Case talks with employees in the service drive. She once worked as a parts-and-service director after joining her late husband's motorcycle dealership.  -  IMAGE: Rick Case Automotive Group

Case talks with employees in the service drive. She once worked as a parts-and-service director after joining her late husband's motorcycle dealership.

IMAGE: Rick Case Automotive Group

Every year for over 45 years, Rick Case Automotive Group CEO Rita Case has strolled the storied halls of the National Automobile Dealers Association convention and gazed at the TIME Dealer of the Year nominees’ pictures.

Each time she did, she vowed, “Someday I’m going to be among those nominated.”

This year, her picture was among those lining the halls. But the leader of the highly profitable automotive group says never dreamed she’d be honored as the dealer of the year, beyond simply being nominated. And yet, she received the esteemed honor at the 107th NADA Show in February.

“I still can’t believe it,” says the owner of the largest U.S. dealer group owned and operated by a woman. “It was an amazing moment and something I have aspired to throughout my career. I have worked my whole life to be recognized and respected as a female car dealer.”

Born in the Auto Industry

Case says she didn’t enter the auto industry but was born into it.

Her father, an auto mechanic, and mother opened one of the country’s first Honda motorcycle dealerships in 1959 in Santa Rosa, Cal., and in 1968 were awarded the first Honda automotive franchise in the U.S.

Case, who had worked at the dealership since she was 10, started driving a yellow 1969 N600 Honda to school when they were finally launched in 1970 and began selling them to her friends. The boxy cars boasted a sale price of $1,295, impressive gas mileage, and exceptional drivability.

Wanting to stay close to home, she sought a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California, Davis. “It was the closest degree to learn to run a business that UC Davis offered,” she says.

When she graduated, she informed her parents she wanted to run their dealership. She had two brothers and a sister, but none of them were interested in taking over the family business at the time.

“I told my dad, ‘I want to run the dealership. I’ve earned it, I can do it. I’ve been working here since I was 10 in every job, and I want the shot.’” If he refused, she informed him she’d work at the Volkswagen dealership across the street and wait till they were ready for her to run Honda of Santa Rosa.  

“I said, ‘I need to stop being the dealer’s daughter and prove a woman can be a dealer,’” she recalls.

Her persistence paid off, and her father promoted her to general manager, where she quickly started trailblazing in the industry. Her first achievement was convincing NADA to launch the first 20 Group for Honda dealers.

This is where she crossed paths with Rick Case, who eventually became her husband. He’d joined that first 20 Group as a Honda motorcycle and car dealer like her. 

Case says she soaked up knowledge from every resource she could find, be it other automotive dealers, NADA seminars or conferences. “I knew that if I wasn’t the most knowledgeable in the room, I’d fail,” she says. “At the time, there wasn’t an in-between for women in the car business.”

When the young couple married in 1980, she moved to Ohio, where her new husband held the mantle of the largest-volume motorcycle dealer in the world, Case said. She shifted from operating the family business to being an employee at his dealership.

“I had to prove my worth all over again,” she says.

She assured the men working for her husband that she had no intention of taking their jobs or offering advice. On the contrary, she would take on the task no one else wanted to do: parts and service director.

She had held that role at her parents' dealership throughout the years. Now back in that work, she wanted to be the best. So she met with other parts-and-service professionals, attended NADA seminars on the sector, and jumped into Rick’s fixed operations with confidence.

She helped Honda launch the Honda MAP program for parts professionals and helped author its inaugural manual on parts-and-service management. “I overcame being known as just the dealer's wife and started getting respect, taking (on) the CFO, as well,” she says.

Building a Car Business

Despite their successful motorcycle business, the couple sold several Honda cars and aimed to expand beyond the Honda brand into more auto retail by acquiring franchises that had never been sold in the U.S.

They first added two Isuzu franchises in 1981 that operated out of an old RadioShack and a 7-Eleven store. In 1985, they signed up to bring Acuras, the first luxury Japanese auto, and Hyundai, and the first Korean auto, to the U.S.

“That’s how we got to Florida,” she says. “The OEMs wanted brand-new dealerships. We sold our motorcycle stores—we had 14 at the time—to raise money to open the first Acura and Hyundai dealership, as well as Hyundai in Atlanta in the U.S. We kept growing by adding any new franchise that came along.”

Her expertise in parts and service helped fuel the company’s growth. “New franchises have no units in operation (on the road), so I would advertise that we would service any make and model,” she says. “We couldn’t do warranty work on other makes, but I would hire technicians that could work on all brands. In the meantime, I was aggressively advertising that we would beat any price for oil changes, brakes and basic maintenance on all brands. This helped us build a cash flow in parts-and-service to keep technicians and grow the fixed business.”

Case and Rick, who died from cancer in 2020, soon built a company now known as one of America’s most respected retail automotive brands. Today, the group has 12 dealerships in Atlanta and south Florida combined, employs 1,300 associates, sells over 50,000 cars a year, and averages $2 billion in annual sales.

The dealerships consistently achieve top volume sales. “We are competing against AutoNation, Lithia Motors and the rest with just 12 rooftops,” she says. “We are the No. 1-volume Volkswagen dealership, the No. 2 Maserati dealership, the No. 3 Honda and Hyundai dealership, and the No. 7 Kia dealership nationally in volume.”

