In late April, a massive F4 force tornado slammed through Alabama and western Georgia, costing lives and billions of dollars in damage. Most national news coverage of this storm’s wrath has focused on its impact on the citizenry, yet untold businesses and their employees were impacted. One of them was Walter Jackson Chevrolet in Ringgold, Georgia.
But, against all odds, Walter Jackson Chevrolet was up and running – open for business – in less than a week after that tornado — despite massive damage to the showroom and inventory.
And, to top it all off, Dealer Principal Danny Jackson says, “We just came off a terrific May, up 300% over the prior May.”
Dealer magazine recently spoke to Danny Jackson to learn more.
What happened, Danny, on April 27 that changed everything – and nothing?
Our dealership, Walter Jackson Chevrolet, was hit by the same F4 tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My wife and I got into the closet under the stairwell of our home, which is a mile and a half from the dealership, when the tornado hit about 8:30 that evening. Our neighbor lost the second story of his home but ours sustained only loose shingles. I immediately wanted to check out the dealership, but due to trees and debris everywhere across the roads, I didn’t get there until the next day.
How bad was it?
The showroom was completely gone, just I-beams left. Broken glass was everywhere, from the showroom windows and the vehicles. A traffic signal had crashed into the showroom and metal building siding was everywhere. The windows of all the cars on the lot were all blown out, and the cars were covered with debris and ruined. I cried when I first saw it all.
There were blessings though. No one was in the building when it was hit. In fact, none of my staff or their families was injured by the tornado. My home was the only home to receive any damage, and mine just the shingles. That they were unhurt and their homes undamaged was wonderful news! We also had some inventory the storm did not destroy. We had moved about 30 units into the service department earlier that afternoon after the TV weather predicted hail from the storm. Fortunately, the tornado left the service department and those vehicles untouched as it did our body shop, located at the far back of the lot.
What were you first thoughts?
The first thing that hit me was the question, ‘What are we going to do next?’ There I am looking at all this damage and I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew we had to get the business going again and as soon as possible. By this time, my son Ryan, our GM, and our sales manager, Bob Lollar, had joined me at the dealership. But, the police came by and ran us off. The officer asked me who had given me permission to be at the store. I was upset and said, ‘I gave myself permission. I own this. This is my building and I own this dealership and the property.’ He said he felt sorry for me, but it was his duty to protect the area properties and people like me from the harm of broken trees, debris and downed power lines. The tornado had flattened the gas station, a restaurant and a couple of other businesses right across the street from the dealership; it could have been worse for us.
What did you do next?
I called an all-staff meeting for the next morning. We all met at a nearby convenience store and stood in the parking lot. I answered questions about damage and the like and explained to them that we were going to rebuild. My staff has been with me for years, and I told them that we would be back to work as expediently as we could be, but until that time I would continue to pay them. I then collected all their phone numbers – every bit of personal employee information I had was down at the dealership – and advised them they’d hear from their manager or me when we opened back up. Most of us then drove on to the dealership and began to haul out debris and trash until the police came around and ran us off again.
We didn’t yet have electrical power, but I did manage to get a permit from the sheriff to be on my property. When the police then came along to run us off I said, ‘Well, with this permit we’re going to work,’ which we did and he then left us alone.
The mess around the store was so bad that even first responders struggled to get into Ringgold. In fact, out of nowhere a woman named Bridgette Paine walked up and told us she was lead of a group of first responders waiting to go to work. She asked if they could help us! By the next day, Friday, we were all hard at work cleaning up. This fantastic woman also hired a brush truck from our local equipment rental agency, which she put to use sweeping debris and broken glass from our lots.
The outpouring of help was incredible. Some scrap metal people came by and took all that scrap metal off our hands. A friend brought in two dump trucks and used them to haul out the other debris. A front-end loader showed up from somewhere. By Saturday – the tornado hit us on Wednesday evening – all the mess was gone. I was on the phone trying to locate generators to power the store when I looked up to see the CFO of our electric company, North Georgia Membership Corporation, on the lot. She told us, ‘You know, tomorrow, Sunday, it’s going to seem like we’re moving the earth, but we’ll have your power back on by Monday.’ And they did. The next day, Tuesday, we re-opened for business.
What business were you able to do?
The service and sales departments opened. We set up a sales trailer where the showroom had been and did business out of it. Ringgold residents could get to the dealership, so we had some service business. But things were slow. I moved my office functions to a dealership owned by my sister in Lafayette, Georgia, were I did payroll and other bookkeeping. Our DMS is an ADP ASP, so we did not lose any data and were back online quickly. After a day or so, all capabilities had been restored at the Ringgold store.
If it weren’t for the first responders coming in, it would have been extremely difficult for us to have reopened so quickly after such devastation. We had an enormous outpouring of volunteers and friends who helped us get back on our feet.
We started out very slow. Even if all we did was sit there, we just had to open; my employees just had to feel like they were back at work. Being there during that time kept their momentum up; we couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing, but we could be here and do a little…and gradually we built business up. We just came off a terrific May, up 300% over the prior May.
