An uncertain economy could have been the end for Jaguar Land Rover Porsche of Chattanooga, but the luxury car dealer rebounded and this year is back in the black, according to new general manager James Vandermerwe.
Land Rover sales are up 500 percent this month over 2009 levels, Jaguar sales are up 200 percent, and the dealer is selling 200 percent more used cars year over year, he said, though Porsche sales remain flat.
"At this point, if current trends continue, we're up for a record year," said the self-described "hillbilly without the accent."
Vandermerwe does, however, have an accent.
The Ringgold, Ga., resident originally grew up on a farm in South Africa, where he said he got up with the sun at 4:30 a.m. and "you went to bed when the sun went down."
Hard work and his Christian faith are responsible for his bright outlook, he said, an outlook that caused owner Sam Furrow in May 2009 to send Vandermerwe to fix the ailing luxury car dealer, which had problems even before the recession hit.
"Sales had dropped down to next to nothing," Vandermerwe said. "Two thousand and seven was a great year, but not for this business."
Owner Sam Furrow said that the Chattanooga dealership's 10 years "feel like three," and added that he felt good with the dealership in Vandermerwe's enthusiastic hands.
"James had been with us at our Mercedes operation, and when I decided I wanted to make a change, he literally took us to the next level of customer service, awareness and sales that we had hoped that he would," Furrow said.
Vandermerwe kept only one salesman, and changed the dealership's business philosophy: It's better to make a little money on a lot of cars than to make a lot of money off a few cars.
Within months, sales figures showed the results of his new strategy. In July 2010, the company sold 43 vehicles, with revenue of $8.5 million for the first half of the year. Previously, the dealership only sold 26 cars in the first four months of 2009, with revenue at a mere $4.6 million for the first half of that year.
But Vandermerwe said the turnaround wasn't accomplished by charging higher premiums over the MSRP.
In fact, he said the practice of charging 20 to 30 percent premiums in order to offer "deep discounts" for luxury vehicles has largely been discontinued, not just by his dealership but by most nationwide importers affected by the recession.
"You have to be very competitive, people can see online what you pay for a vehicle," he said.
By selling "a whole lot of vehicles to a whole lot of people," the company also has moved toward profitability in its service business, which does better when there are more owners in an area.
Jerry Hickey, a salesman who estimates that he's sold 1,000 cars since starting with the dealership in 2000, is a big part of the company's plan for moving forward. Part of his job is making customers feel special.
"We do pickup and delivery services, we accommodate their schedule, we'll even wash their car," Hickey said. "That's what it's all about: the more you spend on a car, the higher expectations you have."
Hickey is "partial to the Porsches," but all cars get his blood pumping, he said.
"When I was younger, I would get excited about driving the new cars when they came in. Now I get excited when I see 'em drive away," he said.