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New Orleans Picks Up

Car Dealer Is Open; Walk-Ins Are Rare

October 30, 2005|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — From a distance, some of the new cars in Banner Chevrolet's vast parking lot looked almost normal. Sure, the finish may have been a little dull, the tires a little muddy. But the real giveaway, on closer inspection, was the flecks of seaweed on many of the dashboards, or the odd fish carcass in the cargo bed of a pickup truck.

Banner, one of Louisiana's top three Chevy dealerships, had 500 new vehicles submerged to their rooflines by Katrina's storm surge. Marshall Soullier, 54, general manager and part owner, said his $14-million claim may be a record for the insurance arm of GMAC, General Motors Corp.'s finance subsidiary.

Looters yanked $20,000 worth of wheels and tires off cars before Soullier was able to get a private security firm on site.

Banner is located off Interstate 10, just east of the city's Inner Harbor Navigation Canal -- an area that was flooded to depths of six feet or more.

The dealership's showroom, like its repair bays and four acres of parking lots, was still covered with smelly, ankle-deep mud by the time Soullier made his way past police and National Guard checkpoints to inspect it a few weeks ago.

But the computer equipment and crucial business records stayed dry. "They were on the second floor," he said. "We made sure of that."

Well before returning, Soullier had placed a rush order for several trailers to serve as temporary offices. Four trailers were finally delivered, but two were in such poor condition they were practically unusable. The other two, equipped with laptop computers and folding chairs and tables, are the interim headquarters of Banner Chevrolet. The only decoration is a wind-whipped American flag salvaged from the hurricane.

On a recent afternoon, a man in a white plastic hazmat suit was power-washing a section of pavement and a gigantic forklift was hoisting waterlogged vehicles onto a car carrier.

Soullier explained that General Motors, sensitive to any suspicion that ruined Chevys might be sold to unsuspecting buyers far away from the flood zone, requires cars to be shipped to Michigan and crushed under GM supervision before it will pay off on dealer insurance claims.

Although Banner Chevrolet is open for business and advertising that fact on billboards and on radio, the walk-in traffic has been almost nonexistent.

And it's probably just as well. Soullier has lost the bulk of his workforce.

"You can turn a wrench as easily in Dallas as you can in New Orleans," he said, bemoaning the years of training that Banner invested in top mechanics who may never return.

Still, with the optimism of a born salesman, Soullier said he liked his chances of surviving -- even prospering -- in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Banner Chevrolet is part of a group of dealerships with common ownership that has been conservatively run and has deep enough pockets to withstand a dry spell, he said. If other dealerships struggle and go on the market, Banner probably will be a bidder.

The insurance check for the flooded cars will come in handy, as will an anticipated settlement under the dealership's business-interruption insurance. According to Soullier, that payment will come only after the insurer completes an audit -- including comparing Banner's claim with national auto-sales trends -- to determine the amount of sales that have been lost.

Soullier said he anticipated a burst of buying when residents return home and need to replace vehicles destroyed by the storm. He thinks the construction workers pouring into town to work on the city's rebuilding also will be buyers.

But he's going to be cautious.

"I don't want to be back with 150 employees and 700 cars in stock if half of the city isn't coming back," Soullier said.

About a week ago, Banner was able to finally deliver nine cars ordered before Katrina. For a dealership that sells 1,800 to 2,000 new cars a year, it was a drop in the bucket. But Soullier was excited.

"I saw that transport of new cars coming off the bridge and it felt like Christmas because it was the first normal thing I'd done in weeks," he said.

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