When Sutherlin Automotive called for help, dealers nationwide answered

Exterior of Florida car dealership
Sutherlin Nissan of Fort Myers, Fla. | LinkedIn

Published October 10, 2022 | Link to story

Of the 50,000 vehicles Cox Automotive estimated were damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Brett Sutherlin, owner of Sutherlin Automotive Group, said about 100 were at his stores.

It was nearly all of his local inventory.

Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida's western coast Sept. 28. After sweeping across the region, the storm headed up the coast of South Carolina. Fort Myers, Fla., a beachfront city in southwestern Lee County, was among the hardest hit by the Category 4 storm. Sutherlin has three dealerships in the area.

His Fort Myers Genesis store received the worst of the damage, Sutherlin said. It was just a temporary facility while the group built a new home for the brand.

"It was completely flattened — it's gone," Sutherlin told Automotive News. "It's been chaotic and crazy."

Sutherlin Nissan of Fort Myers, just down the street from the Genesis store, sustained damage to its foundation. In nearby Cape Coral, Sutherlin Nissan of Cape Coral avoided serious damage because of modern anti-hurricane features.

In the wake of the damage to his vehicles and buildings, Sutherlin turned to old friends and strangers alike in a LinkedIn post Tuesday offering to buy any inventory other Nissan stores could offer: "We're in desperate need of inventory right now," Sutherlin said into the camera. "Most of our cars have been totaled, and we need cars just to be able to operate."

Ray Reggie, former chief digital officer for Premier Automotive, was one of the first to be in contact with Sutherlin. As someone who was in the dealer business during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he said seeing the devastation caused by Ian pushed him to contact Sutherlin proactively.

"Once you've gone through it, you know what it's about" Reggie said. "You want to do what you can do. You can do some with a check … but the real key is what else we can get."

That "what else" first came in the form of three generators. Reggie called Troy Duhon, owner of Premier Automotive, and arranged for a flatbed trailer to ship them to Fort Myers from Louisiana.

"We know how difficult it is not to have power, how not to have electricity," Reggie said. "We know that every hour is brutal."

As for inventory, Reggie called Craig Collins, general manager of Premier Nissan of Metairie in Louisiana, who arranged 24 vehicles to be sent to Sutherlin despite tight inventory because of the ongoing nationwide shortage.

"[Collins] said 'You know, inventory's tight for everybody,' " Reggie said. "But we got a load put together within minutes, and we shipped them out a truckload full of prime merchandise."

Nearly 1,000 miles away in Greenville, N.C., Elliot Greer, dealer principal of Greenville Nissan, was on the phone with Sutherlin a few days later, asking about the situation in Fort Myers. Greer spends a portion of the year in Vero Beach, Fla. — the same area where Sutherlin lives.

Matt Murchison, executive manager of Greer's store, soon got a call as well.

"[Sutherlin] indicated that it was decimated down there pretty bad, and really had no cars left to sell," Murchison said. "He was in need of inventory overall. So, we had some inventory we could move to them that helps them out a bit."

Greenville Nissan sent 12 vehicles down to Sutherlin Nissan Fort Myers. Like Reggie, Murchison said he knows what it's like to go through a hurricane.

"It's just peer-to-peer help," Murchison said. "We've been through it before with hurricanes in eastern North Carolina, and we know how it feels. It's not a fun process to deal with."

As of Wednesday, Sutherlin has received about 50 vehicles from other dealers, and has dispatched around 200 down to Fort Myers from his other dealerships across the country.

Sutherlin Automotive Group ranked 108th on the most recent Automotive News list of the top 150 dealership groups by new-vehicle sales. In 2021, its 10 dealerships sold 9,261 new vehicles. The company website now lists 12 stores, seven of which are Nissan outlets.

Sutherlin said the help has been instrumental in getting the group's southwest Florida stores up and running again.

"We were able to get open quicker than anyone that I know in that area, which was super helpful," Sutherlin said. "It's just a mess with how many people lost vehicles."

However, the group still faces significant challenges. For example, its centralized accounting office, which sits in a high-rise, is still without power.

"We're getting back on our feet," Sutherlin said. "We're starting to get back. I mean, we've got customers everywhere just trying to get transportation."