Case says the group's Kia dealership is the No. 7 U.S. Kia dealership by volume.  -  IMAGE: Rick Case Automotive Group

Case says the group's Kia dealership is the No. 7 U.S. Kia dealership by volume.

IMAGE: Rick Case Automotive Group

Auto Retail Trailblazer

When Doug Timmerman, interim CEO of Ally Financial and president of Ally’s Dealer Financial Services, announced Case as the winner at the NADA ceremony, he said she’s “paved the way for women in the dealership business and found innovative ways to sell cars, while also working to provide those in need of everything from housing and scholarships to healthcare and education.”

She helps set the industry pace by introducing innovative car-selling methods, like all those years ago when she sold her fellow students Hondas.

When she first brought Hyundai to the U.S., she advertised, “Dare to Compare. Why shop Around? We are a one-stop shop.” The dealership allowed people to test-drive vehicles that were in direct competition with a new model on display.

“We did this every time we introduced a new brand. We would buy every car of like model from the other brands and have them all available to drive and compare.”

Rick Case Auto Group would also give customers a five-day money-back guarantee. “They can drive the car for up to 300 miles for five days and bring it back for a 100% refund,” she says. “That would take the risk out of buying an unproven brand.”

The auto group offers double the factory warranty for free. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years,” she says. “If you come in and buy a Hyundai with a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, you will get a 20-year, 200,000-mile warranty. Buyers also get free roadside assistance. If you buy a used car under 80,000 miles and 8 years old, you get a 100,000-mile, 10-year warranty, starting from the day you buy it.”

They have an eight-pump discount gas station so customers can gas-up at cost with their Rick Case Rewards activation card. “We introduced that in 2008 when gas hit $4.40 a gallon,” she says. “We offer carwash machines free to our customers.”

A common complaint among car buyers is the time it takes to buy a car. Case implemented a 90-minute delivery guarantee, or the dealership would make the buyer’s first payment. “We call it Sign and Go. Consumers can go to our website, pick out their car, fill out the paperwork, and even go through the F&I menu. Once complete, they receive a green checkmark either on a mobile device or a print option.”

When buyers bring t paper to the dealership, it means most of the work is already done. “They just review the vehicle they selected, a few more steps, and go,” she says. “Their vehicle is already ready for them through the process. “

Our Customers, Our Friends

Case and her husband co-wrote a book titled, “Our Customers, Our Friends,” shares a philosophy she holds dear. “We treat our customers as friends and our associates like family,” she says.

The culture displayed by leadership in the dealership encourages associates to treat customers like friends. “Treating them as a friend doesn’t take extra effort or any more cost,” she says. “But it will earn their business and a loyal friend.”

To make this work, she says the company culture must minimize turnover. This is possible by treating associates as family, she says.

Associates get four weeks of vacation and PTO days, a 401(k), and health insurance. The company honors outstanding performance at an annual awards banquet. Case calls every associate on his or her 10-year or greater work anniversary to thank them for their work. Every associate who’s been with the company for five years receives a personalized company ring. For each subsequent five years of service, the company adds another diamond to the ring.

“We have over 550 associates with five-year rings,” she says.

The company also commits to nurturing associates’ careers. “We develop a career path for every person who has been with us for five years. We inquire about their five-year goals, then create a roadmap to help them achieve their successful career.”

A Lasting Legacy

The Cases’ impact extends beyond the showroom floor. Together, they created, developed and led fundraising initiatives that raised more than $110 million for organizations impacting their communities and nationally, she says, a legacy she continues.

Their efforts began in 1982, when the couple launched Rick Case Bikes for Kids, which has distributed more than 100,000 new and gently used bicycles to children in need.

The Boys & Girls Club of Broward County also captured their attention. Upon hearing about its purpose for boys, Rita questioned the exclusion of girls. “We helped raise the funds to turn three Boys Clubs into 14 Boys & Girls Clubs serving 12,000 at-risk youth from 7 to 18 years of age”.

The couple, as board members, also proposed prioritizing school over sports in the program. “We need these kids to get to the next grade on time,” she says. “The program had to be about getting schoolwork done. Now kids earn the right to be on the basketball court or in the game room by completing their schoolwork.”

She says she prioritizes education in her philanthropic efforts. “Education is the greatest gift you can give anyone, at any age. No one can take away your education. Education opens the first door of opportunity.”

In 2013, the couple started helping nonprofit Soles4Souls by giving coats and shoes to children at Boys & Girls Club in Broward County. Case, along with the organization, since founded the 4EveryKid program in Broward County and partnered with Broward County Public Schools and the Homeless Education Assistance Resource Team to provide new brand-name athletic shoes to about 7,000 students facing housing instability every fall and spring.

“Research shows if a child is wearing branded shoes, their self-esteem and confidence grows,” she says. “They are more likely to participate in athletic activities and other positive group activities.”

In 2015, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Broward, Case helped build “A Rick Case Habitat Community,” a 76-home Pompano Beach development she says is the county's largest affordable owner-occupied home development in Broward County’s history.

“This development is also about education because it’s proven that if a person has a stable place to live, that they can call their own, their children will do better in school, more likely to advance to the next grade on time,” she says.

Looking back on her decades of work, innovation and philanthropy, it’s easy to see how she won the honor she coveted so long ago, one of the industry’s highest, on the strength of a lasting legacy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ronnie Wendt is an editor at F&I and Showroom.

 

Originally posted on F&I and Showroom

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