Wes Lutz is going to extremes.

It's not as radical as it sounds. But what the Jackson, MI dealer is doing is pretty wild in a lot of respects — advertising and otherwise.

The name of his five-year-old store is Extreme Dodge. Not a typical name for a dealership. His kid suggested it.

“I wanted a name with an “X” or “Z” in it,” says Mr. Lutz. “My nine-year-old son said, ‘I like Extreme.’ I said, ‘OK, Jacob.’ I called the zone manager and told him the name of the dealership. He said, ‘No really, what is it?’”

Then Mr. Lutz collaborated with Bob Dorogi of BRD Marketing in Jackson to develop an ad campaign. They decided on an animated character to represent the dealership.

“We were thinking of a Gumby-like character,” recalls Mr. Lutz. “We talked and talked and came up with the X-man.”

His body is an “X.” A blue head floats atop that. He wears cool-dude sunglasses.

He's become the star of TV, newspaper, radio and billboard advertising. Mr. Dorogi believes Extreme is the only dealership in the state to use animated advertising to such an extreme.

One 30-second spot — which Mr. Dorogi dubs “A day in the life of X-man” — shows the little guy coming alive by peeling off the side of the parts truck, running into the dealership, getting a pen from an office worker and taking a wrench from a mechanic. He then goes into Mr. Lutz's office and wildly spins around in his chair.

“There's no talk, but at the end a voice-over says, ‘Extreme, extreme, extreme…,’” says Mr. Dorogi who speaks quite fondly of the little character.

‘I called the zone manager and told him the name of the dealership. He said, ‘No really, what is it?’
— Wesley L. Lutz Extreme Dodge

A radio ad asks listeners to invite the X-man to dinner.

“Three people actually came in and did that,” says Mr. Dorogi, who once owned a radio station. “I know it's far-out but it works. It gets people into the dealership.”

One of his favorite uses of the X-man came about when he noticed many planes flying over the dealership.

“I asked Wes why so many planes, and he said the dealership is under a flight path of the local airport. That got me thinking…”

A giant image of the X-man was painted on the roof of the dealership. He's lying on his back and pointing the way to the airport. It's a whimsical pilot aid. It also generated a lot of publicity.

Says Mr. Dorogi, “We invited the media over for lunch, then we took reporters and camera people up in a rented helicopter to see the X-man on the roof. Local TV stations closed their newscasts that night saying, ‘There's a dealership in Jackson…’”

One of the first X-man commercials appeared on the local TV channel during the Super Bowl game four years ago. A lot of local folks were impressed, not realizing the ad didn't air nationally.

If it did, the ad would have cost a fortune. Still it set Mr. Lutz back $10,000 for the air time. It cost $13,000 more to create the animated spot in the first place. A professional animation firm in California did that at about $450 a second.

Mr. Lutz found an innovative and cheaper way to create subsequent X-man TV ads. He's arranged the production work to be done by students at the Jackson Career Center, an alternative education high school.

How good is the teens' finished product? Not bad at all, says Mr. Lutz.

He notes the students had a head start because the X-man character was already created, and the high schoolers worked from that. And, he adds, “An X is an X. It's not like they're designing the Sistine Chapel.”

Still, their work is top quality, he says.

He adds, “They do it as a term project. The school has one of the best video labs in the country. The students' work is wonderful. I defy anyone to look at the commercials and say it wasn't done by a professional agency in New York.”

Mr. Lutz can't directly pay the students or the school for the production work. Instead, compensation comes by awarding college scholarships and donating equipment.

He's proud that the dealership does things differently — and not just commercials.

Extreme Dodge occupies a 28,000-sq.- ft. building on I-94, on the Jackson outskirts. It was one of the first dealerships to locate out of town. Since then, Extreme has become the town's top dealership. Now the second best-selling dealership, a Chevy store, which had been first, is moving to a site next door to Extreme.

The Extreme Dodge building looks distinctive, especially at night when it's illuminated by high-wattage lights.

The building is all white. The outside walls, the inside walls, even the service floor, which, incidentally is heated to 82 degrees during cold months so the technicians stay warm enough.

The dealership has no management staff. Mr. Lutz calls it a Tier 1 organization.

Staffers are empowered to work and expected to work without managers looking over their shoulders.

“My six sales people do the deals from start to finish. They handle the paperwork, the F&I, the title work, everything,” says Mr. Lutz. “There's no turning the customer over to someone else.”

He says that business model wouldn't work for all dealerships. But it works for his.

“We do $42 million a year in sales with 33 people employed here. Other places would need 55 to handle that.”

The dealership sells about 150 new and used vehicles a month. Not bad for a mid-Michigan town with a 35,000 population. About 75% of those sales are repeat customers and referrals from established customers.

“We're not out to be the biggest, but we want to be the best,” says Mr. Lutz.