Bob Rohrman Auto Group of Lafayette, Ind., bought or opened seven dealerships in 2009, taking advantage of a weak market and soft prices. The group was one of only two in the top 20 to boost revenue, with a 2 percent gain to $735 million.
Rohrman bought a Ford dealership in Schaumburg, Ill., from AutoNation and built new stand-alone showrooms for several of his Indiana operations that handle two or more brands.
"I can pay for these properties because I saved the money I made in the car business the last 50 years," Rohrman told Automotive News. "I resisted financing other businesses like restaurants because I don't know any of those businesses."
Rohrman's group posted a fractional increase in new retail sales to 17,372 units from 17,233 in 2008. That pushed the group to No. 15 on the list from No. 22 a year earlier and No. 33 in 2004.
Other groups also decided bad times were good times for buying dealerships. On Oct. 30, AutoNation purchased a Honda and Acura dealership in Spokane, Wash., for 40 percent of the dealership's list price in 2006.
"Prices have come down significantly," AutoNation COO Michael Maroone said. "And we will continue to look for those kinds of opportunities."
Of the top 125, 15 added dealerships last year while 33 ended the year with fewer stores.
The other top 20 dealership group to post higher revenues last year was No. 20 Open Road Auto Group of Edison, N.J. Its revenues rose 2 percent to $860 million, as its store count rose to 21 from 20 in 2008.
But its new retail sales fell 11 percent to 15,360 units. What rose? Used-vehicle sales, up 29 percent to 6,894.
In a year as devastating as 2009, a dealership group could watch its revenue slide and still climb in the rankings.
Take Ken Garff Automotive Group of Salt Lake City. Its revenue fell 5 percent to $1.14 billion. But its total new retail sales rose 2 percent to 18,733, even as the number of its dealerships held steady at 40.
It rose to No. 14 in the rankings from No. 17 a year earlier and from No. 35 in 2007. It was one of several steady gainers that have climbed into the top 20 but haven't cracked the top 10 -- yet.