Imagine the yowling 17,000-rpm howl of a 12-cylinder Ferrari Formula 1 engine.
Now imagine hearing it after being put on hold when you call Ferrari of Ontario in Toronto.
The recording of Grand Prix veteran Jean Alesi testing an F1 racer sounds way better than Muzak. In fact, you're sorry when somebody picks up the phone.
Which doesn't take long, incidentally. Remo Ferri, owner of Ontario's only Ferrari store, makes sure his customers are treated exceedingly well. A receptionist, rather than a machine, to answer the phone, and the F1 'music' (a Ferri innovation that has been picked up by other North American Ferrari dealers) are just two details out of a great many he keeps track of personally.
Switching gears, picture a rural conference center north of Toronto on a brilliantly clear late-summer afternoon. Now imagine it gridlocked with some 50 Ferraris, their owners and co-drivers strolling about, champagne flutes (well, some beer bottles) in hand, Ferri playing host.
In mid-August, the dealership sponsored the second annual Ferrari of Ontario rally to raise money for Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. The dealership picks up all costs, and the $82,000 Canadian ($55,000 U.S.) raised by the event goes to the hospital.
It's obvious that selling Ferraris isn't exactly like peddling peanuts at the ballpark. And Ferri's approach to moving high-end iron (he also has two BMW stores) isn't like everybody else's, either.
It has served him well. Sales of 40 new and 55 used Ferraris - and a bunch of Bimmers through Maranello BMW just down the street - grossed Ferri $60 million Canadian, or almost $41 million U.S., in 1998. This year, with revenues from a second startup BMW shop, BMW of Mississauga, that should climb to $75 million Canadian, or about $51 million U.S.
Not bad for an Italian kid who quit school as a teen-ager to become a car and motorcycle mechanic. Ferri's back-shop background, greasy hands and skinned knuckles and all, is what has shaped his approach to running his dealership.
Ferri, who just turned 50, came to Canada in the early 1970s and opened a repair shop specializing in Ferraris, named Maranello Motors. Soon he was buying and selling used Ferraris and by 1987 had acquired Saab and Alfa Romeo franchises. He sold Saabs until the General Motors takeover, then took on BMW and became an official Ferrari dealer, remaining loyal to Alfa until it pulled out of North America in 1994.
Today BMW represents the growth potential in Ferri's business. Ferrari is a labor of love, albeit a profitable one. Ferrari volumes have remained much the same for six or seven years now, particularly on the used-car side, and maintaining the numbers is taking all of Ferri's ingenuity.
His efforts appear to have created a Ferrari family in Ontario, with himself as the patriarch. He knows every car and every owner and arranges swaps, trades and sales like an old-time marriage broker.
He does virtually no conventional advertising. He relies on word of mouth, references from members of his extended Ferrari family and now his new Web site (www.ferrari-of-Ontario.com).
He involves himself and the dealership in events such as the rally, driving schools at the nearby Mosport racing circuit, and Concours d'Elegance. Some years ago, he gave customers rides around the track in his Ferrari F40. He's also a strong backer of Ferrari Club events, including races, helping out financially and sending support in the form of technicians, trailers and equipment.
'We always try to do things to keep the customers together, to help them enjoy their cars,' Ferri says.
That's because with Ferrari you're not selling just a car but also excitement and passion, a dream, and that makes it a very personal business, he says.
'To be successful, you have to be passionate, then you can relate that passion to others. To me, selling Ferrari is something very, very special. If you think about it, who the hell needs a Ferrari in this country? So you have to build an excitement, you've got to give the customer the whole package. Our customers have to become our friends.'
Part of that package is reassurance that they, and the cars for which they may be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be treated well.
Ferri says that coming from a mechanical background helped him understand this.
'I can sit with a customer who has a problem with his car and know exactly how he feels and how we should react to that. Not many dealers can do that,' he says. 'An open line of communication is crucial. Here customers come in and they can ask anybody in the dealership any question they like and get an answer.'
A lot of his customers also like to get to know the people who work on their cars. 'This is probably the only shop where a customer can walk right in the back and talk to one of my guys,' he says. Insurance concerns? He pays the premium, figuring it's part of the cost of doing business his way. He also stages technical seminars, where customers can learn from his people and Ferrari factory technicians the intricacies of working on and maintaining, detailing and storing their cars.
Used cars are a key to new Ferrari sales. A first-time Ferrari buyer is often a used-Ferrari buyer, and Ferri sells all he can get. That's becoming a problem he has had to address with a one-man crusade to keep used Ferraris in Canada. He says the population is now about 900 machines. 'Every time I lose a car to the U.S., I can never bring it back,' he laments, citing the lopsided currency exchange rate. Ferri keeps an eye on all he can.
'We probably know 75 percent of them. We've got a database of about 575 cars. We know where they are, when they're sold, and who to, and we try to buy every used Ferrari that becomes available.' The dealership also has a restoration department that does ground-up rebuilds of exotic Ferrari models of the past.
Keeping customers' cars on the road during the relatively short driving season in Canada also is important, and the dealership picks up and delivers customers' cars with a pair of flatbed trucks. Repairs are dealt with expeditiously, and cars returned washed and full of gas.
Ferri's Ferrari connection also pays off when it comes to selling BMWs. Ferrari owners and their families need everyday rides, and BMWs fit the bill for those upscale folks. Ferri uses the databases of all three of his dealerships to help develop leads.
Ferri's BMW dealerships, which will move about 1,000 units this year, are operated with the same customer-based philosophy.
Like his Ferrari store, Ferri's latest BMW outlet has its showroom built as close to the sidewalk as possible - 'like a downtown jewelry store' - with room for only three display cars out front. He says he doesn't understand why a dealership would park all its cars out by the road, where they are subject to damage, and force customers to walk 30 or 40 yards to the showroom. He stores his inventory out back, in its plastic wrap. New cars are delivered in a special glassed-in area adjacent to the showroom. The parts and service desks and a large service drive-through also are integrated into the showroom area.
The customer lounge has a picture window looking out onto the air-conditioned and spotless service area, with the same visitation policy as the Ferrari shop. This is part of what Ferri describes as a back-to-front approach to running the business, in which service takes precedence over sales. 'Once you sell a car to a guy, he's going to be with you for three years, and 90 percent of that time he goes to the back of the shop. He doesn't come to the front until the next time he's ready to buy a car.'
Bob English is an Automotive News staff correspondent based in Toronto