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Suzuki loss opens door for St. Albans dealer

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When American Suzuki Motor Corp. announced last fall that it would stop selling automobiles in the U.S., Charleston Suzuki General Sales Manager Steve Huffman said he was shocked, saddened and sleepless for weeks.

"I've been in the car business since 1989 and that was the most challenging and frustrating time," Huffman said Thursday. "I worried about our business and our people. It was devastating."

American Suzuki Motor filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at the beginning of November. The company said it exited the car business because of slow sales, unfavorable foreign exchange rates, tougher U.S. fuel economy standards, and high costs associated with U.S. regulatory requirements.

Nearly four months later, Huffman said he and the employees who still work at the dealership have "basically started over."

The dealership bought the Mitsubishi franchise from Lester Raines Honda Mazda and changed its name to Charleston Mitsubishi.

It has remained a pre-owned automobile dealer and provides parts and service to customers.

The St. Albans dealership at 7012 MacCorkle Ave. got approval March 6 to start selling the 42 Mitsubishi cars it inherited from Lester Raines.

Huffman said the car dealership opened in 2009 as a stand-alone new car store and they wanted to keep it that way.

Stand-alone dealerships sell just one brand.

Raines said he, too, wanted one franchise at his Mazda and Mitsubishi dealership in South Charleston so he decided to sell the Mitsubishi brand.

"Now that I have just Mazda in that facility, the incentives offered to me are higher, therefore I can pass it on to my customers," Raines said Thursday. "The franchise gives you more incentives because the whole building is based on just them."

Despite being offered more money for the Mitsubishi franchise by other interested buyers, Raines said he gave Huffman his word.

"He had the need because he lost what he had and I felt like for him to carry on, he needed a franchise," Raines said.

Huffman said Charleston Mitsubishi "owes everything we have" to Raines.

"Lester Raines threw us a lifeline and saved us," Huffman said. "He has no idea how much he helped us because it was getting very tough."

Suzuki ceasing sales in the U.S. almost put the dealership out of business, Huffman said.

The former Charleston Suzuki lost about 85 percent of its employees after the bankruptcy announcement, he said. Some left because of uncertainty while others had to be laid off.

"We couldn't sustain the same amount of people because our business was affected by a 70 percent loss of sales by not selling new cars anymore," he said.

Slumping sales wasn't something the dealership was used to: Charleston Suzuki was ranked as a top 15 Suzuki dealer in the nation, he said.

The dealership began by selling two Suzukis a month, but was selling more than 30 cars a month when the company declared bankruptcy.

"The franchise was very robust. It was growing," Huffman said. "We were making progress, and by the end of the year we may have got to the top 10."

Huffman said the dealership did sell all 78 Suzuki models left on its lot by offering thousands of dollars off the price tags.

Customers were concerned, mad and some even cussed out the salespeople.

"Some of our customers just bought cars the week of the announcement and they thought that we knew and had done something unethical to them," Huffman said. "We had no idea. If they only knew the major effect it had on us."

Huffman said Charleston Mitsubishi did sign a contract with Suzuki to remain a parts and service provider for seven more years so that Suzuki owners still have a nearby repair option.

Mechanics at the dealership were the first employees to go through training and certifications to learn the necessary skills to work on Mitsubishi cars, he said.

The dealership's now 15 employees are going through training, too, as more workers are hired.

Raines gave Charleston Mitsubishi his old signs, but Huffman said the car company expects the dealership to use its newly designed signs. Those should be going up soon, he said.

"We don't have our signs up on the buildings yet, but walking into our store today has so much excitement because of Mitsubishi right now," Huffman said. "If the month ends today, we would be the No. 1 Mitsubishi dealer in the state. We're excited about the future."

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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