When it was time for Jim Click to learn the car business, he didn't go to work at his grandfather's Chrysler-Plymouth store in Shawnee, Okla. Nor did he join his father at his Chevrolet dealership in Altus, Okla.
Jim was fresh out of Oklahoma State University, where he played center and linebacker for the Cowboy.
His father and grandfather sent him to California, to study under another family member: the legendary Holmes Tuttle.
In the 1920s, Tuttle had hitchhiked to California, where he became a successful Los Angeles car dealer whose clientele included an actor, one Ronald Reagan. Tuttle also became a prominent Republican fund-raiser and is credited with persuading Reagan to enter politics in 1964 to run for governor of California.
'I went to L.A. to learn the business, then I was to go back to Oklahoma,' Click says. 'I haven't been back but to visit.'
Click learned quickly and soon was sent to run Tuttle's Ford dealership in Tuscon, Ariz. Today, Click, 56, and Tuttle's 57-year-old son, Bob Tuttle (who took a 61/2-year leave of absence to work in the Reagan White House), are co-owners of the Tuttle Click Automotive Group, which operates a dozen outlets in Arizona and in Orange County, Calif.
Their stores sell more than 2,000 vehicles a month and are approaching a billion-dollar-a-year business.
The Tuttle Click Automotive Group is No. 21 on the 1999 Automotive News list of the Top 100 U.S. Dealership Groups.
'Despite what you may think, Tuttle Click Automotive Group does sell cars to Democrats,' reports Hoover's Online (Web reference database)
'Yes, but reluctantly,' Tuttle says, laughing when asked about Hoover's observation.
Partners are competitors
The Arizona stores operate under the Jim Click banner, and those in California are branded together under the Tuttle-Click name.
'There's synergy in such advertising,' Tuttle says. 'It's like any brand does. It's very helpful in a market.'
Click says that he and Tuttle are fortunate to be in 'two great markets.' All areas have their economic ebbs but, Click notes, 'When Orange County was down, Arizona was doing well, and when Arizona was down, Orange County was up.'
In newspaper advertising, the group buys a full page, with each franchise's offerings under the corporate umbrella. 'We're still trying to figure out how to give everyone a fair shot,' Click says. 'It's a juggling act, and the format doesn't work when co-op advertising money is involved.'
Click says the manufacturers don't object to being grouped together in such ads, 'as long as they're getting their market share and CSI' (Customer Satisfaction Index).
Although they are business partners and relatives, who shuttle between Tucson and Orange County for monthly meetings, Click and Tuttle also are competitors in Tucson, where the primary competition for Jim Click Ford is Holmes Tuttle Ford. Tuttle is the sole owner of his father's store, and he's proud to have kept his father's name on the business.
Tuttle's store is on the east side of Tucson, so Click built his dealership on the west side. That outlet has been the basis for the growth of the Tucson portion of the Tuttle-Click empire.
Click said he started his separate Ford store 'because I wanted my name on the store, and I wanted to be part of the community.'
He says he and Tuttle didn't necessarily start out to build such a large operation, 'but with each downturn (in the economy), there were some franchises we could acquire.'
Nix to big chains
There also was a time when the big national chains were throwing huge sums to acquire companies such as Tuttle Click, but it has remained independent.
'Mr. Tuttle used to say that if the country goes broke, we want to be the last ones to go broke,' Click says. 'During the downturn of 1989-90 - and it wasn't fun - we decided to get debt free, so if there is another downturn, we're prepared.
'Bob and I might have said `Wow' four or five years ago, when Lou Grubb (of Grubb Automotive Inc. in Phoenix) sold to AutoNation, but Bob and I have never had a serious discussion with any of the consolidators. We developed a bank here in Tucson, and it was very successful (they owned Arizona Bank from 1978 to 1998), and it created enough capital that we'll be able to compete.'