“I have always been possessed with cars,” says Ray Catena, president of the Ray Catena Auto Group. This was after revealing he bought his first vehicle at the age of 12 in his hometown of Kearny, NJ.

Catena began his career as a used-car dealer early in life in Kearny, specializing in quality pre-owned vehicles with his signature guarantee on any vehicle he sold to his customers – a practice he has kept up over the years.

In the 1970s, he purchased Cox Chevrolet in Fairlawn, NJ, but later sold that in 1981 while he was constructing his state-of-the-art flagship Mercedes-Benz store in Edison, NJ. That same year he opened Ray Catena Mercedes-Benz.

After decades in sales and service, some of Catena’s original employees are still with him.

He has been an authorized Mercedes dealer since 1981. He has built his upscale Ray Catena Motor Car into one of the largest-volume Mercedes franchises in the country.

The Catena Auto Group is No.12 on this year’s Ward’s Dealer 500 list of top U.S. dealers. The group’s ranking is up from No.16 last year. The business sold 2,918 new vehicles and 625 used units, with total revenues of $219.2 million in 2010.

It is part of the Ray Catena Auto Group that also sells and services the premium brands of Lexus, BMW, Porsche, Land Rover, Infiniti, Jaguar, Mini, Smart and Sprinter vans.

The group ranked No.18 on the Ward’s Megadealer 100, a listing of top groups in the U.S. The 12-store Catena group tallied revenues of nearly $1.2 billion and sold 25,054 new and used units.

Acquiring more franchises may be in the works. “We’re not done yet,” Catena says of brand-expansion plans.

“As I reflect on our past now, I believe a lot of my growth and success has come from my employees,” Catena says. “When they are happy, my customers are happy too,” because one leads to the other.

From the beginning, his wife, Elsie Catena, has worked with him through both the good and the tough times, often into the late hours. “Even as I speak with you, we are both at our desks,” he tells Ward’s during a late-evening interview.

“The key for us is not only in revenue generating, but in effectively managing our expenses,” Catena says.

The group now has grown to about 1,200 employees.

He and his wife have two daughters, Doreen and Sandy. Sandy, much like Ray Catena’s original employees, started working in the Chevrolet service group at the dealership. She graduated through the ranks and is now the executive manager of the Infiniti operation.

The economic downturn of 2008-2009 found the Catena group not resorting to widespread layoffs.

“When the downturn in the economy occurred, we kept our payroll competitive,” Catena says. “And we only had to lay off less than 1% of our total workforce, as well as cutting other expenses to keep them in line with our operating revenues to keep us going “Today, we are hiring again, which shows our improvement.”

That reflects a slowly rebounding national economy in general and the auto industry in particular.

Catena is optimistic about that recovery as well as about what’s in the product pipeline. “We see a brighter side coming in our industry, and, with the brands we represent, exciting new products coming from all of our manufacturers.”

Company Profile

Who: Ray Catena, president

What: Ray Catena Auto Group, Edison, NJ

Primary dealership locations: New Jersey: Edison, Monmouth, Oakhurst, Bridgewater, Union, Freehold; New York: Larchmont, White Plains.

Number of employees: 1,200

Motto: “Take care of your life and family, and we’ll take care of your car.”

Hometown: Kearny, NJ

First dealership: Chevrolet

First premium dealership: Mercedes-Benz

Ward’s Dealer 500 ranking: No.12 for the individual Mercedes store

Ward’s Dealer 500 ranking: No.18 for the group.

Awards

Ray Catena and his dealership group have won numerous accolades over the years. Among them:

2010 – “Elite of Lexus” award

2010 – “Best of the Best” from Mercedes-Benz

2010 – Infiniti “Circle of Excellence”

2010 – BMW “Center of Excellence”

2005 – Voted Time magazine Quality Dealer Award

2006 – Voted New York Times Dealer of the Year