In three consecutive weeks, 117 auto dealerships were bought across 3 transactions, each scooping up more dealerships than the last. The three smaller pure-play public auto dealership companies (Group 1 Automotive, Sonic Automotive and Asbury Auto Group) all made sizable acquisitions in a red hot M&A market coming after Lithia purchased a large private auto group back in April. Surely, executives of these companies have been reading our blog about achieving growth by reinvesting in core operations through M&A.
Group 1 (188 dealerships) is acquiring 30 stores (13.8% of pro forma dealership count) from Prime Automotive Group, which is the smallest acquisition by the largest player in this post, though it still shows a significant trend for the industry. Sonic’s acquisition of 33-store RFJ Auto Partners is sizable compared to its 84 franchised dealerships as of mid-year (28.2% of pro forma) and renders our writeup of Sonic from two weeks ago stale.
Asbury is acquiring 54 new-vehicle dealerships from Larry H. Miller compared to 91 dealership locations at mid-year (37.2% of pro forma) which is a considerable transaction particularly on the back of its Park Place Acquisition of 12 luxury stores just over a year ago.
These transactions highlight a couple of key themes in the marketplace for auto dealerships. First, elevated performance and valuations mean that now may be a good time to sell. Secondly, scale will be increasingly important in the online retailing age, and even the public players are looking to catch up while some of the largest private players are willing to exit.
Group 1 Acquisition of Prime
As reported by Automotive News on September 13, Group 1 agreed to pay $880 million for 30 dealerships, three collision centers and related real estate from Prime Automotive Group, the 18th largest dealer by 2020 new retail volumes. The timeline for execution of the deal was set for 75 days, though this could be delayed by framework agreements, which govern the relationships between automakers and their largest franchised dealers, limiting the number of stores one owner can have of the same brand or in a certain region.
The deal could also be delayed by investors in Prime’s majority owner GPB Capital Holdings, an alternative-asset management firm that has been marred by scandal and lawsuits. These legal issues led those in the industry to expect a sale in 2021 as Prime had received termination notices from a couple of its brands at three of its dealerships.
Prime Automotive Group is based in Westwood Massachusetts with operations in the Mid-Atlantic and New England markets. Its brand portfolio includes Acura, Airstream, Audi, BMW, Buick, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Honda, Jeep, Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, MINI, Porsche, RAM, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Once the acquisition is completed, Group 1’s consolidated brand mix is expected to be approximately 43% luxury, 36% non-luxury import, and 21% non-luxury domestic.
Group 1 executives highlighted cost synergies, diversification of its U.S. footprint, and extending the reach of its online digital retailing process “AcceleRide” as key reasons for the acquisition. While the Company has some international diversification (44 of 188 pre-transaction dealership locations are international in the U.K. or Brazil), this transaction should provide geographic diversification as Group 1’s domestic dealerships are heavily concentrated in Texas. The northeast is also a natural extension for Group 1, which already has 16 locations in the region.
Sonic Acquisition of RFJ Auto Partners
As reported by Automotive News on September 22, Sonic paid $700 million to add an estimated $3.2 billion in annualized revenues with its acquisition of RFJ Auto Partners. The deal is expected to close in December 2021 and management expects “day one” synergies based on its prior relationship with RFJ CEO Rick Ford, a former Sonic executive.
Sonic management also noted the deal furthers their strategy to increase its geographic reach and expand its brand portfolio, diversifying within the auto retailing space which is important as the smallest of the pure-play franchised retailers. Like Group 1, Sonic also touted the benefits the transaction would have with launching its digital omnichannel platform later this year.
RFJ Auto Partners, Inc. was established in 2014 and is based in Plano, Texas. It is one of the largest privately owned auto retail platforms in the United States, with nearly 1,700 employees and a dealership footprint of 33 rooftops located in 7 states throughout the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and Southwest. The RFJ Auto brand portfolio includes Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, RAM, Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, Lexus, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai, Honda, Mazda, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati.
The transaction will add six incremental states (Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and Washington) to Sonic’s geographic coverage and five additional brands to its portfolio, including the highest volume CDJR dealer in the world in Dave Smith Motors.
The deal was touted as an acquisition of a top-15 dealer group. Reviewing the annual Auto News publication, RFJ came in as the 42nd largest dealership by new vehicles retailed. However, it is the 14th largest by revenues, meaning its portfolio has a heavier tilt towards luxury than those ranked above it. Also notable is that RFJ acquired 13 of its 38 dealerships in March 2020. While RFJ may or may not have benefitted from a price concession due to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the deal occurred well before the recent run-up in valuations.