With so little undamaged inventory? How?
Our insurers – Diversified Insurance Services for our inventory and Georgia Auto Dealers Association insurance for property coverage – really came to our aid right away. They began calling me on Thursday and were out to look over the lot and property the next day. They flew in adjusters to speed the process.
We decided to sell the damaged units “as is,” with some $41,000 trucks selling for $15,000. People lined up to buy these damaged vehicles. We had had a glass company come in and replace all window glass before the sale – not a vehicle escaped glass damage except those we’d stored in the service department. We sold 40 of those 50 damaged units.
Chevrolet helped tremendously to get us going again, and I take my hat off to them. My zone manager Kent Borough was on the phone with me right away wanting to know what I needed and to hear about what was damaged so he could get replacements in the pipeline. Our Chevy district manager Ted Bortner called shortly to tell me he had 15 trucks in Darlington, South Carolina that were sechedule to be on demo at the Darlington Race Track, and that they’d pay for the frieght to bring them to us. That was huge for us; without trucks to sell we’d be lost. Eighty-five percent of our business is trucks.
Danny, what started as a storm of destruction seems to have become a storm of support.
Yes, that’s a good way to summarize what happened. This tornado was part of the same tornado system that cut a 14-mile swath through Tuscaloosa and then jumped what is called here “Cherokee Valley” outside of Ringgold, where so much life was lost. Those people are the ones I feel sorry for. I’m fortunate.
I learned some things from this too. We’d always been proactive when they call for a hailstorm. That’s what we worry about here – and so, as you know, we prepared for that as best we could. Nevertheless, I don’t know how you prepared for a tornado, except to make sure you have the right kind of insurance with the right company. To me, when it came time for policy renewal, that was just one part of the business I just didn’t like. It seemed like that was a waste of money, but now, if I had to advise any other dealer, I would highly recommend that they give their insurance coverage a second look. I would check inventory coverage and that policy’s deductible. You expect to absorb a certain loss from hail damage, but losing that many vehicles and the damage to my facilities from the tornado was the farthest thing from my mind when I reviewed insurance, but l have some great people working with me on our insurance.
How much total damage did you suffer?
The total is probably going to be a little over a million bucks. As for our current inventory levels, we now have more units than we’d normally carry. A dealer from Brunswick, Georgia whom I did not know, called to offer as much inventory as we wanted. Local dealers sold us inventory. GM’s pulling those trucks from Darlington helped us get back up to full inventory and now I have more coming in.
Do you attribute your resiliency to the characteristics of a small-town dealer?
The pace here is slower. That pace gives us time to spend with the customer to ask questions about their families and friends. These customers and their families and friends came to our aid after the tornado. Without them, our recovery time would have been much longer.
Our employees are very loyal too. That we have a profit-sharing plan for employees probably isn’t so unique today, but when dad started it years ago, it was. He had sent men to transmission school, and when one of them returned and announced he was quitting to join a local transmission shop, Dad hated the fact that he’d trained that fella and he’d then left. To combat this from happening again, Dad set up a profit sharing plan for every employee that vests for each in 10 years. We can contribute up to 15% of the employee’s gross income into the fund. This plan helps keep people around longer.
My dad was one of the best dealers I ever knew. He taught me a lot. I started in the business when I was 11 years old at a Ford dealer, my uncle. When Dad died 11 years ago, I became dealer principal and operator of his Walter Jackson Chevrolet, now in our 41st year.
What is your sales volume, given a year without tornados!
Five hundred new and used a year, of which about 10% are driven by Internet and web activities. My son, Ryan, also handles that part of the business. I put him to work right out of college in our Internet Sales Department. Now, we’re averaging between 175 and 200 leads a month. He follows up with every lead and uses emails that ask questions to keep the prospect engaged while providing key information like incentives and vehicle specs.
Leads with phone numbers that Ryan responds to that seem to have potential are turned to sales reps, who take the leads from there. Ryan handles leads coming in through OnStar Vehicle Maintenance notifiers, as well as from appointment requests from our website. He then emails those people to confirm receipt of their lead and to verify their information before he hands them off to Marty Huggins our service writer or Duane Holmes our service manager.
The biggest portion of our sales leads is derived from third-party sites and then our web site at www.walterjackson.com where customers can review our inventory and specials. Ryan also monitors all website and Internet leads by using GM OneSource, its lead management tool. We also get reports from the Cobalt Group (now part of ADP) about site visitors and a breakdown of which sections of our site are getting the most viewer attention. We also use Cobalt to upload images of our new car inventory and then use Dealer Specialties to load used car inventory.
Our Internet philosophy is to reach out to all of our Internet customers, provide quick and accurate information, and make the experience enjoyable and easy. The moments we’re most proud of are when a customer comes into the dealership and we meet in person the one who’s been researching online for a long time for the right vehicle and we have it!
The dust has settled. What surprised you most about this experience?
How fast everyone, my competitors included, came to our aid. I know dealers are competitors, and every time one of us is down for whatever reason the others rally around. There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to get back up and running once I got calls from my competitors and the people rallied around us in the community.