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‘Retail has changed forever,’ AutoNation’s Jackson says

3 min read

The head of the nation’s largest U.S. dealership group says “retail has changed forever” because of the coronavirus and that robust safety processes for AutoNation Inc.’s employees and customers will be necessary.

AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson told shareholders last week that the company has implemented numerous safety measures in its stores from spacing markers for social distancing to hand-washing reminders and bulletins for employees and customers. The auto retailer in recent weeks also implemented a nationwide “store-to-door” vehicle delivery service.

“We’ve taken significant steps already to ensure the safety of our customers and our employees,” Jackson said during AutoNation’s virtual annual meeting. “That includes providing masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, single-use pens, sprays, wipes [and] much-heightened level of cleaning throughout the stores, including all the high-touch areas such as keyboards, telephones [and] guest common areas.”

AutoNation in late March saw its new- and used-vehicle sales fall about 50 percent, leading the company to furlough 7,000 employees — more than a quarter of its staff — as one of several cost-cutting moves.

Stay-at-home orders by governors and municipal leaders have “significantly disrupted business,” Jackson said. All dealerships remain open for service, with some showrooms closed due to local or state orders, he said.

Jackson last week also said he expects to fill in as AutoNation’s CEO for several months while Cheryl Miller is out on medical leave. AutoNation, in an April 13 regulatory filing, said Miller, CEO and president since last July, was granted leave for health reasons and that Jackson, the retailer’s longtime former CEO, would fill in as CEO until Miller, 47, returns. Jackson had stayed with the company as executive chairman after stepping down from the CEO role in 2019.

“Cheryl has requested that the details of her medical condition remain private, and the company is going to respect that,” Jackson, 71, told shareholders during the meeting in which he and Miller were among 10 directors re-elected to one-year board terms.

Last week, AutoNation also gave COO Jim Bender the added position of president, transferring one of the titles that had been held by Miller.

Bender, 64, retains COO duties, and the promotion to president is permanent, Chief Marketing Officer Marc Cannon said.

Cannon said the promotion was “under discussion and in the works” before Miller went on leave.

The move was announced a day before AutoNation’s board voted to return $77 million in loans it received for 83 stores through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. The vote came after the Small Business Administration issued new guidance saying public companies “with substantial market value and access to capital markets” will likely be unable to meet the program’s certification requirements.

Miller has been removed from the list of AutoNation’s top executives on AutoNation’s investor relations website, though she remained listed as a board director. Cannon told Automotive News the removal from the management team listing was done because Miller is on medical leave.

Bender, a 20-year company veteran, was promoted to COO by Miller in July 2019 in her first executive move after being named CEO. Miller, AutoNation’s former CFO, was elevated into the top job after AutoNation parted ways with industry outsider Carl Liebert. Liebert had taken over just months earlier to fill the CEO job that had been held by Jackson.

Jackson said AutoNation will continue to work through business challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The team’s morale is high,” he said. “It’s strong.”

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