FORT MCMURRAY, ALTA. – On May 2, NorthStar Ford Group had 197 staff working at its operations in Fort McMurray.
On May 3, a single staff member remained.
With the wildfires that ravaged the town destroying roughly 2,400 homes and buildings and forcing over 88,000 from their homes, that kind of devastating impact on businesses there is hardly unique.
What sets the dealership group and its owners Marty and Dennine Giles apart from many of others is how, in the face of major adversity, they turned their efforts to helping others first.
Even after finding out their house had been reduced to ashes, the pair raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for relief efforts, coordinated shipments of goods to affected areas and worked to ensure every last staff member would have the support they needed.
And don’t think this philanthropic turn started with the wildfire. Far from it.
“Dennine and I have been working for the communities for years as the strong values of NorthStar calls for us to support the communities and the people that support us,” he explained.
“My question would be to people who wouldn’t do all this, what the f— is wrong with you? Without your community, as a dealer, you are nothing. That town has paid my kids’ college tuition; it’s built our businesses and helped us take some great holidays and help other people. Now it’s our turn.”
The NorthStar altruism kicked in almost as soon as the state of emergency was declared.
The group has four locations – Calgary, Fort McMurray, Cochrane and Fort McKay. The Calgary store became a Red Cross donation drop off location for the first eight days following the mandatory evacuation order. The team organized nine, 53-foot truckloads of supplies sent to relief camps in the north.
There were also numerous pickup trucks and car haulers sent up bringing everything from socks and underwear to Visine and diapers and food and water.
What likely garnered the most attention was Giles’ donation of the 2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R he had previously ordered as a personal car.
“It didn’t make any sense for me to take the car when everyone else had lost so much,” he says.
He and his wife decided to auction the Shelby and donate the proceeds. Time was of the essence.
“Before the end of May, every dollar a Canadian donated to the Red Cross Fort McMurry Wildfire Appeal would be matched by the federal and provincial governments,” he explained.
After instituting a $5,000 registration fee to weed out fake bidders, the program took off.
More items were added as word got out as the pot grew to include the car, a signed helmet from NFL star Drew Brees, VIP passes for four to a Ford GT race July 8 to 10, a Calgary Flames jersey signed by the entire 2015-2016 team, a die cast metal car signed by Carroll Shelby, a Shelby poster and brake caliper/disc signed by Bill Ford, Edsel Ford, Henry Ford and Elena Ford, a Fort McMurray Firefighters personalized signed helmet, a tour of the Flatrock assembly plant in Michigan, an extra set of keys signed by Henry Ford the III, a Shelby track tour and a $5,000 travel voucher.
Fellow Ford dealers stepped up in a big way including Mike Stollery, president and co-founder of SF Automotive Group, and eventual winner Kevin Hansen, owner of Hansen Ford in Grand Prairie, Alta., and Oranj Fitness in Fort McMurray.
Hansen bought the whole package for $180,000. Three other bidders donated their registration fee bringing the total to $195,000. That total tripled thanks to federal and provincial dollars to $585,000, which all went to the Red Cross.
The $105,300 tax credit Giles will earn next year has already been earmarked with half going to the Fort McMurray Fire Department Association and the other half going to the Wood Buffalo Food bank.
That one effort created almost $700,000 worth of funding.
Down To Business
While the group was lucky to avoid a catastrophic loss of a building, it didn’t escape the fire’s wrath entirely. The location in the Gregoire neighbourhood of Fort McMurray suffered smoke damage to both the building and inventory.
The facility and the administrative building next door were having contaminated insulation and ceiling tiles replaced as of late June. The most grueling work centered on the inventory.
At the time of the evacuation order, the company had 230 new, 110 used vehicles on site. Every vehicle suffered some degree of smoke damage.
“Some you would open up and it would smell like a campfire; others seemed fine until they were driven and the engine would heat up; all of a sudden the smell would start to come through,” he said.
To clean the inventory, Giles and the team turned to special deodorizing equipment, custom chemicals and the heavy-duty wash tunnel constructed to take oil sands mud and grime off site trucks.
The entire method is captured and explained in one of Giles custom videos under the #YMMSMOKEREHAB tab on the company’s website. Narrated by Giles himself, the 7 1/2 minute video details the elaborate and thorough cleaning process each vehicle has to undergo.
First up is a chemical mist intended for the rubber moldings, tonneau covers, etc. Next is a high-velocity exterior water spray to the body and undercarriage.
Cabin and air filters are replaced before the ozone process begins.
With smaller ozone generators taking up to six hours to remove the odour from cabins, NorthStar bought eight ozone generators traditionally used in hotels to speed up the process. The unit is plugged in, the vehicle fan is turned on high and the interior is odour free in about two hours.
“These things are so powerful that on some of the new vehicles, it took out the new car smell,” Giles explained. “It came back after a couple of days, but they are very powerful.”
The final stage is an arduous detail process that sees staff wipe down the entire engine compartment, shampoo the carpets, wipe down the interior and even blast deodorizing spray into the vents to ensure all the smoke residue is gone.
NorthStar’s cleaning system is so thorough it has garnered attention from insurance companies looking to get damaged vehicles cleaned; Giles has even started retailing the service to customers with prices ranging form $29.95 for an exterior wash all the way up to $579.95 for the platinum smoke removal package.
While the cleaning business is shaping up as a tidy profit centre for the group, it is sales that continue to lag in the early days post fire.
Giles said despite floor traffic slowly picking up as the weeks go on, volume remains down for obvious reasons. The end of the boil water advisory in mid-June brought more people back as will the end of the school year as evacuees who scrambled to get their school-age kids enrolled elsewhere during the mandatory evacuation return for the summer.
Should NorthStar and the other Fort McMurray dealerships expect a major run on business?
“I don’t think so,” Giles answered. He noted that despite the lack of an official count of the number of cars lost in the flames, the majority of people who knew their vehicle was destroyed likely replaced them as soon as possible.
His most pressing business issues remain getting all his staff back to work and dealing with the likely insurance hurdles to come around business interruption.
Giles says that because he didn’t have a facility destroyed in the blaze, traditional business interruption service will not cover the losses suffered on the sales side.
“Typically, you wouldn’t insure your sales department because you can always sell cars out of trailers and find a place for inventory. But this situation where you’re not allowed to go back and sell cars and where your customers are not allowed to come back and buy them has never really been done.”