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Auto sales were up in the Billings area in 2011, following the national trend.

But local dealers said sales in Montana hadn’t dropped as much during the Great Recession as they had nationwide.

Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington said the county continues to send more than $1 million a month to the Department of Revenue in Helena for vehicle registrations.

“In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a year with a decrease in either volume or actual dollars,” he said.

The numbers didn’t fall off when the economy nose-dived between 2007 and 2010, the treasurer said.

“Billings hasn’t experienced the same economy woes as other parts of the country,” said Denny Menholt of Denny Menholt Chevrolet. “We have a more steady economy. We don’t see the big ups and downs.”

Business was booming at his Billings dealership in 2011. In 2010, his company sold 2,700 vehicles. Last year, it turned more than 3,300.

“We had a great year, probably our best year ever,” he said.

But he doesn’t credit an economic turnaround.

“It’s the reward of our people working hard,” Menholt said.

“We’ve really emphasized training our people, advertising and stocking more inventory,” he said. “We’ve seen a big increase in new customers.”

He said staff training has focused on making a vehicle purchase simple and pleasant instead of the ordeal that some buyers anticipate.

Tony Woolery, general manager at Rimrock GMC and Cadillac, said his dealership saw “nice, consistent growth” in 2011. He said sales have been up for the past 18 months.

“People are looking with a little more excitement at the new models,” he said.

One factor that helped the bottom line is the boom in the Bakken oil fields in Eastern Montana and North Dakota, Woolery said. The dealership has had some fleet business as well as oilfield workers coming in on their days off to purchase vehicles.

He said Rimrock Auto Group is working hard on customer service and cultivating repeat customers.

Menholt and Woolery say they expect the momentum to continue into 2012. So does Keith Deschane, general manager of Lithia Toyota. Deschane said he foresees modest growth through the next year.

Toyota had some unique problems in 2011 after a tsunami in Japan temporarily stopped the flow of new vehicles.

“At some points this summer, we had less than 30 new cars on the lot,” he said. “We like to have 150.”

But by November, the lot was restocked and cars were selling fast.

“Consumer confidence is up,” he said. “People are not as shell shocked when they hear bad economic news. If they need a car, they are more confident in buying one.”

December, always the top month for new car sales, exceeded expectations, Deschane said. Sales were up 65 percent over December 2010.

Menholt also reported that December was an exceptional month. His dealership sold 313 vehicles last month, compared with 201 in 2010.

The trend holds true for Bill Underriner, too, the co-owner of Underriner Motors in Billings who in February will become chairman of the National Association of Auto Dealers. In the depths of the recession, his company opened a successful new dealership at 3643 Pierce Parkway in Billings selling Honda, Hyundai, Buick and Volvo models.

“Now that we’re out of the recession, people are finding financing easier to get,” he said. People are also itching to upgrade the cars they’ve held on to through hard times, he said.

“The average car on road today is 11 years old,” Underriner said. “So there’s the fact that cars are wearing out, and a lot of people are looking for more fuel-efficient cars as gas prices go up.”

Tonya House, who with her husband, Wes, owns Ford dealerships in Columbus, Hardin and Red Lodge and a Chevrolet dealership in Big Timber, said business in 2011 was up about 15 percent over 2010.

“We had our best year in 10 years,” she said.

But like Menholt, she doesn’t credit the upswing in the national economy.

“We are not in major markets,” she said. “We don’t have the major peaks and valleys.”

Sales depend more on the local economy than the national picture, she said.

“When farmers have a good year, we tend to do the same,” House said.

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Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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