PHILADELPHIA — Every 5 1/2 minutes of every business day a car is sold in one of 23 Potamkin showrooms in five states, and about once an hour somebody buys a truck.
"That's why we are the world's largest car dealer," said Robert Potamkin, 38, who gave up the law to oversee a motor empire started in Philadelphia by his father in 1954.
From a single Chevrolet showroom, the operation has grown to dealerships handling Cadillac, Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Lincoln, Mercury, AMC, Jeep, Renault, Suburu, Toyota, Isuzu, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi.
Gave Up Peddling
Victor Potamkin, now 73 and still selling, gave up peddling fish and chicken parts on Philadelphia sidewalks to open a Ford-Lincoln-Mercury agency in 1949. He had a fallout with Ford, and closed it. A few years, he returned to the business with General Motors to spawn the present business.
Potamkin Motor Co.--catering predominantly to the working, professional middle class--rang up $614.1 million in revenues last year at its showrooms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Georgia and Florida. That came from sales of 52,841 cars and trucks, 70% of them new, and from parts and service.
In addition, Potamkin leases about 7,000 cars a year and it sells mobile telephones.
"Nobody comes close to those kind of total sales," Potamkin said outside his mushrooming headquarters in northeast Philadelphia, an 11-acre facility soon to double in size--and nobody has ever disputed his claim.
He spoke standing in front of a string of brightly colored signs that advertised a half-dozen different car brands and a new cellular mobile-telephone business that is the start of what could be further diversification.
"Being the biggest wasn't a particular objective," said Potamkin, who puts his boyish good looks to use by starring in the company's television commercials.
Key to Success
"All we were interested in, as we grew, was to be successful and beat our competitors, and to do that you have to be aggressive, make sure the public knows what you got, and sell a lot of cars. Which we do by high volume, low prices, good service and by not putting all our eggs in one basket. That's our game plan."
"The key to our success is not only that I have a smart father and a smart brother but that we have very smart people in our organization who have a piece of this business. We have partners in every city, and everybody works very hard."
Robert and his brother, Alan, 36, joined their father's business in 1971, when it had three Chevrolet agencies--the one in South Philadelphia, since moved to its present location, and those in Newark, N.J., and Miami Beach, Fla.
The next year the elder Potamkin left town to operate a Cadillac showroom in New York City that was losing $2 million annually. Today--with an additional franchise in Manhattan and another added in Atlanta in 1980--Potamkin claims to be the world's largest Cadillac dealer, selling more than 10,000 of those cars annually.
Alan Potamkin, who like his brother is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, concentrates on operations in the south, but also assists his father in New York.
It was the elder Potamkin who used his friendship with Chrysler's Lee Iacocca to add a Dodge agency in the Miami area in 1979--the first break with GM exclusivity.
"It was a vote of confidence in a company that was near bankruptcy, and we are proud to have been a part of Chrysler's return," Potamkin said.
Showrooms Sprang Up
In the past four years, the Potamkins' one Philadelphia franchise grew to seven in the area, and additional showrooms sprang up in Atlanta and Hialeah and Cutler Ridge, Fla.
Potamkin's spectacular growth in the 1980s occurred at a time when America's auto industry was in a deep depression from the economic slowdown and the inroads of Japanese and European imports.
Potamkin was able to open new dealerships with little up-front cash and has been racking up bigger profits since the auto selling turnaround began two years ago.
"American cars have definitely gotten better in quality," Robert Potamkin said. "They had to, if they were to survive, and the public has more confidence in them, which is why there is a swing back to American.
"It's a completely different game today than when there were just three big manufacturers in the U.S. and little competition from abroad," he added. "Now there's 15 or 20 manufacturers and so many of the cars look alike you can't be sure who's going to be around three or four years from now. That's why we decided to put our eggs in lots of baskets."
In Philadelphia and its suburbs, Potamkin sells Chevrolets, Toyotas, Volkswagens, Chryslers, Plymouths, Dodges, Isuzus, Mitsubishis, Dodges, Jeeps, Renaults and AMC models.
To Add Ford
In Atlanta, it has Cadillac, Suburu, Chrysler and Plymouth and will add a Ford showroom later this year. Its New York operation has Cadillac and Toyota; North Plainfield, N.J. (which succeeded Newark) has Chevrolet and Mitsubishi, and in Florida all but new Cadillacs are in Potamkin showrooms.
"We offer a variety of models at each location, and in a business as uncertain as ours, we feel we are in a better position to offer the customer the best deal," said Potamkin, who likes to talk about how his father sold a bulletproof Cadillac a few years ago to the Soviet Union for its president.
There is also a Potamkin Chevy truck bouncing on the roads of Morrocco, customized for King Hassan II with a special perch for his hunting falcons.
"We just give the best deal," Potamkin said.