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Dealership-transaction pace down for Q3

The pace of dealership buy-sell deals is rebounding going into 2020 after a slow few quarters this year. The public auto retailers have increased acquisition activity, though overall transactions fell in the third quarter compared with a year earlier, according to two reports that track dealership sales.

An estimated 68 U.S. dealerships were purchased during the third quarter, down 36percent from third quarter 2018 when an estimated 106 stores were bought and sold, according to the third-quarter 2019 Haig Report, published by Haig Partners, a buy-sell company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A large part of the year-ago figure included Ken Garff Automotive Group's acquisition of 28 dealerships via a buyout of its former joint venture partner Leucadia.

Through the first nine months of 2019, an estimated 200 stores changed hands, down more than a thirdfrom 317 in the comparable period in 2018, according to the Haig Report.

Despite those declines, Haig Partners President Alan Haig's outlook is bright. A slight rise in dealership profits is driving more transaction activity now vs. when the pace ebbed over concerns on trade and the economy, said Haig, who noted that he expects a pretty active first quarter.

"People feel better about the future of dealerships now," he said.

The Blue Sky Report, published by Kerrigan Advisors, a sell-side company in Irvine, Calif., reported an estimated 58 third-quarter transactions, which could involve multiple stores in each deal. That's down 11 percent from the same period in 2018.

Through the first nine months of 2019, an estimated 161 transactions were completed, down 10 percent from the same period in 2018, according to the Blue Sky Report. For all of 2019, Kerrigan Advisors predicts more than 200 transactions for the sixth straight year.

Both Haig Partners and Kerrigan Advisors use data from the Banks Report, which tracks dealership buy-sell activity, and their own analysis to arrive at their estimates.

Other buy-sell advisers note the market is strong.

Nancy Phillips, president of Nancy Phillips Associates in Exeter, N.H., has seen business pick up. Her company, which sells and values dealerships, typically completes about 10 buy-sell transactions a year. She's done nine deals in the past six months.

"It has been really, really busy, and we are actually looking forward to the next six months," Phillips said, adding she has three pending sales.

With business up, the company added another employee to help with demand. "I'm expecting a pretty high level of activity continuing," Phillips said.

Tim Lamb Group, a dealership brokerage company based in Columbus, Ohio, also has added employees and regional offices in places such as Pittsburgh and Canada. Group President Tim Lamb told Automotive News that his company is working on several deals.

"This is the most activity we've ever seen, and I think it's going to continue," Lamb said. "We're just not seeing it let up."

Haig said the third quarter included an uptick in activity among public dealership groups. Lithia Motors Inc. bought a Jaguar-Land Rover store in California and a Honda store in Pennsylvania. Group 1 Automotive Inc. bought two BMW-Mini stores in New Mexico, and Asbury Automotive Group Inc. bought a Subaru store in Colorado and a Toyota store in Indianapolis.

Still, spending by the public companies fell by about a third through the first three quarters, with the publics as net sellers of dealerships for that period, reports by both Haig and Kerrigan said.

Increased activity by the publics has continued into the fourth quarter, led by Asbury's announcement that it would pay $1 billion to buy 10 luxury dealerships from Park Place Dealerships in Texas. The deal, one of the largest in the past decade, is expected to close in March.

Other deals by public retailers this quarter include Lithia buying three stores in Florida, plus Subaru, Jeep and Dodge-Chrysler-Ram-Fiat stores in West Virginia. And Group 1 purchased two Lexus stores in New Mexico, while Sonic Automotive Inc. sold five stores in Ohio.

Erin Kerrigan, managing director of Kerrigan Advisors, said she suspects more big moves by the publics, especially given their rising stock prices.

"This transaction by Asbury is going to be another trigger point where we will see more buyers leaning in and seeking to grow because they feel more confident," she said.

Both Kerrigan and Haig noted a rise in single-store transactions through the first nine months of 2019.

Kerrigan estimates 20 percent of deals completed in that period were multi-dealership, while Haig estimates 70 percent of stores sold in the third quarter were single dealerships, compared with a typical 45 percent rate.

The Kerrigan and Haig reports both noted a higher mix of domestic-brand transactions so far this year.

And Haig's report said Nissan stores represented 11 percent of dealerships sold through the first nine months, up from 6 percent for the same period in 2018.

While some dealers have given up on Nissan, some Nissan stores generate large profits, according to Haig.

"Perhaps this franchise has reached the bottom and now might be the time to acquire one for far less than even a year or two ago," the Haig Report said.

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