The overriding similarity among the top 10 dealerships in the Ward's Dealer Business 500 is their commitment to customer service.

No. 1, Longo Toyota of El Monte, CA, refers to its customers as "guests" and is re-doing its entire dealership with an eye on making it more guest-friendly. No. 3 Galpin Ford in metro Los Angeles, re-examined its service department to improve CSI in that area.

No. 4 Fletcher Jones Motorcars in Newport Beach, CA, will expand its service department during the next 12 months in an attempt to satisfy more customers. Jerome Duncan Ford of Sterling Heights, MI, leapt from No. 23 last year to the 10th position based on a renewed commitment to customer service.

"We've done a big job with two-year leasing and a phenomenal job on customer service," says Paul Shamo, general sales manager at Jerome Duncan Ford, which is owned by Gail Duncan. "That word of mouth gets around, especial around the three nearby Ford plants.

"It's a combination of doing a lot of the right things," Mr. Shamo continues. "It's hard work." But the hard work paid off as Duncan Ford brought in $274 million on total unit sales of 11,668. The store became one of the first in the country to achieve Blue Oval certification.

"Customer loyalty is the most important thing," he adds. "Our lease renewal percentage is in the mid 70s, which is way above average."

Longo Toyota gained the top spot in the 2001 Ward's 500 with its guest-friendly attitude and catering to the various ethnic groups of Los Angeles. Longo's $487.1 million total revenues are based on a single Toyota franchise. Longo topped the multi-franchise Ricart dealership in Columbus, OH, last year's No. 1, this year's No. 2. Ford is Ricart's lead franchise.

Ricart Ford, owned by Rhett and Fred Ricart with total sales of $441.4 million on total unit sales of 25,308. New-car figures are based on the sales of Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan.

H.F. "Bert" Boeckmann II, owner of Galpin Ford of North Hills, CA - No. 3 on this year's list - realized that his service department was getting too big to effectively service his customers the way they were accustomed to being treated. "As you get larger, you really have to focus on customer service," says Mr. Boeckmann. "You also have to be creative. We made some adjustments from an experience standpoint."

Among the adjustments was dividing the service department into smaller units. Customers deal with only one person when they drop the car off and pick it up. Fletcher Jones Motorcars (Mercedes-Benz) moved up from fifth to fourth on the list, due in no small part to the $21.3 million its service department brings in.

It's open six days a week from 5 a.m.-10 p.m. General Manager Garth Blumenthal says the service department will expand to one and possibly two locations off site in the next 12 months. Mr. Blumenthal says this expansion also will make room for more retail space at the dealership.

"We're continuing to make some changes elsewhere in the dealership," Mr. Blumenthal adds. "We weren't putting much effort into people who were calling from 60 to 100 miles away. Now we are and it's having a positive impact on our sales."

The Fletcher Jones staff also is paying more attention to business coming from the Internet. E-mail response time is down to five minutes. Except for January, each of the last six months has set records for the dealership.

No. 2 Ricart now focusing more on Korean entry-level cars sales

After two consecutive number one rankings on the Ward's Dealer 500, Ricart Ford finds itself at number two this year.

"The Midwest has slowed down considerably since the fourth quarter of last year - especially with Ford sales," explains Fred Ricart, owner of the Columbus, OH multi-franchise dealership.

The Firestone issue was the culprit, he says. Consequently his new truck sales were off by more than 1,000 units compared to 1999. "We tried a variety of marketing programs, but none were effective," he says.

To compensate, he's focusing more on selling imports - specifically entry-level Korean vehicles. It's a course of action he never would have predicted five years ago.

He explains, "I see a shift. The younger market is less brand-conscious and they're more value-focused. They're less loyal to the dealer and to the brand."

Mr. Ricart surmises the generous warranties offered by the Korean brands is a big reason for the shift. The dealership has been able to market those brands effectively with Kia & Hyundai models. He adds, "We're just giving the people what they want."