would be an issue.”a

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