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February 2011, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Justina Ly

RBM North opened in late 2007, about the time the recession was taking hold. The Mercedes-Benz and Sprinter dealership is housed on an eight-acre lot.

In between cow pastures, unoccupied storefronts and an empty parking lot in Alpharetta, Ga., sits RBM of Atlanta-North, a navy blue, glass-and-steel Mercedes-Benz and Sprinter dealership. The store covers eight acres in this less-than-ideal location, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the highest rated and most reviewed luxury-brand dealerships in metro Atlanta.

Type in the phrase “Atlanta and Mercedes-Benz” on Google.com and a listing for RBM of Atlanta-North will appear along with 235 five-star ratings and reviews for the dealership. There are other Mercedes-Benz dealerships in the area with online reviews, but none are as prolific as RBM North.

The dealership’s accomplishments on the Internet are impressive considering the hurdles it faced when it opened its doors in late 2007, about the time the recession was taking hold. In addition to the economic downturn, RBM North faced an undeveloped market and stiff competition from more than a dozen high-line stores. 

“It became the most challenging thing — from a business perspective — that I’ve ever faced,” recalls Randy Powell, RBM North’s general manager.

Timing is Everything

RBM North’s location wasn’t initially a cause for concern, which is why Mercedes-Benz targeted the location in the first place. “This area, because of the growth, affluence and school systems, represented an ideal spot for a new dealership,” Powell says.

The dealership, which is 22 miles north of Atlanta, primarily serves customers in Forsyth, Cherokee, Cobb and North Fulton counties, areas that began to flourish after the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In fact, in 2010, Forbes magazine named Forsyth County, which has a median household income of $86,938, as the 20th richest county in the United States. Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau named Forsyth and neighboring Cherokee County as the nation’s sixth- and 29th-largest growing counties, respectively.

The area is also home to the corporate headquarters of several major corporations, including The Coca-Cola Company, The Home Depot and Delta Air Lines. According to Powell, many top executives, business professionals and their families have moved outside city limits, creating a potential market for luxury dealerships in the suburbs.

In 2006, Mercedes-Benz approached RBM North’s dealer principal, John Ellis, and offered him the opportunity to open a brand-new store in Alpharetta. Ellis, who also owns RBM’s sister store, RBM of Atlanta in Sandy Springs, agreed. He then selected Powell to oversee the dealership’s construction and hiring.

Powell staffed the dealership’s sales, service and F&I departments with more than 50 employees. In March 2008, a mere six months after the dealership opened, Powell began to realize that the economy was taking a turn for the worse. Residential and commercial construction came to a screeching halt and unemployment started to rise, but Powell kept his foot on the gas pedal.

“I was determined to get through this without laying any employees off,” said the 30-year industry veteran. “So many of the dealerships around here, and I’m not being judgmental in any way, had little choice but to do that. But I was determined to find a way to continue growing the operation to support the people we had made these commitments to.”

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