In the late 1970s, a 20-something Terry Taylor worked seven days a week peddling used cars at a modest store he owned in Daytona Beach, Fla.
It was a humble beginning for Taylor, one of the biggest success stories in auto retailing, who would one day drive a Rolls-Royce and travel by private jet. He's now a regular on the South Florida yachting scene. He owns more car dealerships than any other individual in the country, and possibly the world, a seemingly scattershot collection of showrooms from Florida to Colorado that is believed to sell some 300,000 new and used vehicles a year.
And to those who've known him from the start, none of it is a surprise.
"His life goal was to be the biggest and the best," said a longtime acquaintance.
Mission accomplished. Taylor, who turns 67 in April, owns about 120 U.S. dealerships.
As a person, Taylor is largely a mystery. Some call him a visionary, as one of the first dealers to offer his general managers equity ownership in their stores. Others say he has a mercurial temperament, sometimes coming down hard on employees and partners who fall short of his stringent standards.
Taylor grew his empire by reinvesting capital in his dealerships, aligning with savvy partners and buying stores from aging dealers at low prices in hard times. He prefers to own multiple stores in a single market, and many bankers love him, sources said.
"He is a very astute, shrewd, dignified businessman who values his privacy, keeps a low profile, takes care of his people," said Mike Jackson, CEO of the largest U.S. public dealership group, AutoNation Inc. "I respect him. If there is a factory meeting, he will be in the back of the room, last row. He's very low-profile."
Neither Taylor nor his attorney responded to multiple requests to be interviewed. When asked to comment on a lawsuit filed against him last year, Taylor wrote in an email: "I am a private person running a private company with the best partners in the auto industry, who would also like to remain private."
But some of Taylor's current and former partners agreed to speak to Automotive News. This article is based on interviews with 16 people familiar with Taylor's sprawling yet largely hidden empire, in addition to reports by newspapers in the markets where he operates. Most of those interviewed asked for anonymity because of Taylor's demand for privacy.
To safeguard that privacy, Taylor's name is not on any of his dealerships, and each store is registered as its own limited liability company.
Even longtime partners said they never get any information about the performance of Taylor's dealerships as a whole.
"We're not privy to any of that," said one partner of more than a decade. "If you ask a lot of questions, they don't like it."
Taylor's headquarters operation, Automotive Management Services Inc. in West Palm Beach, Fla., comprises legal, human resources and accounting teams, as well as a TV studio to shoot commercials. AMSI screens dealership vendors and requires some to sign a confidentiality agreement; among the information they're barred from discussing is the number and names of Taylor's stores.
Associates say Taylor considers his chief rivals to be publicly owned Sonic Automotive Inc., which sold 257,217 new and used vehicles last year at 112 dealerships, and privately held Hendrick Automotive Group, which sold 205,106 new and used vehicles at 98 dealerships.