Dealers convening in Las Vegas this week (Feb. 1-4) for the 2024 NADA Show have a good problem to have: they’re sitting on a mountain of cash after three years of the best profits they’ve ever had, according to Erin Kerrigan, founder and managing director of Kerrigan Advisors, Irvine, CA.
“The industry has an overabundance of cash,” Kerrigan says during a webinar by American International Automobile Dealers Assn., based in Alexandria, VA. A lot of that money is going to be plowed into buying more dealerships, she says.
High interest rates would normally deter a high level of buy-sells, but the average dealership has so much cash, they don’t have to borrow as much to make acquisitions, Kerrigan says.
In the meantime, acquisitions by the public groups tend to increase when their share prices are high, since they often use stock to purchase dealerships, she says. The publicly traded groups collectively outperformed the S&P 500 in 2023, Kerrigan says.
With so much purchasing power in hand, the latest trend in dealership buy-sells is for big dealership groups to seek out and acquire other big dealership groups, a practice Kerrigan calls “elephant hunting.”
Especially if they’re entering what’s a new market for them, she says big dealer groups such as the six big, publicly traded groups, and other, sizable, privately owned groups, want instant “critical mass” in a market.
On the sidelines at the NADA Show, Kerrigan is scheduled to moderate a Feb. 1 panel called, “Get Big Or Go Home – Or Not?” at the J.D. Power Auto Summit at Resorts World.
The panelists are Rita Case, president and CEO of Rick Case Automotive Group, Sunrise, FL.; Howard Tenenbaum, partner, at Keyes Motors Inc., Los Angeles; and Damian Mills, CEO and owner, Mills Automotive Group, Columbia, SC. Mills is also chairman of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers.
Meanwhile, Auto Team America is hosting what it calls a Dealer/CEO/CFO Forum and Buy-Sell Summit, at the ARIA Resort & Casino, also on Feb. 1. Auto Team America is a network of eleven CPA firms that serve over 2,000 auto dealerships nationwide.
The event’s moderators and sponsors include dealership buy-sell brokers Alan Haig, president of Haig Partners, Fort Lauderdale, FL, and George Karolis, president of the Presidio Group, Duluth, GA.
Haig is moderating a keynote speech by Daryl Kenningham, CEO of Houston-based Group 1 Automotive. Karolis is moderating a Q&A with Damian Mills.
In separate interviews, Kerrigan, Haig and Karolis all predict an active dealership buy-sell market in 2024 – still down from the record number of transactions in 2021, but more active than before the pandemic.
For the full year of 2023, Haig Partners expects total buy-sell volume of an estimated 500 dealerships. That’s down an estimated 29% vs. the all-time record of 707 in 2021, and down 21% vs. 634 in 2022.
Haig Partners estimates the average, publicly owned dealership made a profit of $5.4 million in the 12 months ended Sept. 30. That’s down 17% vs. year-end 2022, but it’s still 2½ times higher than pre-pandemic levels.
In a December interview, Karolis told WardsAuto full-year 2023 is almost certainly going to be one of the top five years ever in terms of buy-sell volume.
As dealership profitability declines from the peak but remains high, the brokers all say it’s harder than ever to get sellers and buyers to agree on price. Sellers point to record results in the recent past, and buyers point to the downward trend in the years to come.
“There’s an imbalance in terms of expectations,” Karolis says. “A lot of sellers want last year’s money…but they’re going to get this year’s money. If they don’t evolve their thinking, they’re going to get next year’s money.”