But the car business was Ken Garff's true love until he died in 1997 at age 90.
To ensure that the company would remain family owned, Ken Garff started estate planning for his three children in the 1950s. In 1958, for example, he bought a Mercedes-Benz store for $20,000. He put $10,000 of its stock in Robert's name and the other half in his other son, Gary's, name. Robert Garff was still in high school then and Gary Garff, seven years Robert's senior, was working for the company.
"My dad did not stress we had to do this or that for a living, but he enticed us toward the automobile business by taking us to various auto shows and the NADA convention," said Garff. "My father was very wise. He said, "Son, what do you want to do?' I had to have a passion."
By the mid-1960s Robert had found his passion in the family business alongside his brother and a younger sister, Jane, both of whom he'd eventually buy out.
In 1972, Honda awarded the Garffs a new point in Salt Lake City, adding to their empire that sold Oldsmobile and Mercedes.
In the late 1980s, the Garffs started buying other stores in Utah resulting in 10 franchises and annual revenue of $150 million by the early 1990s, Garff said.
In 2006, Ken Garff Automotive Group began a huge growth spurt. That's when it partnered with Leucadia National Corp., a public investment company sometimes described as a mini version of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. The partnership helped Garff grow to 50 stores from 20.
Today, Garff's son, John Garff, 48, is CEO of Garff Enterprises. Garff's other son, Matthew Garff, 41, is senior vice president of the company focusing on all real-estate transactions. His daughter, Jennifer Folkerson, 50, is an administrative assistant to the executive team. Folkerson's husband, Rick, 52, is in charge of the company's community outreach program focusing on literacy.
Like his father, Garff has been careful to do thorough succession planning with his children, giving them equal stock in the company and operational roles, but still making sure they earn "market rates" in their compensation.
"We don't overpay our own flesh and blood," Garff said.