Young Bert Boeckmann was disillusioned with the car business when he joined Galpin Ford in suburban Los Angeles as a salesman 60 years ago.
He hated the way the things were done at the previous dealership where he'd worked, and didn't much like what he saw at Galpin, either. So as he moved up the ladder, Boeckmann began transforming the store. He also started buying shares in Galpin Ford and by 1968 owned it outright.
Today, Galpin calls itself the world's largest Ford dealership, and Ford Motor Co. does not dispute it. And Boeckmann, 83, is one of America's best-known car dealers. The dealership is known for creating its own tuner brand. Galpin Auto Sports-customized vehicles are said to have been "Galpinized."
Q: Did you always want to be a dealer?
A: It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do when I was young. I did three years of ROTC in college and I assumed I'd go into the Army as an officer. They wanted me to work in the tank corps. But being over 6-foot-2, I had trouble climbing in and out of the tanks.
Did you try anything else before getting into the car business?
I thought about becoming a doctor, but I watched an operation one time and couldn't stand it. Then I thought about law, but I discovered I didn't really get along with those people.
What was it like to be a car salesman in the 1950s?
There were a lot of bad practices back then, like rolling back odometers and grooving the old tires, where they carved new grooves into the rubber.
The first store I worked at was one of those hard-sell places, and their practice was to have customers sign the contract before the contract was filled out, so they didn't know what they were agreeing to. I refused to do things that were illegal. I couldn't stand it and fought with the sales manager.
So what did you do?
Somebody I knew talked me into leaving and going with him down the road to Galpin Ford in San Fernando. He ended up staying there for three months and I stayed for 60 years.
Things were better at Galpin?
Even here, at first, a week didn't go by that I didn't think of quitting. In 1957, the store was losing money and it was out of trust. They made me manager and I insisted on doing things my way. I vowed to make it the most profitable Ford store in America, and we did. I worked every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Detroit 3 crave a bigger share of the California market. You are in Los Angeles and have the biggest Ford store in the world. What's the secret?
The last time we did a study of our customers three years ago, 87 percent of them listed the reason they came to us as repeat, referral or reputation.
Would you be attracted to the job if you were just starting out today, using Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to reach customers?
Your son Beau has developed a Ford GT-based supercar, the Galpin Ford GTR1, with a top speed of 225 mph. Did you choke when the retail price came in at $1 million?
No, but to be precise it's $1,024,000. I mean, what the heck is that $24,000 stuck on there for?
Beau has built some beautiful cars. We've always been involved in creating new models and it's a lot of fun.
You operate a nice restaurant inside your dealership, the Horseless Carriage. How are you able to have rib-eye steak on your menu for under $20?
I leave that up to my manager. He worked about 20 years at the Beverly Hills Hotel. When he came to us, I asked him to please price the food fairly. I don't want anybody walking out of there saying we shortchanged them.