O. Bruton Smith, 84, started in the auto business at a small Ford dealership. He now is the chairman of Charlotte, NC-based Sonic Automotive, a 123-store enterprise, No.4 on theWardsAuto Megadealer 100.

Smith also is a big name in auto racing. He owns and operates eight racetracks through a subsidiary, Speedway Motorsports.

His auto-retail history dates to 1966 when he worked at Charlotte’s Town & Country Ford. He had become a racing enthusiast at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and a believer in the adage, “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

After working his way up to ownership of Town & Country Ford and Fort Mill Ford, Smith began in 1997 a career of dealership and raceway acquisitions that led to the formation of publicly owned 119-store Sonic Automotive.

Sonic had total revenues of $7.87 billion last year. It sold 252,262 vehicles. Of those, 114,132 were new, 102,874 used and 8,626 fleet units.  

One of his biggest acquisitions was when he purchased the late Don Massey’s group of stores, mainly in Michigan and Colorado, and including the No.1-volume Cadillac store, Don Massey Cadillac.

“Massey and I grew up in the Southern auto market together, so we were a perfect fit,” Smith says of his fellow dealer who died in 2011. “I miss Don. He kept Cadillac No.1 for years and was a role model for dealers nationwide.”

Smith is a believer in a dealership manager’s office being located within the showroom. He applies his beliefs with a firm hand.

“In order to keep management focused on customer satisfaction, we include CSI results as a component of our incentive-based compensation programs,” he says. “We believe that our comprehensive training of all employees provides us with a competitive advantage over other dealership groups.”

Sonic trains managers from within the organization to maximize employee returns, requiring staffers to keep abreast of auto-retailing developments at “Sonic University” courses that teach everything from enhancing performance to complying with finance and insurance regulations.

Sonic is strong on F&I training and compliance. The firm began focusing on that after a national TV news show using hidden cameras exposed unethical behavior by employees at two Sonic stores.

“It was embarrassing,” a former Sonic executive said. “And we decided to do something about it through regular, mandatory training emphasizing proper and ethical F&I conduct.”

Like any dealership group, Sonic wants F&I managers to produce healthy sales. But if an F&I manager’s performance far exceeds expectations, an audit is conducted to make sure rules weren’t broken in the course of hitting those high numbers.    

The management team includes Bruton Smith’s sons, B. Scott Smith, 43, president of the company, and David B. Smith, 36, executive vice president and formerly vice president of corporate strategy.

Sonic shareholders include Paul P. Rudnak, owner of a 9-store luxury-car dealership group in Pasadena, CA. He owns 4.3 million shares of Sonic stock, about 10% of the Sonic total.

Sonic lost six General Motors dealerships in 2009 as a result of GM’s bankruptcy filing and subsequent dealership-consolidation plan.

Reflecting Sonic’s ties to Ford, a Sonic director is Robert L. Rewey, 72, retired Ford group vice president-North American Operations,

Sonic has more dealers in western and southern markets. Houston and California lead the list with 33 each, followed by 15 in the Carolinas and Georgia; 16 in Alabama and Tennessee; nine in Florida, five in Michigan and four in Ohio.

Scott Smith says the group built its dealer portfolio in large urban markets to maximize returns and shareholder values.       

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