Blue balloons, amusing commercials, “Midnight Madness” sales and frequent raffle giveaways keep the sales numbers and customer satisfaction ratings aloft at the 22 dealerships of the Victory Automotive Group.

Ranked 31st on the Ward's Dealer Business Megadealer 100, Victory's stores are unique among megadealers by their dedication to mostly single-point Honda, Nissan and Toyota franchises.

Owner-president Jeffrey Cappo's philosophy centers on mass-volume brands and, to the surprise of many dealer groups, Victory has grown its annual revenues to $865.3 million last year without a single luxury brand.

No Acura, Infiniti or Lexus brands are to be found in Victory's portfolio. Instead, Victory's mantra concentrates on mass-market techniques, crowd-pleasing TV ads and Internet messages, as well as free loaners and drive-through auto washes.

The Victory ad agency, Ritz Marketing, based in Charlotte, NC, is the creator of such high-drawing commercials featuring a sultry spokeswoman with a salesman pitching a Fourth of July sale in front of a Victory showroom.

The his-and-her ads are changed for every holiday, with “Austin” and her salesman colleague dressed appropriately. So compelling are the ads that shoppers at the Victory stores ask to meet Austin.

Kathleen Ritz, the head of Ritz Marketing, also appears in some commercials. For on-camera work, she goes by the actress name of Kate Logan.

The Honda model line moves things along, too, says John Monteleone, general manager at Victory Honda in Plymouth, MI.

“It's not only attracting consumers that works for us,” he says. “It's also the fact that Hondas are such great cars and our showrooms are bright places to visit.

“What's more, our staff is upbeat, hot dogs are always on the grill and we're open from 9 to 9 daily, except Sundays,” he says. “And our washes are free to one and all.”

Victory stores depart from the norm in other ways. Vehicle loaners are free for any service.

The stores keep large inventories of new and pre-owned vehicles on hand, in the belief shoppers welcome the chance to select a car or truck on the premises.

The stores play up that they service all brands of vehicles, a policy which opens the door to conquest sales, says Brian Badrak, co-general manager of the Victory Honda store in Monroe, MI.

Sales people sell both new and pre-owned vehicles. “That way, customers are happier with a single salesperson rather than having to go back and forth,” Badrak says.

All finance and insurance transactions are videotaped to protect customers and salespeople alike.

The Victory group is headquartered in Morristown, TN, where Cappo began his dealership investment in the early 1990s as owner of a struggling Nissan store.

Cappo had been a vehicle salesman in the Detroit market. He resides in the nearby city of Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.

A former door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, Cappo learned the auto sales craft at Al Serra Chevrolet, Grand Blanc, MI, and Varsity Ford in Ann Arbor.

He is a staunch advocate of keeping track of all “ups” through business development centers.

Nissan stores take up a majority of the group's dealerships, and a Nissan open point northeast of Detroit was opened by Victory a year ago with a new building.

“Jeff has a facility for converting customer satisfaction into sales,” says an admiring Badrak. “We draw half of our customers from Detroit and the other half from Toledo (in northwest Ohio) because of our customer-satisfaction rating, which is sixth among all Honda stores.

“Having Hondas to sell certainly helps in that regard, but as Jeff says, the customer is the only thing that matters. That's why they come to us, which wouldn't be the case if they were treated badly.”

Cappo travels often to his stores, which are located also in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia.

Monteleone, 42, joined Victory Honda of Plymouth in 2004 and became general manager two years later. The store has grown into the No.1 Honda dealership in Michigan, with projected 2007 sales of about 2,000 new vehicles and 700 certified pre-owneds.

Badrak, 38, says a Victory goal is to “keep the fun in the dealership process — among customers and employees.”

He adds: “That sometimes takes a lot of coaching from the managers, showing our 45 employees at Monroe how to leave their problems at home. But that's what Victory is all about.”

Management is well paid.

“Our average general manager makes about $375,000 a year,” Cappo says. “They impress on each and every customer my belief that customers should leave really happy with their purchase. Our philosophy is not to be the cheapest game in town, but the very best game in town.”

Ritz Ad Agency, Victory Dealership Group Grow Together

Victory Automotive Group's creative advertising is the brainchild of Kathleen Ritz, 33, who founded Ritz Marketing in Charlotte, NC, eight years ago.

She added the Victory account in 2000. Appearing in some of the dealership group's ads, she believes in campaigns that define each Victory store and each of its dealers as a brand.

“There are four C's of marketing that our 10 employees apply for dealer advertising,” she says. “Consistency, cost-effectiveness, continuity and creativity.

She adds: “We keep in touch constantly with the general managers to gauge how effective our messages are.

Ritz became the marketing agency for Victory when it had six stores. It now has 22.

“We've grown together, and I think our consistent messages and unusual ads have played a big part in our success,” Ritz says.

Internet advertising is prominent in the Ritz scheme for Victory. Ritz says it is “indispensable for dealers reaching out to younger audiences.”
By Mac Gordon