All Tex Earnhardt really wanted to be was a cowboy. So, after 10th grade, he quit school to become a professional rodeo rider. Then his family moved from Texas to Arizona, where he and his father ran a gasoline station in a farming community outside Phoenix. Tex had just turned 21 in 1951, when he became 'the world's youngest Ford dealer,' selling one car at a time on his gasoline station lot.
'I thought this might pay my entry fees for the rodeos,' Earnhardt, now 70, remembers. 'For the first 15 years, I didn't like the car business - I wanted to be a cowboy - but I'd taken on so much debt, I couldn't get out.'
Like a saguaro cactus that doesn't grow branches until it has had several years to mature, Earnhardt's tiny Ford dealership has grown into a family owned automotive empire that in 2000 enjoyed its first $1 billion sales year.
The Earnhardt Dealer Group is No. 22 on the 1999 Automotive News list of the Top 100 U.S. Dealership Groups.
Under the Earnhardt's brand, his company sells nine vehicle lines at six locations in Arizona's Valley of the Sun. Plus Earnhardt's Auto Centers is building two new stores, a Ford point and a Nissan dealership, in the fast-growing far eastern end of the valley.
The original gasoline-station location in Chandler houses the corporate used-car outlet, and a recreation-vehicle dealership in Mesa completes Earnhardt's Auto Centers, which employs nearly 2,000 people.
Sons saddle up
Earnhardt's operation was relatively small until 1976, when it added a Ford dealership in Tempe. 'That catapulted us from a small, rural-area dealership to more of a metro-area presence,' says Tex's 44-year-old son, Hal Earnhardt.
'What happened was that the boys came into the business. The boys work hard,' Tex Earnhardt says. 'I took care of them when they were younger. Now they can take care of me.'
Although the Earnhardts hate formal titles, the company's Web site (www.earnhardt.com) says that Tex Earnhardt is chairman, Hal Earnhardt is president and 37-year-old son, Jim Earnhardt, is secretary/treasurer. Jim Earnhardt also manages the family's extensive broadcast media advertising programs.
The Earnhardts have built their family brand through TV advertising. Turn on the TV in Phoenix, and you're liable to see Tex Earnhardt and his boys out on the family ranch.
While the family name is the brand, 'No Bull' has become the corporate trademark. 'No Bull' is on the license-plate holder that comes with every car the company sells. You also can access the corporate Web site through www.nobull.com. 'No Bull' represents a style of salesmanship, but it became the family/corporate motto almost by accident.
'We had a steer at the ranch, and I rode him for fun,' Tex Earnhardt says. 'Somebody told me I should get off of that bull before I got hurt. `This ain't no bull,' I said, and that's become our trademark, and the boys want to continue with it.'
Does it work?
'We sell a lot of cars,' he quips.
Not for sale
Like so many successful family operations, the Earnhardts were approached by the big national auto sales groups as they sought to become even bigger.
'It was tempting,' Tex Earnhardt says. 'We could have lined our pockets, but what would that have done for the guys who have been with us for as long as 45 years? We have 2,000 employees, and a lot of them are very long-term. We wanted to grow this with them.'
Adds Hal Earnhardt: 'All our stores are within a 35-minute drive. We touch and feel and smell everything every day. We're very comfortable in this market and at operating on a hands-on basis.
'One of us is here all the time,' Jim Earnhardt says.
The Earnhardts also wanted to keep control of the family's image. With their TV commercials making them local celebrities, the Earnhardts' faces are well known in Phoenix, and customers recognize them. 'We may not make a lot of money,' Tex Earnhardt says, 'but we make a lot of friends.'
'We have our names on our stores,' he adds, 'and we like to be our own bosses and make our own decisions. We have a couple of dollars in our pockets, and what would we do all day if we had sold out?'
Well, there's always the rodeo.