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Profile: Bert Boeckmann, owner of Galpin Motors

Boeckmann says he never intended to be the largest Ford dealer. But he found that having well-run service and sales departments led to economies of scale and pushed growth.

July 11, 2010|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

The gig: President and owner of Galpin Motors of North Hills, which includes the largest Ford retailer in the U.S. The Ford dealership was founded in San Fernando in 1946 by Frank Galpin and later purchased by Boeckmann. The company also has franchises selling Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lotus, Mazda, Spyker and Honda vehicles. Galpin Motors, which employs 900 people, recorded $500 million in sales last year.

Early years: Grew up in Glendale, attended Hoover High School and studied business at USC.

The car business: Boeckmann, 79, joined Galpin as a salesman in 1953. He was promoted to general manager of Galpin's short-lived Edsel franchise in 1957. By 1960, he was vice president of Galpin Ford and began a gradual buyout that left him owning the company by 1968. Boeckmann moved the dealership to its current location in 1966. He was an early pioneer of consumer car leases. Among other innovations, Boeckmann is credited with popularizing the sunroof, a European invention, in America. Galpin is famous for its customization work on cars, trucks and vans.

Dog of a car: Selling the Edsel, which Ford shut down in late 1959, remains Boeckmann's greatest sales challenge. "People used to tease us, saying that the grill looked like a toilet seat," Boeckmann said. He said some models had push-button transmission controls on the part of the steering wheel where drivers expected the horn to be. The cars were plagued with engine problems, "making it hard to keep customers satisfied." And the vehicles were not different enough from Ford and Mercury models for Edsel to have a place in the market, he said. Nonetheless, "we were about the only Edsel dealer to make money."

Current ride: Boeckmann likes his full-size Lincoln Town Car, because at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, he wants a big car he can be comfortable in. He also would drive only something he has available for sale. "It never makes sense to me why dealers will drive a car they don't sell," Boeckmann said. "It demonstrates a lack of confidence in your product."

Favorite ride: The 1959 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop. "I always loved convertibles but hated the rattles of the canvas and the bars. This was great. You just pushed the button and the top flipped up and slid into the trunk," he said. Lucille Ball liked the vehicle too, and pitched it in Ford commercials.

Challenges: The recent recession and slump in auto sales have taken their toll on Galpin Motors and other dealers. Sales are off a third from a peak of about $750 million in 2005, Boeckmann said. The slump forced Galpin's only large layoff, about 100 workers in late 2007. The company also trimmed advertising and other expenses, he said, but came through the recession "well" and is starting to rehire workers. Throughout the slump the company held "town meetings" with its workers to inform them of what was happening in the marketplace and to keep them focused on sales, "even though we knew we were selling at a lower level," he said. "We still had to do things right and treat people the way you would want to be treated."

Good to be big: Boeckmann said he never intended to be the largest Ford dealer. His goal was to run the company efficiently to have "good profits." But he found that having well-run service and sales departments led to economies of scale and pushed growth. Size, he said, was a result, rather than a goal, of his effort to run the company smoothly.

Changing auto business: Customers spend far less time at dealerships than in the past. They now get information about potential purchases from the Internet and other sources and they just don't want to spend a lot of time working out the deal. "When I first started, a deal would take five to six hours by the time you drove the car, appraised the trade-in, did the financing and got everything done. The typical transaction now takes two to three hours from beginning to end," Boeckmann said.

Vehicles also are changing, he noted. "I think you will have a lot of electric or combination of gas-electric vehicles for a period of time," he said. "But the ultimate answer will be in a different fuel system, maybe hydrogen or something that we don't even have yet."

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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