Dodge Earnhardt bought his first dealership at age 30 and was running the management company behind Earnhardt Auto Centers three years before that.
By the standards of the Earnhardt family (which is unrelated to the racing dynasty), he was a late bloomer.
Grandfather Tex Earnhardt was one of the youngest Ford dealers ever when he opened a store in Chandler, Ariz., at age 21 in 1951. Dodge's dad, Hal, owned his store, a Dodge dealership, at age 23.
"I just always worked at the company," said Dodge, who as a youngster had to sweep after tent sales and pick up cigarette butts to earn the latest pair of gym shoes. His real name is Hal Earnhardt IV.
Nobody will accuse him of not earning his stripes. Since buying Earnhardt Buick-GMC in Mesa, Ariz., in 2010, Dodge has put up the majority of the equity to purchase four more stores and has taken a minority position in a fifth.
That has doubled the number of stores owned by family members to 12.
The family expects the 12 stores combined to sell about 28,000 new and used vehicles in Arizona this year for total revenue of about $950 million.
Dodge Earnhardt says he would like to buy stores in "good car towns," such as Albuquerque, N.M., and maybe Las Vegas, where the group can bring volume purchasing and other services to help the stores operate more profitably.
He said he wants to create opportunities for his four children to enter the business, as his father and grandfather did for their families.
All 12 stores use the motto: "That ain't no bull." That's in honor of Tex Earnhardt, who moonlights as a cattle rancher and once explained to a greenhorn that a castrated bull is a steer, not a bull. Tex, 81, still stars in the stores' commercials.
Dodge Earnhardt, who always uses "sir" and "ma'am," is a no-bull guy. During the recession, he cut management salaries at all the stores by 20 percent and replaced those losses with bonus opportunities. He also negotiated concessions from vendors for everything from advertising and digital marketing to shop tools and housekeeping. The savings spared all but 40 to 50 of 1,150 employees from layoffs.
"I had to be the bad guy," Dodge said, "but it had to be done."
-- David Barkholz