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Outbreak will hit buy-sell market

On his first day back from a precautionary 14-day quarantine March 24, Michael Cuene was at a closing to buy a General Motors dealership.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak being atop his mind, Cuene and his brother David — third-generation auto dealers — nevertheless signed the papers to buy a Chevrolet-Buick-GMC-Cadillac store in Manitowoc, Wis., from longtime owner Bob Pietroske.

"We had no hesitations about closing during the pandemic because it was good fit for both of our families to move forward," Michael Cuene, co-owner of Broadway Automotive, told Automotive News.

That same day last week, however, the Cuenes voluntarily closed two Green Bay dealerships and a Hertz rental-car outlet for two weeks to protect hundreds of employees and their families from the coronavirus. Also Saturday, March 28,they closed Broadway Automotive-Manitowoc just four days after taking over the store.

The coronavirus outbreak is expected to chill 2020's buy-sell market, perhaps cutting deals in half from a strong 2019, according to one buy-sell expert.

"For deals that are underway, we're finding that buyers and sellers are still trying to move forward knowing that the closing might be delayed," said Erin Kerrigan, managing director of Kerrigan Advisors, a sell-side company in Irvine, Calif., which reported 233 transactions last year in its Blue Sky Report. "We haven't seen transactions per se fall apart because of the virus."

Several buy-sell experts said deals already far along likely will happen but are delayed because items such as approvals from manufacturers and banks aren't happening now amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have about a dozen deals nationally on hold right now," said Dave Cantin, CEO of buy-sell company Dave Cantin Group, adding that none of his clients have canceled buy-sell agreements.

The biggest deals are most at risk in this uncertain environment, said Mark Johnson, president of buy-sell advisory firm MD Johnson Inc. in Enumclaw, Wash.

Last week, Asbury Automotive Group announced it had terminated its $1 billion purchase of most Park Place Dealerships luxury stores in the Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, markets. The announcement came just days before the deal — expected to be among the largest buy-sells in a decade — had been scheduled to close.

"I think it's simply balance sheet risk," said David Whiston, an analyst with Morningstar. "I think they definitely wanted to make the deal, but there's so much uncertainty now around the rate of recovery and how bad the downturn is from the virus."

Asbury, the nation's seventh-largest new-vehicle retailer, said in a regulatory filing it would pay the sellers a $10 million breakup fee. It also said it borrowed $237 million from a revolving credit line and $110 million from a used-vehicle floorplan loan.

Lithia Motors said late Friday it will delay closing dealership acquisitions until the latter half of the year, according to a government filing. Lithia said it is renegotiating a "meaningful number" of acquisitions but it expects no material termination fees or costs associated with postponing the deals.

Interest remains

Even given the economic doubt and drop in new-vehicle sales, there is still interest for dealerships, said Alan Haig, president of Haig Partners, a buy-sell company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"We've been called by some of the largest and best-capitalized dealership groups out there saying, 'Hey we've sort of been waiting for a dip in dealership values. We have a lot of cash and we have the support of the manufacturers. If you know of something really good that comes along, we're a buyer,' " he said.

Haig, whose Haig Report said the number of dealerships bought and sold in 2019 fell 13 percent to 316, said some prospective bidders last week raised offers for a group of stores in the Northeast with which he is working.

Johnson also sees 2020 possibly mirroring what happened during the Great Recession. He expects well-financed buyers will become aggressive. "I think there'll be a lot of activity between now and the end of the year on the buy-sell side just because some people are going to need to sell," Johnson said.Looking ahead

James Taylor, managing director with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, expects an uptick in buy-sell activity before the end of the year. He predicts there will be strong interest from outside capital companies that want to get into the auto retail business by partnering with successful dealership groups.

Kerrigan expects buy-sell transactions will slow greatly in the third and fourth quarters as deals usually take six months or more to close. She expects a pickup of closings in early 2021. Kerrigan added that she is advising her clients who want to sell their stores to wait — if they can. She said most realize it's probably best to wait until the virus crisis has passed and people can focus on acquisitions again.

"The reality is the entire industry is working through the effects of COVID-19 and most dealers do not right now, even if they're in expansion mode, have the time to look at acquisitions and think about acquisitions," she said.

Jackie Charniga contributed to this report.

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