NORWOOD, MA - Driving down the heavily dealered Route 1 in Norwood, MA, south of Boston, one might think that every automotive retail outlet was owned by one Ernest J. Boch. They aren't, of course, but most are.

He has a Toyota dealership on that strip, an Oldsmobile store, a Kia franchise, a Mitsubishi store, a used-car operation and a state-of-the-art Honda store under construction. His Subaru distributorship is a mile off of Route. 1.

Mr. Boch's empire began humbly when his father, Andrew, opened and operated a small service garage. In 1945, Andy Boch acquired a Rambler franchise. Ernie's earliest and most memorable experiences were on the showroom floor, where he started as a car salesman. The excitement and challenge of retail car sales has kept him devoted to the automobile business for more than 40 years.

"My father got the Nash franchise," relates Mr. Boch in his spacious Norwood office. "That's how it all started. They said, `Andy, you won't be able to sell more than 60 new cars a year,' because that's all this area called for."

In the late 1940s, Mr. Boch's father's bookkeeper embezzled enough cash to nearly bankrupt the business. Then Andy Boch got sick and young Ernie came to his father's rescue, with help from an emergency loan from Merchant's Bank, which became Fleet Bank.

"Fifteen years later, we were the number one Rambler dealer in the United States," says Mr. Boch proudly.

During that 15 years, Mr. Boch fell in love with selling cars, or `caahs,' as he says in his Boston accent.

"I was working in the parts department and ordered all the wrong parts," he recalls. "I was working pumping gas...it was just a job...until one day, this guy by the name of Joe Lineberry came in and there was nobody there but me, so I said I think I'll try to sell him a car. That day, with the negotiating and back and forth, that's what really got me started. I said oh, this is competitive, I love this. So I had found my niche, so to speak."

That could be the understatement of the century. Since that epiphany, Mr. Boch created an empire, which really took shape in 1971.

"From Rambler, we took Dodge and we were number one with Dodge, then we dropped Dodge and took Oldsmobile and took on Toyota and became the distributor for Subaru in New England," he says. "That was a busy year."

He is the number one Toyota dealer in the region and in the top 10 nationally. His Oldsmobile dealership also is number one in New England and Boch Mitsubishi is "tops" in the Boston market.

Most notabe, perhaps, is his Subaru distributorship. It sells cars and parts to 60 dealers in New England, and holds 16% of national sales in about 6% of the market, based on competitive registration data.

"What's unusual about that is the 60 dealers are all exclusive dealers, selling nothing but Subaru," says Mr. Boch, who uses a Citation jet to visit dealers in his distributorship's region. "Nowhere else in the world does that exist."

Subaru's New England region is second of seven in total sales and number one in sales per store. "Our goal would be to beat the Western region, which has 130 dealers to our 60. I think it's doable if we get more dealers, get better dealers."

For all of his success, Mr. Boch has had to weather several storms. "In 1991, I had 15,000 cars, 7,000 cars at the port," he recalls. "This was very touchy. That's a lot of cars with no dealers to sell them. They had all the inventory full. We got through it. I had to spend more money, approximately $35 million. I had to do different things. But we got through it."

Even a man who has been in the auto business for more than 50 years has goals, which are driven by his competitiveness. It's likely the same drive that motivates him to jog every day.

"In Toyota, I don't think we can beat Longo in California," says Mr. Boch of a big West Coast dealership. "He's number one. But I think we can be second in the United States. There's no reason why we couldn't be number one with Mitsubishi, number one with Kia, number one with Oldsmobile.

"Honda doesn't have a Longo, they're not selling that many cars," he continues. "Why couldn't we be number one with Honda? Who says we can't? There's no law. It's all how determined you are. And the better people we get, the better we do."

Mr. Boch is convinced that his success comes from getting the best people to work in his dealerships.

"We like to be competitive and it all comes down to one thing: who's able to get the best people. That's the whole key," he says. "You've got to create an environment that's conducive to them wanting to come to work for you by virtue of the actual physical layout, the benefits, the pay, the fun."

Over the years, Mr. Boch's organization has prospered and diversified. Today, his empire includes four radio stations on Cape Cod, a bank acquisition company called El Dorado Bancshares and a marina on Martha's Vineyard Island in addition to the automotive holdings.

"I grew up here in Norwood, went to Norwood High, so I haven't progressed very far," says Mr. Boch with a chuckle.

His charitable causes include an annual barbecue at his Martha's Vineyard estate for Camp Jabberwocky, a camp for children with cerebral palsy. He donated $2.6 million to The Boch Center for the Performing Arts on Cape Cod. Last year, he donated one of his radio stations to Boston University. He also gives college scholarships to students from Norwood and contributes to the cardiac care unit at Norwood Hospital.