FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It was an investors' love fest, and the master of ceremonies was south Florida's version of King Midas.
The shareholders came here last month to pay homage to H. Wayne Huizenga, a 59-year-old multibillionaire entrepreneur and sports mogul, and to approve a bit of corporate bookkeeping that clears the way for Huizenga to accomplish what Detroit could not: revolutionize the way cars and trucks are sold in America.
It was a rout--99.8% of the proxies were cast for the plan, a stock transaction in which Huizenga's Republic Industries acquired his fledgling automotive venture, AutoNation USA.
"I wonder who the guy was that voted against it," the balding, craggy-faced Huizenga mused to laughter.
Indeed, who would dare vote against Huizenga's latest and most ambitious venture--a plan to dominate new- and used-car retailing the way McDonald's reigns over fast-food hamburgers.
The building of the empire is well underway. In the last month, Huizenga--who has never sold a car in his life--has become the nation's largest new-car dealer in total sales. More deals are on the way.
And it's not just new cars. He is building a used-car superstore chain under the AutoNation nameplate. He is acquiring National Car Rental Systems for $600 million and has already bought Alamo Rent-a-Car for $625 million. He also wants to give you a car loan and change your oil.
AutoNation's first Southern California store will be in Irvine and company officials say it is expected to open in January 1998. The city has approved zoning for the 20-acre site, which is much larger than the average car lot.
"We are creating one of the world's premier companies," boasts the gravelly voiced Huizenga, who is chairman and co-chief executive of Republic.
It may sound like bragging, but auto industry and Wall Street insiders say that if anyone can pull off such a feat, it's Huizenga, a street-smart deal maker extraordinaire with piercing blue eyes and grandiose visions.
Not everyone is buying the Huizenga hype, however.
The skeptics see Republic as a supercharged house of cards, built on stock speculation and a poor understanding of the cyclical and capital-intensive auto business.
"They're going to go bust," declared Dick Colliver, a senior vice president of Honda.
That's a minority opinion. A college dropout who once drove garbage trucks for a living, Huizenga built nearly from scratch not one but two Fortune 500 companies: Waste Management and Blockbuster Entertainment. He's also a major figure in the world of sports who controls three professional franchises: football's Miami Dolphins, baseball's Florida Marlins and hockey's Florida Panthers.
Republic, a diversified services company, promises to be much bigger than all Huizenga's previous endeavors put together. By 2000, analysts project, Republic could have $20 billion in revenue--more than what Coca-Cola, Intel, Xerox and Arco generate today.
Republic, which is based in Fort Lauderdale, has interests in waste management and home alarm systems. But it is the company's burgeoning auto operations under the AutoNation umbrella that has Wall Street atwitter and Detroit aflutter.
"AutoNation will literally become an automobile empire, revolutionizing the antiquated distribution system in the U.S. auto industry," said auto analyst Tom Galvin at the New York brokerage Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.
Working with lightning speed, Huizenga has already shaken the auto retailing business by gobbling up six of the nation's premier dealership groups and beginning a national roll-out of his used-car concept. Using Wall Street money, management skills of longtime associates and expertise of auto experts such as Toyota distributor Jim Moran, he plans to have 80 to 90 AutoNation superstores and 200 to 250 new-car dealerships in the nation's top 50 markets by early next century.
Already he is the nation's second-largest rental car operator. Soon he will announce the formation of a captive finance company to provide loans and insurance. He also wants to be a major force in auto repair and is seeking to link up with a top-name auto service company such as Pep Boys.
Huizenga's buying and building binge is likely to speed up the continuing consolidation of the nation's 60,000 used-car and 22,000 new-car dealers. Many small to medium-size dealerships could disappear as a result.
"I feel very threatened," said Jon Lancaster, the owner of a medium-size dealership in Madison, Wis., that sells Chevrolets, Toyotas, Nissans and Lexuses.
The driving force of Huizenga's move is twofold.
First, there is money to be made because auto retailing is highly fragmented and inefficient. The overall business generates more than $1 trillion in revenues annually nationwide, so even a small portion of market share represents a huge potential.