Mary Pacifico-Valley quit college at age 19 and joined Rickenbaugh Cadillac in Denver to phone customers, reminding them to bring their vehicles in for service. That time in the service department helped shape her business philosophy. She eventually became owner of what is now a three-franchise group selling Volvo, Cadillac and Infiniti.
Increasing service business is a priority at Pacifico-Valley's newest store: Rickenbaugh Infiniti, about 25 miles north of Denver. As an open point on Infiniti's map, the dealership started with zero customers.
But targeted marketing and customer-service efforts are attracting local buyers and those who live more than 100 miles away in Wyoming.
The effort comes as Pacifico-Valley recruits more women and guides her nephew, Nick Pacifico, the group's vice president. Above all, Pacifico-Valley is looking to pass along the values instilled in her by mentor and former group owner, the late Kent Rickenbaugh.
Pacifico-Valley, 58, spoke with Automotive News TV Editor Tom Worobec.
Q: Why is the service department so important?
A: I like to say I'm unlike most coming up through the ranks -- general managers and then owners. I came up through the service side, and I'm very proud of that. I want to sell the dealership, and that's easier to do on the service side. If you make somebody happy on the service side, they will be back. That continues on after the sales department has started the process of loyalty.
When did you realize you wanted to run a dealership?
The bug hit me because I was lucky enough to be mentored by Kent Rickenbaugh. I always felt like he was one of the best dealers. In the old days, to be a Cadillac dealer was kind of prestigious. And his dad was the first dealer in Denver. I really got a unique opportunity.
He never saw female or male. At one time, we had more female managing department heads than we did male because he just said, "She's more qualified." Once I was mentored by him, the general manager's job opened up and I applied for it. I knew if I seized that opportunity something really good was going to happen, and that is what happened.
I understood how many hours I was going to put in. I understood I had to be ethical above and beyond anything else. He came to me a few years later. After talking to his family and his wife and children, they were all in agreement to start selling me the store. So it was a wonderful opportunity, and, boy, did I seize it. I've loved every day of it.
Kent Rickenbaugh and his wife and son were killed in a small-plane crash in 2002. How did that affect you?
I have to say when that happened with the Rickenbaugh family, and in particular Kent, it was truly the worst day of my life. To lose somebody in a tragic way like that, so suddenly.
The employees were not only devastated, but honestly, maybe they didn't want to admit it, but I knew in my heart they had to be concerned: "What about me? What about my job? What about my family?" So I was trying to hold everything together to get through that period so that they would understand that we're going to be fine, and we're going to go forward.
Rickenbaugh Infiniti is surrounded by vast farms and oil fields in Weld County, one of the fastest-growing U.S. job markets. Why did you choose this location?
We thought it would be a win-win. Maybe not immediately, but if the goal is to build our business, this was the place to be. The two other [Infiniti] dealers that are in Denver do a really great job in their areas. But this one was just totally unattended.
So we are getting a lot of people who maybe thought about Infiniti, but it was just too far for them to drive because they live north of the city. We get a lot of Wyoming customers, because there isn't an Infiniti dealer in Wyoming, and it's not that far. A lot of those people come down for the day to do their shopping, to do other things, and they'll get their servicing done that day.
We also actually have even valeted service customers back and forth with some of our people. We want the Wyoming market, so we are going to do whatever it takes to keep it.
Do you advise female employees the same way Kent Rickenbaugh counseled you?
It's very important to me to mentor any females in the business. Unfortunately, we have backslid a little bit in the past few years.
The automotive industry itself needs to kind of step it up a little bit about females in dealerships and women dealers.
I was a founding board member of the General Motors women's retail initiative. It's kind of sad to me that there aren't a lot of other brands that have something like that going on.
It's just important to me, being female. [The auto industry] has just been so good to me, and so wonderful to me.
And I think of all the careers that females could make really, really good livings and go forward in their careers in automobile dealerships, and I just don't think a lot of the brands think about that. And I think it is just time they need to do a little bit better job in that area.
Rickenbaugh Automotive Group also has Cadillac and Volvo franchises. How important is Volvo's rebirth?
We just got our XC90 demos. It's a fantastic car. The dealer meeting was in Vail in early April, and I got to drive the car. There's just nothing negative. At one time, our dealership sold 1,000 to 1,200 Volvos and we were No. 1 in the United States in their wagon and Cross Country sales.
And of course we've just struggled and struggled the past five years. So we're hoping to rebuild that brand. I've seen the product plans. If they stick to them and do what they say -- I believe in them and think they will -- it's going to be a wonderful thing. I'm really looking forward to that.
So Rickenbaugh Automotive is committed to Volvo?
A lot of Volvo dealers just shut up shop. That wasn't a consideration for us.
Is it a point of pride to have your nephew, Nick, following in your footsteps?
It does make a difference. I see all of these dealerships being taken over by these big conglomerates. I know they are good operators and I know they are good people. But it saddens me a little bit to see a lot of the family-owned dealerships go away.
I knew that Kent Rickenbaugh trusted me. He absolutely trusted me, and I have that with Nick. I have a whole set of problems that I don't even have to worry about because Nick's here.
You know, when you have family, a lot of different things go away that you don't have to worry about.