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Cliff Cummings keeps putting his stamp on SB Auto Mall

The longtime San Bernardino entrepreneur recently bought his third dealership at the auto mall: Nissan of San Bernardino, to go with Toyota of San Bernardino and Subaru of San Bernardino. Cummings, head of the Cummings Auto Group, spoke with IE Business Daily about the long-planned renovations now underway at the auto mall next to Interstate 215 north of Interstate 10, why COVID-19 hasn’t hurt his business, and why he believes San Bernardino has become a business-friendly city.

Q: Talk about the Nissan purchase, which you announced recently. How long did it take to work out that agreement?

A:  About three or four months. We started talking back in July, maybe a little earlier. Once the talks got going, it came together pretty quickly.

Q: How much did you pay?

A: I can’t say. All I can tell you is that it’s a large property and I was satisfied with the price. It’s a great opportunity.

Q: What happens now? When will you start selling cars there?

A: We already have. My son, Michael, is running it. We took it over on Oct. 26 and we’ve given it a very soft opening since then. Over time it will be a much better dealership with local ownership. I’m not criticizing the previous ownership but being close by we’ll be able to spot problems a lot quicker than an owner who isn’t there every day.

Q: Will you have to do anything to the property?

A: Yes. Nissan now has what it calls the Nissan National Image Requirements, which determines how they want their dealerships to look. We’re going to find out about that and follow those guidelines. The property needs a lot of work, and we expect to spend about $1 million on improvements. But this was an important purchase for us.

Q: In what way?

A: It positions us very well in the market. Subaru is primarily for people who live in the mountains and want all-wheel-drive vehicles. Toyota and Nissan have trucks, SUVs, and passenger cars for everyone. All of that is a good fit for the San Bernardino market.

Q: Michael is 28 years old and a graduate of Arizona St. University. He’s worked at the auto mall in several jobs. Will he take over Cummings Auto Group someday?

A: Well, we’ll see. He has training wheels on now, and we’ll see how that goes. He’s worked here every summer since he was 18 and we’ve had him work in many areas of the dealership to gain insight and experience in different situations. He’s learning the business quickly.

Q: You say you’re considering buying another dealership? Another one at the auto mall?

A: No. The one I’m looking at is out of state. I would consider buying the old Volvo building at the right price because I think it would make a good used car reconditioning center, but we might have to tear down the building. It’s been closed for years.

Q: Do you envision a service center for all of your agencies?

A: No. Every agency needs its own service center because each dealership has its own parts and way of doing things. One service center for all would never work. It would fall apart pretty quickly.

Q: What are you concentrating on now?

A: December. Anyone who knows anything about the automobile business will tell you that it’s one of the most challenging months of the year. Dec. 26 to Dec. 31 makes or breaks the month. Before that, people are Christmas shopping, or they’re traveling, but they’re not out buying cars. So, we have to get ready for that. We’re always under a crunch here.

Q: How has COVID-19 affected your business?

A: Believe it or not, it hasn’t had much of an impact, in fact, we’re hiring. We have more employees at the Subaru dealership now than when this all started. The folks impacted are in the preowned market. However, all the manufacturers have aggressive incentive programs on new vehicles, and that impacts used car sales as well. I was a little concerned when the [pandemic] started, but it never really affected us other than a few sleepless nights.

Q: What do you think happened?

A: I think a lot of people still had some disposable income. The COVID-19 relief money had a lot to do with that because a lot of the time, it was enough for people to make a down payment. But a large segment of the market did have money to spend.

Q: The automobile industry usually takes a hit in a recession, sometimes a major one.  People repair the car they have rather than buy a new one. How concerned were you last spring when it became clear this was a major health crisis?

A: I was a little worried, but not too much. We have a lot in reserve. Enough, I think, to last about two years. For most agencies, that figure is closer to three months. Also, we don’t have a lot of debt, and we have some great people working for us who have been with us for a long time. In some cases, over thirty years with the company.

Q: But how long will that last? Is there a point where COVID-19 has to cut into your business?

A: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Every month I think, ‘maybe this it.’ I told some people at the start of this month that maybe we’re going to see a little bit of a slowdown, but we keep going.

Q: The Toyota building is under construction. Is that going to be the auto mall’s main property?

A: Absolutely. When you build a 96,000-square-foot structure, single-story, right next to the freeway, that is going to be your main property. We expect it to attract people to the auto mall, and right now, getting that done is our main priority. The anticipated opening is April 1, 2021.

Q: Last year, you were talking about bringing a luxury dealership to the auto mall. Are you still pursuing that?

A: That’s on hold.  I don’t think the demographics in this market match a luxury dealership yet. But we’re still looking for one, and as the local economy continues to recover, we’ll keep looking. But that’s not going to happen soon.

Q: You were also touting San Bernardino as a business-friendly city. That’s probably not the popular view, but your position was that city hall had changed and was doing everything it could to help businesses. Do you still feel that way?

A: Yes, I do. The city brought in Rob Field from Riverside County to be the new city manager. He’s very pro-business. I never have any trouble getting a question answered, whether I call the city council or the city manager. I think there’s been a ripple effect through all of City Hall.

Q: Are you thinking about retiring?   

A: No, not at all. Do I want to keep working at this level of intensity, like I’ve been doing? No, absolutely not. But do I want to leave? Equally not. I’m not ready for that. I’m just getting warmed up!

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One comment

  1. We love our owner cliff Cummings. If you are lucky enough to get a job at one of his stores stay put. They treat employees great and you just don’t want to leave. When and if people leave they always call back trying to get hired again.

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