COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fred Ricart's 127 salespeople managed to sell a record 24,000 Fords last year partly because of the zany antics of their boss, a self-confessed ham who pitches cars in television commercials by strumming a guitar and crooning lyrics written by his 10-year-old daughter.
Ricart, with $232.6 million in sales last year, says that--minus fleet sales--he is the No. 1 auto dealer, although industry accounts and rankings vary.
He chides competitors who include fleet sales when tallying up their sales figures. Ricart includes only automobiles sold to individual customers for cash.
"Others say they're the biggest, but I don't believe in comparing apples and oranges. We don't include fleet sales, period. No one has ever topped 230 (million dollars in sales)," he said.
Cherub-faced Fred (We're Dealin) Ricart is a local celebrity in the country's 26th-largest auto market, although much of the guitar-toting auto mogul's business comes from out of town.
Many of his 66 television commercials feature Ricart strumming his six-string and singing words penned by his daughter ("This Van Is Your Van, This Van Is My Van," or maybe, "Whole Lotta Dealin' Goin' On!"). He plays 19 instruments and has a recording studio in his home.
Ricart admits that he couldn't carry a tune in the back of a pickup, but "I really am a pretty good guitar player."
People tell him his television pitches are annoying, but Ricart believes that they actually enjoy them, and according to the sales figures, they certainly remember them.
A $30-million inventory, including his nearby Van Land, sprawled out on 77 acres on Columbus' east side makes Ricart Ford look more like a small city than an auto dealership.
"We've made this a big Disneyland complex," said Ricart, 38, who left college to help rescue his father's ailing Ford business 16 years ago. "You don't see someone silly on TV and then come in and see some snub-nosed salesman. We want to make it fun."
Parents can soon shop for a new set of wheels while their children play video games at Ricart's day-care center, now under construction. Customers who are ever-fearful of the auto mechanic can order a videotape of any repair work done on their cars.
"People just don't trust mechanics. You don't know if they do what they say they're doing, so we'll videotape it just to be sure," said Ricart, a former biology student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
The service center is open 24 hours, but if you're still too busy to take in the T-Bird, a $23,000 diagnostic van will pull into your driveway or office parking lot, and a technician, clad in coat and tie, will fix it there.
Ricart admits that his prices aren't the lowest. He says, however, his dealership fixes many cars for free, even when they are no longer under warranty.
Success magazine, which called him the biggest dealer of American autos in the world, said Ricart gave away $380,000 in service not covered by warranty last year.
"People don't really care what they pay for a car. We're more concerned with the human factor," Ricart says.