GAVIN Hydes built what was a single struggling BMW dealership into Ireland's biggest car sales network amid the financial crisis.
Today, the CEO of Joe Duffy Group is navigating a new crisis - how to keep selling and servicing cars safely during a pandemic.
The group's 21 dealerships this month are disinfecting steering wheels and gear knobs after each test and service.
They are doing things they've never done before like letting prospective buyers take test drives without a salesman riding shotgun too.
The aim is to keep face-to-face sales possible in a time of 'social distancing'. Nonetheless, these traditional sales have slumped by more than 60pc. At the same time, the business has to be aware the rules are changing quickly and constantly as new Government guidelines come through.
Hydes says the business developed a degree of resilience after coming through the crash. Today, it has new options - like 'digital dealerships' - that mean the business is less dependent on people physically arriving with their cars.
"We have to adapt so that customers communicate with us digitally and remotely. We have to take the car to the customer's armchair," Hydes says at his office off the M50 in Charlestown, north Dublin, where a 5.5-acre campus bought in 2018 hosts Volkswagen, BMW, Mini and Porsche dealerships.
Hydes says Joe Duffy Group developed its online sales tools alongside a new retail channel, ZuCar, and the crisis is putting that online sales investment to its first serious test.
"This is not coronavirus-related. We were doing this anyway," Hydes says.
"It just happens that this is very apt because it's remote selling. We're able to do things that no other retailer can do."
Joe Duffy's ZuCar spin-off - based in Cork with plans to expand to Limerick soon and Dublin eventually - was launched last year as a marketplace for car owners to display their own used vehicles in a fixed-price, haggling-free environment.
Its current stock of more than 1,000 cars can be ordered online on a five-day refund, 30-day exchange basis. The old car can be collected from, and the new car delivered to, the buyer's residence.
But right now, every aspect of business is being disrupted.
Hydes says this month has seen sales fall by at least 60pc for used cars and 70pc for new models. And the factories across Europe that build new cars are also affected.
"Almost as we're speaking, the supply chains for almost all of our brands have been halted," he says, searching online for the latest automotive headlines from an industry site and reading out the news affecting most of his group's 21 brands.
"It's more of a case of figuring out who's open. I think they're all closed in Europe. Germany's been battered by the thing. Italy too," he says.
"Everybody manufacturing new stock is closed. Everything is a problem. So we need to sell what we have. We do have stock on the shelves.
"But do you want green? We can't get you green. Will you take a blue one? You'll wait six months for a green one."
Right now, Hydes says keeping car sales ticking over is more about protecting the incomes of his 510-member workforce than the group's revenues, which last year rose by 8.5pc to €321m.
Speaking ahead of this week's Government commitment to support wage bills as companies across every sector are hit by Covid-19, he says the company's position is to keep as many active roles for staff as possible during the unavoidable downturn in demand.
"I'd be hard as nails commercially," he says. "But I look after our people."
After-service workshops are a critical strength.
"Last year involved a huge investment. I doubled my ramps," he says, noting that even before the crisis hit, about 60pc of group profits came from its garages, not its sales forecourts.
He is confident that no matter how restrictive rules become, the Government will permit at least some Joe Duffy workshops to stay open. Keeping vehicles moving is hugely important, especially those in front-line emergency services and in distribution.
"We do all the Garda Síochána bikes and the HSE vehicles, the guards' cars, the armed response vehicles; we maintain them as well," he says.
"Obviously, I'm commercial, I'm a businessman. But supporting emergency services will help us stay open."
When the dust settles, Hydes expects Covid-19 shockwaves to drive more dealerships to the brink, accelerating consolidation that has seen the number of Irish car sales firms fall from a 2002 peak of 625 to barely half that total today.
When Hydes - a Scotsman from East Kilbride - came to Ireland in 2005 with his Cork-born wife to take the helm of Joe Duffy, he recalled it as "one business in a leasehold premises".
After the 2008 crash, Hydes said the firm became "a business that grew in the bust". "We're built to be the last man standing," he says.
"We built starting in 2009 at the height of the recession. The world was horrendous then - no funding.
"We started to acquire distressed businesses from receivership. We picked up the Jaguar-Land Rover business, then the Volvo-Kia.
"We took on a family business which was financially restructured - our first Volkswagen. We took on a Ford business which went into receivership three weeks before Christmas."
Its €35m investment since 2018 has delivered seven more dealerships.
He says: "We are keen, whenever the market is stabilised, to continue to grow our company - but not during this crisis. It's too uncertain."
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