RFJ is currently owned by The Jordan Company, a middle-market PE firm headquartered in New York who classified the investment as an automotive dealership platform. While deal terms were not disclosed, it is likely the seller opted to monetize while valuations are relatively high. Private equity is typically viewed to not be a permanent source of capital with a typical investment horizon of 5-7 years. RFJ was founded in 2014, meaning its sale in 2021 was at the longer end of that range. The sale was likely aided by the market conditions for auto dealerships coming out of the pandemic.
While other public players, namely Lithia, have sought to expand through numerous smaller acquisitions, Sonic opted to take a larger bite at the apple acquiring a dealership group that will contribute about 28% of Sonic’s post-acquisition stores. In valuation, a size premium is usually added to the cost of capital for smaller operations, meaning a premium is likely paid for larger dealership groups. However, this eases the efforts of integrating into Sonic’s established platform and also reduces excessive costs associated with doing due diligence across numerous deals.
Asbury Acquisition of Larry H. Miller Dealerships
Not to be outdone, Asbury announced its acquisition of Larry H. Miller Dealerships a week later paying $3.2 billion for annualized revenues of $5.7 billion. Larry H. Miller Dealerships ranked 8th in both revenues and new vehicles retailed in 2020, the second largest private dealership behind Hendrick Automotive Group. This is a significant statement made by Asbury, likely to make it the fourth largest new auto retailer behind only Lithia, AutoNation, and Penske.
This “transformative” acquisition follows another transformative transaction all the way back in 2020 when it acquired Park Place, a deal that was downsized from its original announcement due to complications brought on by the uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The deal is expected to close prior to the end of the year. Like Group 1, manufacturer approval is not anticipated to be a material concern though Asbury CEO David Hult did note one unidentified brand might pose an issue.
Hult noted the acquisition will help the Company “rapidly expand [its] presence into these desirable, high-growth Western markets with strong accretion from day-one.” He continued to note how the geographic footprint will be complemented by “Clicklane,” its omnichannel platform.
This transaction will diversify Asbury’s geographic mix, with entry into six Western states: Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, California, and Washington, and adds to its growing Colorado footprint. Larry H. Miller Dealerships portfolio mix is largely domestic brands, contrasting the Park Place Acquisition that was primarily luxury offerings.
Going from 91 to 145 dealerships is a significant step up in size for Asbury. According to Automotive News, this acquisition may make Asbury too large for a takeover attempt by Lithia, who has been the most aggressive acquiror in the automotive retail space. While Asbury would have been complementary geographically to Lithia, the Miller locations would now create more overlap, complicating a deal.
Trends for Private Auto Dealerships
These significant acquisitions show a clear appetite from the larger players to grow their operations. Current operating trends also provide some helpful perspective. Inventory shortages and potential for structural changes to inventory levels are likely to make sourcing vehicles increasingly important for auto dealerships.
Dealers operating in multiple geographic areas are likely to benefit from sourcing vehicles from numerous places that can be reconditioned and sold where demand is highest. Vehicles can also be moved around to areas where demand is highest in order to maximize GPUs. From a valuation perspective, brand and geographic diversity also reduce risk for dealers looking to go all-in on automotive retail. While diversification is beneficial from a risk perspective, it’s also likely required from a practical standpoint due to framework agreements.
Used-only retailers may have better name recognition among consumers than some of these public players because many acquired dealerships continue to operate under the name of the prevailing business. However, increasing scale and building out online platforms will help, and these dealers have the built-in advantage of also having the ability to sell new vehicles, which the Carvanas of the world cannot.
For private dealers, it appears there is and will be a market for bolt-on acquisitions, though public players may be more likely to act on larger groups first if these transactions are any indications. Still, Group 1 acquired two dealerships in Texas on Monday, so it seems they are willing to listen to all sizes of deals. According to Erin Kerrigan of Kerrigan Advisors, these three transactions are “indicative of an accelerating pace of industry consolidation with the top 50 dealership groups that are private now looking, in many cases, to exit.” While the Asbury-Larry H. Miller deal may appear to be capping this trend with four mega-deals, Kerrigan indicates it may be “a harbinger for the future”.
Larger private dealerships exiting the business is something to keep an eye on. Transactions occur on a case-by-case basis, as illustrated by the turmoil surrounding Prime. However, a trend is clear with four of the largest privately held auto groups selling in 2021. Dealers will want to continue their dialogues with their OEMs for the future of automotive retailing and how they can best compete as the industry consolidates.
As we’ve noted before, these transactions indicate that there are fewer owners now than in the past, but the number of dealerships hasn’t moved significantly, meaning even smaller players will continue to have a foothold and serve their local communities.
Mercer Capital provides business valuation and financial advisory services, and our auto team focuses on industry trends to stay current on the competitive environment for our auto dealer clients. Contact a member of the Mercer Capital auto dealer team today to learn more about the value of your dealership.