Boch relaxes, rocks on for Subaru

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NEW YORK -- Ernie Boch was at the Automotive News Marketing Seminar looking more like a rock star than a big-time car dealer.

Of course, he IS a kind of rock star up in the Boston area. And he really has a rock band. But Boch, 54, used to dress up like a rocker to play occasional gigs with his group. Now he sports long hair and jeans all the time, not the pin-striped look he once pulled off so nicely.

He's looking casual these days because he is no longer running his collection of stores. He has turned over day-to-day operation of the dealership group his grandfather started in the 1940s to a management firm.

"I wanted to devote myself entirely to Subaru," he says.

Boch is Subaru's distributor in New England, one of only four private new-vehicle distributors in the United States -- two for Subaru and the two Toyota giants, Southeast and Gulf States. In auto distribution channels, they are known as "The Big Four."

Of course, Subaru has been on fire the past few years, and Boch is a big beneficiary. His father picked up the distributorship in 1971, when Ernie was 13. He remembers Ernie Sr. bringing a Subaru car home one night as he researched the deal.

"It's front-wheel drive!" he exclaimed to his son. "The cart is pulling the horse instead of pushing it."

Does Boch miss running his dealerships on a daily basis?

"I'm not going back," he said. "I couldn't dress like this."

His Honda dealership in Norwood, Mass., had become the top seller in the country a few years ago, a matter of unspeakable pride to Boch. He even flew to California to taunt his rival, Dave Conant of Norm Reeves Honda Superstore.

But the Boch dealership has since slipped back behind Conant's store in Cerritos, Calif.

Does the Honda store miss Ernie's hypercompetitiveness?

Perhaps. When a big picture of Conant appeared recently in Automotive News, Boch says he tore it out, drew a bull's-eye on it and gave it to his Honda managers in Norwood.

His message was clear.

You can reach Richard Johnson at rjohnson@crain.com.

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