New Columbus Nissan store to open Monday

Monday morning they will be selling new Nissans in North Columbus, ending a two-year saga that put one car dealer out of business and opened the door for a South Alabama dealer to move into the market.

Headquarter Nissan will open under a huge 50-foot by 60-foot American flag at the corner of Whitesville and Whittlesey roads.

S.E. Columbus Automotive, owned by Daphne, Ala.-based dealer Shawn Esfahani, bought the franchise out of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in April.General Manager Gem Bertone walked through the new store Thursday morning as workers rushed to put the finishing details on a building that has been under construction for more than two years.

“I don’t know how we will be open, but the boss says we will be open on Aug. 2, so we will open,” Bertone said.

It’s just another chapter in the wild ride that has brought the business to the brink of opening.

In the spring of 2008, Columbus Nissan dealer Rob Doll completed a deal that would move his store from Box Road to the new location in a high-traffic area. Columbus-based Phillips Construction Co. began work in July 2008.

By March 2009, Doll’s business was beginning to crumble. Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp. cut off financing for new and used car inventory and stopped the flow of cash to the construction project.

Construction was halted two months later and Doll’s dealership and his real estate holding company both ended up in bankruptcy court. Doll ended up out of business and is now working as the general manager for University Cadillac, Buick, GMC in Tallahassee, Fla.

Two Columbus automobile dealers, Jay Stelzenmuller and Carl Gregory tried unsuccessfully to buy the dealership out of bankruptcy court.Esfahani, who now owns four dealerships in Alabama and Georgia, was Nissan’s preferred buyer.

“Coming in the way we have, the challenge has been to prove ourselves,” said Karen E. Kullinich, the chief financial officer for Esfahani’s dealership group. “We want to bring what we have accomplished at the other stores here.”

Esfahani owns Toyota and Hyundai dealerships in Daphne, a Mobile, Ala., suburb and a Kia store in Metro Atlanta.

“We have made great strides here, and we are not even open yet,” Kullinich said.

The company has hired between 40 and 50 employees. About 10 of those worked with the former Nissan dealership.

Before the employees could be hired, the company had to finish a building that was about 90 percent complete and had been mothballed while the bankruptcy fight took place.

Phillips Construction and some of the subcontractors took large financial losses in the bankruptcy, then submitted bids to complete the project in its condition at the time of Esfahani’s purchase.

This week, the contractor and subcontractors have been finishing punch-list items.

The Columbus builder wasn’t sure he would ever get the project to this point — “There was a time, and it wasn’t very long ago,” said Phillips Construction Co. owner Larry Phillips.

Construction restarted more than two months ago.

“We gave ourself 90 days and it took 63 to get it to substantial completion,” Phillips said.

All of the subcontractors who worked on the building prior to the bankruptcy came in and finished the work. The new ownership paid the cost of completion from the time it purchased the store.

“This job has been a heartache and a blessing at the same time,” Phillips said. “What everybody went through in the bankruptcy — including the former owner — was tough. But the fact is, literally every contractor on the job will survive this, finish this job and be proud of it.”

There were some issues with the construction, including the concrete floors in the service area, but they have all been worked through, Bertone said. The new owners made some substantial changes to the original plans, including new fencing and a road along the backside of the property.Monday’s opening will come without a lot of fanfare. The new dealership will begin an advertising blitz in about week. One of the ways Headquarter plans to draw customers is offering a $14.95 oil change, Bertone said.

“That will be a way for us to orientate the customers to our brand and service department,” Bertone.

Over the last 16 months, there has been limited availability of new Nissans in Columbus. The new store should have about 300 on the lot when the doors open.

“People are loyal to the brand,” Kullinich said. “And that will help us.”