The best of the best tell how they do it

Longo, Ricart and GalpinLongo, Ricart and Galpin Hmmmm Okay folks, this is getting familiar. Going back to 1991 except for a couple of years when Longo Toyota chose not to participate these same three dealerships have reigned atop the annual Ward's 500 ranking. And it doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon. You can also add to the top mix Fletcher Jones Motor Cars, fourth or fifth the

Longo, Ricart and Galpin…Longo, Ricart and Galpin… Hmmmm… Okay folks, this is getting familiar. Going back to 1991 — except for a couple of years when Longo Toyota chose not to participate — these same three dealerships have reigned atop the annual Ward's 500 ranking. And it doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon.

You can also add to the top mix Fletcher Jones Motor Cars, fourth or fifth the last several years, JM Lexus, Prestige Ford and Landmark Chevrolet — all in the top 10, year after year.

These are competitive dealers who want to be number one. But the dealers not ranked number one seem resigned to the fact that Greg Penske's Longo Toyota store will be difficult to catch.

The El Monte, CA store pulled away from its competition in 2001 like a racecar driven by two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves (driving a Penske car), generating over $100 million more in revenue than the second ranked Ricart dealership.

Longo Toyota finished with $536.8 million in total revenue — up from $487.1 million in 2000. Greg Penske, however, refuses to lay claim to being the “best” dealer in the country.

“We may sell a lot of cars and we do a lot of things right but I wouldn't say we're the best,” says the son of businessman extraordinaire Roger Penske. “A lot of great dealer operators are out there, and we look at those stores, and are constantly learning from them.”

Still, its hard to argue against Longo being the best — it has been in the top five (except for the two years it didn't report) since the ranking first began in 1987. “Several things come into play,” Penske explains. “We have a great manufacturer — that's the start. They give us a great product to sell. It's also about having great people and processes.”

Penske wants to change the negative perception of the car dealer. “Buying a car is not a fun process — most people come into the store expecting to be taken advantage of. We really strive to create an environment where our guests can relax.”

He's looking to acquire more stores.

“I'm young enough that I want to continue growing,” he says. “Until we sell to all 1.7 million potential buyers in the Los Angeles market, we have room to grow.” He adds, “Size is fine — but I want to make sure we run the best operation possible.”

As a result of Longo's success, dealers ranked behind it realize they are jockeying for the second spot. Garth Blumenthal, the general manager for the Irvine, CA-based Fletcher Jones Mercedes dealership, had hoped his store would overtake Galpin Ford and Ricart, because of the problems Ford Motor Co. had in 2001. Instead, both Ricart and Galpin maintained their second and third spots despite drops in overall revenue.

Blumenthal makes no secret that he's gunning for those stores ranked above his.

“I don't like being fourth,” he says. “We should be at least in second place. It keeps me focused and gives us something to shoot for.”

Fletcher Jones had an incredible 2001, selling 1,300 more vehicles than in 2000 and increasing its total revenue from $329.5 million to $403.1 million making it one of the biggest year-over-year gains in the history of the Ward's 500.

Yet the Mercedes store stays in fourth place — showing just how strong those top three players are.

The second ranked Ricart Automotive, although known for being a Ford store, sells 10 different brands at its Columbus, OH complex. Its new car sales total of 11,414 units includes all 10 brands. Galpin Ford, ranked third again on the Ward's list, is the top selling Ford dealer in the country.

The Ricart store has maintained its hold on second place despite seeing its total revenue decrease from an all time high of $469.2 million in 1999 to $425.8 million in 2001. The main reason for the decrease has been the recent problems of the Ford brand. But the owners, brothers Fred and Rhett Ricart, show the ability to adapt.

“We treat this place like a laboratory,” explains Rhett Ricart. “We call it ‘controlled experimentation.’ We measure and track everything — you need to have a standard by which you measure success.”

By adding growing brands like Hyundai and Kia and focusing on the used car part of the business, Ricart has minimized the damage.

“Ford took it on the chin last year,” says Ricart. “But they'll be back. The relationship with their dealers is sort of like the relationship you have when you cheat on your wife. You can't win her back in one fell swoop. You've got to treat her right and win her confidence before she'll let you to hang with the boys again.”

The Ricart brothers aren't content with their present success, though. “We compete to dominate,” says Rhett. “We are always pushing, continually growing and looking to add more dealerships.”

Ricart says he doesn't compare his store to the others on the Ward's 500. “I only compare our store to others in our market area which is central Ohio. That's where we compete. It's impossible to compare nationally — we have different brands to sell, different challenges and different customers.”

CA-based Galpin Ford has been the number one Ford store now for 10 straight years. In 2001, it generated $404.9 million in total revenue — well enough for third on the Ward's 500. Its owner, H.F. “Bert” Boeckmann II, was named Ward's Dealer Business inaugural Dealer of the Year in 2001. The entire Galpin Automotive Group generated over $665 million in 2001.

But it wasn't an easy year admits Boeckmann. “It was a tougher year for the Ford store,” he says. “Selling cars was the toughest part.” Revenue from new car sales dropped about $7 million for Galpin Ford. The store offset most of that with increased revenue in other areas — finance and insurance, service and parts. As a result, total revenue decreased only by $3 million.

“It was still an excellent year overall,” says Boeckmann. “Our CSI skyrocketed — running in the top 10%. And I was thrilled to see our service performance last year. Our employees did a fantastic job.” As for sharing how his store is so strong with its CSI, Boeckmann isn't willing to divulge any secrets.

Ford's quality problems frustrated Boeckmann.

He explains, “I hate having to handle quality issues because it means people aren't focusing on where they should — like servicing the customer and selling cars. But the company is headed in the right direction.”

Boeckmann is looking to grow the Galpin enterprise this year. He is building a three-story Lincoln Mercury store across the street from the Ford dealership. And this summer he will be adding the Aston Martin brand and Volvo brand.

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