The top 125 U.S. dealership groups in 2012 have driven different paths to success.
Their business models are as diverse as the vehicles they sell, as the data in our ranking show.
Collectively, they accounted for almost a fifth of all U.S. light-vehicle sales last year, up about a percentage point from 2011.
Only seven are publicly owned, multibillion-dollar corporations. Six of those are in the top 10 ranked by new-vehicle retail sales. The seventh, the used-car powerhouse CarMax Inc., was only No. 107 -- but it sold a whopping 408,080 used units.
Most of the 125 groups have between 10 and 20 stores. Fifteen groups run 30 or more dealerships -- and five have more than 100.
Another 37 groups operate between two and nine stores. But that doesn't necessarily mean those are small outfits. No. 34, the Boeckmann family's Galpin Motors Inc. in Southern California, retailed 17,542 new vehicles through just seven locations.
In fact, groups with seven or fewer locations hold nine of the top 10 spots in per-store new-car retail sales.
Only two groups averaged more than 3,000 units per store.
One of them is the five-dealership Rosatti/Plaza Auto Group based in Brooklyn, N.Y., No. 39 on the list.
At No. 115, the two-location Dave Smith Auto Group sold more than three times more new Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Jeep and Ford vehicles than there are people in its hometown of Kellogg, Idaho, population 2,236. How? Dave Smith promotes its low prices widely in the American West and offers free shuttle buses from the airport in Spokane, Wash., to long-range customers.
The list has a big range on total revenue, which includes all departments of the dealerships. The $1 billion club for 2012 includes 34 groups, including 13 with more than $2 billion. Fourteen groups totaled less than $400 million.
And sales strategies vary. Most groups sell substantially more new than used vehicles. Excluding CarMax, only eight of the 125 top dealership groups sell more used vehicles than new retail units, including No. 48, Victory Automotive Group in Canton, Mich. (21,071 used and 14,372 new).
At No. 65, Bergstrom Automotive, the 25 mostly northern Wisconsin stores sold 10,766 new and 10,307 used. CEO John Bergstrom says his group boosts used volume by self-certifying every used unit it retails.
At the other end of the spectrum, five groups sold less than one used for every three new, epitomized by No. 72, Lester Glenn Auto Group in Toms River, N.J. In 2012, it sold 10,170 new and only 2,102 used.
Some groups on the list didn't answer the survey's question about fleet sales. Others, including some public companies, reported fleet sales to be a small fraction of their volume. Fleet ranges from direct sales to local fleets to simply collecting small fees from manufacturers to handle the paperwork on factory fleet units.
No. 58, Bommarito Automotive Group of Ellisville, Mo., specializes in fleet sales. Its 2012 fleet sales of 47,953 were almost four times its retail new-vehicle volume.