The Ward’s Mega Dealer 100 is filled with colorful owners and principals – perhaps none more colorful than Tex Earnhardt, founder (1951) of the privately owned and family run Earnhardt Auto Group in metro Phoenix, AZ.

Now an active 73 years old, Tex Earnhardt shares management of the group with sons Hal and Jim. Jim updated Ward’s on the chain’s growth story and management philosophy, and offered insight into his father, whom even he calls “Tex.” Earnhardt Auto ranks 42nd on the Ward’s Mega Dealer 100.

Ward’s: How did Tex start in the auto retail business?

Earnhardt: He grew up in the Rio Grande area of southern Texas and quit school in the 10th grade to become a cowboy and rodeo performer. He left the rodeo circuit because it was not remunerative enough and, when he was 20, the family moved to Chandler, AZ, where he and his dad, Hal, took over a small gas station. They added a Ford franchise that had one new car on the lot. When one was sold, Tex had enough money to pick up another that was for sale.

Ward’s: What triggered the growth from those beginnings?

Jim Earnhardt

Earnhardt: TV was starting up and Tex used commercials featuring himself as a cowboy car dealer who rode a bull. His saying, “This ain’t no bull,” which means the bull is really a steer, became his trademark slogan.

Ward’s: As Earnhardt has grown, the slogan has stayed the trademark?

Earnhardt: It has. Tex, my brother Hal and I take part in our TV, print and Internet ads, a tradition for our 53-year history in the Phoenix metro market. “This ain’t no bull” means the Earnhardt dealerships are straight-shooters – and our high customer loyalty attests to our reputation.

Ward’s: And your headquarters’ office back in Chandler is where it all began?

“Tex” Earnhardt and sons, Hal (left), and Jim.

Earnhardt: That’s right. We moved here from Gilbert as part of a franchise expansion plan that includes four new ‘image’ dealerships. Our history goes back years, but we firmly believe new and updated real estate is key.

Ward’s: What are the franchises you’re adding?

Earnhardt: We rounded out our Ford line with a new Lincoln Mercury store in Tempe last year. We added Nissan in a new ‘image’ facility in Tempe, also in ’03. A new location opened last fall for the Honda-Volkswagen dealership in Avondale. On the way are new Lexus and Infiniti stores, and our first GM franchise, Pontiac.

Ward’s: How did you achieve such success with your flagship Dodge and Ford franchises?

Earnhardt: It’s a combination of a commitment to excellence and customer satisfaction. Our 1,400 employees are second to none in Arizona, and we stimulate them with vacation trips to places like Hawaii and London, bonuses and the fact that one of us Earnhardts is present at all times we’re open. That’s seven days a week in Arizona, although I wish we could close Sundays.

Ward’s: No.1 in Dodge nationwide? How did that come about?

Earnhardt: Tex has firmly maintained all along that “being second is being the first loser.” All the Earnhardt franchises but one are No.1 in Arizona. The Dodge franchise, as a result, took over the national lead thanks to its Caravans, Rams, Dakotas and Durangos being so popular in Arizona. We lost the national Dodge lead in 2002 to that Internet dealer in Kellogg, ID, Dave Smith, but we’ll be close this year.

Ward’s: How’s business this year?

Earnhardt: In March, we set a new monthly record with 2,400 new and used unit sales. If that pace keeps up, we’ll top last year’s and 2002’s 25,000 retail sales, each. Our gross revenues did rise in 2003 to $609 million from $591 million.

Ward’s: You do quite well with subprime. What’s the secret?

Earnhardt: We have a dedicated subprime lot, called ‘Mr. Ed,’ and staffed by members of the Murphy family. All our stores feed that lot with vehicles for nonprime buyers, which is a large market in Phoenix. We have run twice-weekly public auctions at that location – a big hit and highly successful.

Ward’s: Your Internet site and TV commercials are the talk of the town. How do you approach them?

Earnhardt: Everyone recognizes Tex from riding bulls on his ranch at Chandler, and now he motorcycles with some buddies to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja peninsula two or three times a year. What that underscores is why our dealerships excel, because Earnhardt is on every dealership’s name, and we’re here backing up the products we sell. We advertise Ford Blue Oval, Chrysler-Jeep and Dodge Five Star awards and Honda firsts in CSI that add to our credibility. By the way, my dad flies his own plane and is an avid runner.

Ward’s: What’s next? More franchises? Going public? Expanding outside Arizona?

Earnhardt: We’ve had seven or eight offers from public companies, but that would not suit our philosophy of being Earnhardt dealerships. Our plate is full as far as more franchises are concerned. Phoenix is where we want to stay.