December 1, 2007 in City

Empire Ford closing; 40 to lose jobs

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Empire Ford’s 40 workers learned Friday afternoon the longtime Spokane business was closing for good at 6 p.m.

The only people coming back Monday will be service technicians working on several remaining vehicle repairs, managers told workers. After nearly a year of rumors that Empire Ford might change hands, the company’s owners, Nate and Roberta Greene, announced they will sell the property for retail development.

“This is a sad time, for sure,” said Nate Greene, who with his wife bought the business and ran it for the past 21 years at 423 W. Third. “I’ve run a number of businesses and this is the only one I’ve had to close down.”

Empire Ford was one of the state’s 50 largest minority-owned companies, according to Ben Cabildo, executive director of Ahana, a Spokane business development organization.

The Greenes accepted a consolidation offer from Ford Motor Co., which has been reducing the number of dealerships nationwide. “I turn 64 next year,” Greene said. “I want to have more time to enjoy my family and grandchildren.”

He and his wife plan to remain active on several area and statewide advisory boards and groups.

Without disclosing terms of the Ford consolidation, Greene said he has the option to sell some or all of the 50 vehicles he still has to his local competitors, Gus Johnson Ford and Wendle Motors.

The Greenes discussed taking the Ford buyout for nearly a year. They also talked about selling the property to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market, said Dave Black, the agent with NAI Black who listed the property for sale.

Both nationwide grocers have looked at opening a store in Spokane, but decided not to buy at the time, Black said.

“It’s a rare asset,” Black said about Empire’s two buildings and nearby surface parking lot. Together they cover 1.5 acres.

The Empire Ford property was listed for sale Friday with an asking price of $5.3 million. Black said he received inquiries within hours from interested parties, both regionally and from California.

Gus Johnson, who worked for Greene before starting his own dealership in Spokane Valley in 1999, wished the Greenes luck and said they were exemplary business leaders.

“But this is a challenging market right now. It isn’t easy to run this kind of business,” Johnson said.

Even so, he’s not expecting Empire’s closing to boost his business.

“I don’t think Dick (Wendle) and I will gain a whole lot of new sales. The only thing this will do is help our service groups,” said Johnson.

Johnson said he will consider hiring Empire Ford workers who are the right fit for his company, and his priority is to find good service technicians. Empire has a service unit of about 25 workers.

He said the closing of Empire Ford doesn’t signal a downtown auto-dealership exodus, citing the recent decision by the Spokane Lexus dealership to expand into the abandoned Safeway building on the west edge of downtown. Greene’s service manager, Leasa Freter, said most Empire employees were hoping a buyer would take over the dealership. The closure announcement hit many of her co-workers with a thud, she said.

“We’ve been like a family here. The service group down here gets together for barbecues. It’s been a good place to work,” she said.

She spent part of Friday afternoon on the phone, taking calls from customers who heard the news.

She also contacted several other dealerships, trying to line up jobs for some of her co-workers.

Freter hasn’t decided what to do next. “Whatever happens is meant to be. Things will work out,” she said.

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