Dealership didn't come easy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The final touches were added shortly after daybreak, when the people from the balloon store arrived to decorate the showroom and the vehicles out on the lot.

Al Packer Ford in White Marsh opened for business yesterday in one of the fastest-growing areas of the state. The event concluded a four-year process that involved obtaining a franchise from the manufacturer, picking a site, getting permits, selecting an architect and a builder, and training workers.

"It didn't come easy," said Elliott L. Packer, chief executive of Al Packer Enterprises Inc., which operates dealerships in Florida as well as the Baltimore area.

"It's been a long process, and my nerves are just beginning to calm down," Packer said.

The area in which the business is opening "is the fastest-growing section of the county," said Robert L. Hannon, executive director of the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development. In fact, White Marsh is also one of the fastest-growing regions of the state in terms of new business.

Koons Chevrolet recently opened on Philadelphia Road adjacent to a CarMax used-car store.

Hannon listed IKEA, MedStar Health and Williams Scotsman Inc. as companies expanding in the region. Allison Transmission opened its big truck transmission manufacturing plant in White Marsh last year.

Yesterday was what Packer and his general manager, Richard T. Sherry, called their "soft" opening.

"This is when we see what works and what doesn't work and needs fixing," Packer said. "Our grand opening will be sometime in early March."

The doors opened for customers at 9 a.m., but there was still a lot more work to be done. In Packer's office, a painting rested on the floor, leaning against an empty bookcase.

Out in the showroom Gerri Cherry, the receptionist, was still learning to operate the phone system and how to page employees.

Packer already operates two stores on Belair Road, just inside the city, which sell Fords, Lincolns, Mercuries, Jeeps, Isuzus and Volkswagens, but the other Packer dealerships were either started by his father, Al Packer, or acquired as operating businesses.

"This is the first time I've ever opened a new dealership," said Elliott Packer.

He said that 99.9 percent of the process involved getting a franchise from Ford.

Parker said Ford had been pushing him for many years to relocate the Belair Road Ford store from the city to Baltimore County. He resisted. "We have the last Ford store in Baltimore City," he said. "We wanted to stay for the convenience of our customers."

Another franchise became available when Loyola Ford closed. Packer was able to pick up the franchise in 2000 and use it to open a new store at a new location.

Packer next did what people in the industry call a pro forma test. "It determined what I could afford," he said. "It's like working backward. You determine how many cars you can sell, the number of employees you need and then the rent factor. This determined the size of our store."

Then Packer commissioned a market study to determine where there is potential business growth. The new site had to be within a region designated by Ford, and the manufacturer's blessing was required for the final site.

With a business plan in hand, he went to meet with his county councilman, Vincent J. Gardina, the Perry Hall Democrat. "Truthfully, I just knocked on his door, tossed my plan on his deck and asked: 'Do I have your support or not?' I didn't know him from Adam."

"But this is important," Packer stressed. If your council person "is not in favor of something, it will not move forward. It will be like trying to climb a mountain that is too huge.

"Fortunately, Gardina liked the plan, and he was a big help to us during the permit process. He made calls when things seemed to be hung up. He gave us moral support."

Finding a site took months. Packer; his wife, Adrienne; Sherry; and real estate agent Mark Segal climbed into Packer's Ford Explorer and toured the region.

"We saw this site right away," he said, of the location at 9801 Pulaski Highway near Middle River Road, "but it looked like it would be too difficult to develop due to environmental concerns. We kept looking, looking and looking. We hunted for eight or nine months."

But the more they hunted, the more attractive the wooded lot on Pulaski Highway became.

When it was time to design a new building, Packer had each of his top managers meet with the architect.

"They told the architect how their departments worked and how they needed to guide the traffic flow of customers," he said. "We had to make the building so it would work for us and not against us."

Construction started 10 months ago, and contractors were putting finishing touches on the building yesterday morning. H&S; Signs Co. of Linthicum was installing the "service exit only" sign on the building when the first car buyer arrived shortly after 9 o'clock.

The cars began showing up on Thursday, shortly after the service department was stocked with parts. Ford pretty much understands, of course, what parts a dealer will need, but Sherry said the new dealership's parts order was adjusted based on Packer's long experience at its other Ford store.

The license from the state Motor Vehicle Administration also arrived Thursday.

The dealership operates with a staff of about 60, Sherry said. Some of the salespeople had never sold cars before. Ford helped with the training. It transmitted classroom courses developed in Detroit via satellite television to a classroom at the Al Packer Ford store on Belair Road. The new salespeople attended classes six to seven hours a day for two weeks. "They taught them everything from tearing down an engine to how to treat customers," Packer said.

The new sales staff spent more time in the classroom with Sherry and other dealership managers to refine their selling process and learn the Packer approach.

Packer and Sherry were in the showroom Sunday afternoon.

"It was a final check," said Sherry. "Our technical guy was there. He made sure all the computers were hooked up and the printers were working."

Said Packer: "I was just walking around. I couldn't sleep."

If he had it to do all over again, Packer said, "I would rather buy a dealership that was already up and running vs. building one from scratch. It's a lot easier."

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