Jim Bernstein, owner of the Milton Ruben Auto Group on Washington Road, has decided to close the dealership amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most community business owners, Bernstein struggled with the decision to stay business as usual or close.
Bernstein spoke with the Metro Spirit Saturday afternoon about his decision and the thought process behind it.
Jim Bernstein: “I’ve been on the ground here everyday and I’ve watched my people. I’ve stopped watching the news because I feel like there are a lot of people who are not qualified talking about this. I find that to be dangerous. I think they’re spreading disinformation that will lengthen and worsen this epidemic.”
“Last Friday I thought what conventional wisdom was, that it was serious, but it’s like a flu epidemic and it should be treated as such. Then over last weekend I made the decision that it was time to educate myself. I needed to turn the television off and stop listening to stuff.”
“I’m a businessman and the media is a business too, and eventually the whole point of having a television channel is to sell Coca-Cola and Geico Insurance. The more eyeballs they have the better their business is-and the eyeballs come with unique takes and aggression and fear-mongering.”
“I thought, ‘You know better than this.’ I turned off the TV and started reading scientific studies, and I started looking at math models. I tried to educate myself. I started talking to the smartest people I know, and I realized this situation is dire.”
“You can overwhelm the medical community. These people are heroes. They are marching in there everyday and putting themselves at risk and overtaxing their nervous systems. They are stressed and the resources are limited. How can I contribute to that? How can I let hundreds of people in the business every day knowing that I’m incubating this, and multiplying it when all the smart people are saying we’ve got to keep ourselves apart?”
“The point is you just don’t want a lot of people to get it at once because people will die because there won’t be enough medicine, there won’t be enough respirators. That is the issue. So, I decided I have to do my part to contribute. It’s just me. I’m just one guy. I have no illusions of grandeur. I have to do what I can do.”
“Many of our people, I know their spouses. I know their children. I know when they are here struggling with issues with their elderly parents, economic issues, childcare issues. I mean, I know these people. They are behaving valiantly, but we’re not trained for this.”
“I had to come to the very difficult conclusion that regardless of the plans of my trade association and the wishes of my manufacturers, I had responsibilities. First, to keep the people here safe. Our dealerships are pretty big places. They are gathering spots for hundreds of people hanging out here everyday, and I worry that we could be incubating this disease and spreading this disease. Secondly, I feel that I have a bigger obligation to our medical community not to add to their burden. So, I made a decision that I’m going to have to close the doors until there is better information.”
“I will pay my people while they’re out so they don’t suffer economic consequences, but I obviously don’t want them to suffer health consequences.”
Bernstein has 325 employees. He said the weekly payroll will be over six figures.
“A person cannot make decisions based on money in a situation like this. I’m just a car salesman. That’s what I do. That’s what I know. I’m not a virologist. I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a scientist. What I do know is that I’ve watched these people (his employees) and they are so valiant. They’re really trying to wipe everything down and clean everything, but we’re just not trained for this.”
“There’s no way we can do an adequate job of protecting each other and the customers. I know that. We’re kidding ourselves. So, I decided I had to take a more drastic step.”
“As far as the economics of this I feel an obligation to these people-they work hard, they support families, and I don’t want to make this decision and have it impact them because they didn’t ask for it. They were here working. I feel that I have a higher obligation to them and I don’t want them to suffer financially because I made a decision.”
Metro Spirit: How long will you remain closed?
“Until I feel that I can have my people here safely I’m not going to open the doors. I hope that it’s short. I hope that I’m wrong with my estimation of the severity of this thing. And I hope that it is a week or two weeks or three weeks; that it calms down enough, so that I can welcome some or all of our people back to serve the public. But until that time, I do not want to be the person putting them in harm’s way. That does not feel right to me.”
MS: Did you consider closing and filing unemployment claims for your staff?
“There have been a lot of rumors about what the government’s role is going to be in terms of the money. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t wait for a decision to be made. If the government offers support to us in payroll taxes, then great. If they support our people, then great. I feel like I have a higher obligation than that. I can’t wait to see what my government is going to do for me. These people are my colleagues and my responsibility is to them first.”
“These people have families and children. You can see the worry in their faces.”
“I don’t blame them. I feel for them. I know. I own this place. I’m not sitting out on a golf course. I can see their faces. I’m watching them and I don’t like the way that feels.”
MS: Did you consider staying open just for internet sales?
“Most of our business is people walking in here. This is a very physical business. You can imagine buying a car, an average of $35,000 is the average price of a new car. The process takes time. There are financial considerations.”
“Customers sit here and the sales people sit close to them and our managers and finance specialists. We are in a lot of close physical proximity, and it’s just not the right thing right now.”
“I made this decision in a vacuum. I talked to other dealers throughout the week as to what they were doing. Our state automotive association has made their position very clear. I’m not trying to bring anyone around to my point of view. I just have to do what I feel is right to our organization, even though it is going to create a competitive disadvantage.”
“As the rumor spread of my decision two dealers have called me today (Saturday) and I told them the same thing I’m telling you. My thought process behind the decision. I outlined my thinking for them the same as I have for you. I’m not trying to persuade. I’m not castigating anybody else for their position. I’m only trying to make mine.”
“I’m trying to base mine on science and not innuendo and speculation. I’m not trying to persuade anybody. I am not trying to be a martyr or a hero. I think it’s the right thing. Now that said, if my actions persuade others-it helps to slow the curve and it helps people to understand the severity- then I consider that a triumph. But this decision was made in a vacuum.”
“I’ve been here 25 years. This is the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me. It is very lonely being on an island. It’s very surprising that other people think one way and you think another way. It makes you doubt yourself. It’s hard not to doubt yourself when everyone else thinks you are wrong: your partners, your manufacturer partners, your trade association, your competitors. Nobody is doing what you are doing. It makes you feel like you’re a crazy person. But I think that I made the decision based on math and science and my responsibility to the community and my responsibility to these people.”
“I spoke to someone yesterday with the auto dealers association, someone very high up, that I was contemplating this decision, and he was saying things to me like, ‘Well Jim, if someone is coughing you should send them home,’ he was giving me these talking points. And I found that offensive because he is not a scientist,he is not trained, he is an industry executive.”