Talk with auto dealer Rick Case and you might think the recent recession had never occurred.

He runs Rick Case Automotive Group, headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and sells new and used vehicles from 16 dealerships in three states, selling more than 21,000 vehicles a year.

The company has grown primarily by acquiring open points. Case and his wife, Rita, co-own the auto group. Growing up, her family operated Honda of Santa Rosa in California.

She handles the financial end of the Case group, while her husband handles marketing, factory relations, sales and real estate issues.

The Case group runs Honda, Hyundai and Mitsubishi dealerships in Cleveland and Audi, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia in metro Atlanta. It operates Acura, Hyundai, Smart and Honda dealerships in south Florida.

The company also specializes in Honda motorcycles, one of Rick Case’s early passions.

Case’s Honda operations, his firm’s largest unit, were ranked No.20 on the 2010 Ward’s Dealer 500 list with total 2009 revenue of $160 million

That rose to $192 million in 2010, “our 48th year and the most profitable in our history,” Case says. He consistently has been one of the country’s top Honda dealers since opening shop in 1972.

The group also holds records for the most Hondas sold in a month – 1,222 in August, 2003; and most Acuras in a month, 367 in December, 1999.

In 1986, Case opened the first Acura and Hyundai dealerships in Fort Lauderdale and, at one point, ranked as the world’s largest Acura dealer for seven consecutive years.

Ranking No.59 on the Ward’s Megadealer 100, the Case auto group’s annual revenues increased from $420 million in 2009 to more than $564 million for 2010, Case says.

Sure, the economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 scorched the dealership group. But Case says it made the necessary adjustments before the recession could cause too much damage.

The group had about 1,000 employees in 2008, but laid off roughly 20% between October and December. Then it cut inventory.

After making those changes, “we had a great year profit-wise,” Case says.

His business philosophy is simple. “Treat every customer like you would your best friend.”

Case also keeps up with popular customer programs, including loyalty reward cards with which customers get discounts by earning points for every purchase.

Operating like a mini-village, Case’s group offers other services, such as free car washes for customers at most stores, a discount fuel center, onsite county clerk’s office in the main location to obtain standard services and a voting precinct station. He serves breakfast and lunch to volunteers and election workers.

“It’s a way to set ourselves apart from other dealerships,” Case says of the diverse services. “The whole point of all the services is to get people used to coming back here.”

He makes sure sales personnel hand out business cards to all customers, who also get his own card. It includes his home phone and cell phone numbers. That’s a first important step to developing customer trust, he says.

The group’s management structure includes Chief Operating Officer Jack (J.J.) Jackintelle and Chief Financial Officer Joe Suitt. They oversee directors in fixed operations, marketing and finance and insurance departments.

To keep connected to management and employees, the Case group holds monthly management meetings and annual all-employee banquets onsite in the three states. There are also monthly kick-off meetings in all stores where Rick and Rita Case or Jackintelle make appearances.

Rick and Rita Case met 33 years ago at a Honda 20-Group, at which dealers from different markets gather to exchange ideas.

They were the only singles there. He recalls doing “a big selling job” to get his bride-to-be to move from California to Akron, OH, his home at the time.

But one thing Case knows how to do is sell. They wed three years later. They’ve been marriage and business partners since then.

Their two children are in the business, too. Son Ryan operates the motorsports operations and daughter Raquel is a general manager in the Smart group.

Raised in Akron, Case at age 14 sold his first car, an old Ford, from the driveway of his family home. He spent some years selling used cars and motorcycles after that.

Then in 1967, he graduated to new cars, selling Toyotas and Fiats after the Italian auto maker first entered the U.S. market.

Case bought his first Honda franchise 39 years ago from an Akron Ford dealer, paying $6,500 for it, including inventory and parts. The seller had the franchise for a year and wasn’t paying much attention to it, having sold 25 Hondas that year, Rick Case says.

Already a Honda fan, Case sold the cars out of his motorcycle dealership, delivering 103 new Hondas in one month.

He became the largest Honda dealer in the country, as well as the brand’s first dealer in the U.S. to sell more than 100 new cars in one month. “I bought virtually every car in every warehouse in the United States and some from other dealers,” he recalls of those early months.

That led to his second Honda dealership in Cleveland in 1973. Expansion came fast after that, as he added six other major brands to the group portfolio. He also became one of the first U.S. Smart dealers in 2008.

With Fiat returning to the U.S. under Chrysler, Case has further expansion in his sights. Fiat has talked to him about selling its cars. The Cases also may add more Kia and Hyundai outlets, because those Korean brands are hot.

Meanwhile, Case has seen major expansion and growth occur in the Hyundai line over the years. “It’s a great product, reasonably priced with an industry tops warranty,” he says.

He should know about the warranty side. He originally talked a reluctant Hyundai into the 10-year/100,000 mile (160,000 km) warranty program when he served on a Hyundai Dealer Council. That was in 1997 when such long-term protection was unprecedented.

He decided to place Hyundai and Kia stores outside Atlanta in Duluth, which has a large Korean population. He also has Audi and Mazda franchises there.

The couple’s other passion is philanthropy and charitable causes. The Cases support 30 community and charitable organizations.

A pet project is the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County, FL, for which Case hosts the Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, an annual car show along the lines of the Pebble Beach show in California and the Meadowbrook Concours in Michigan.

The Boca show attracts star power guests such as Jay Leno, and raised about $1 million in one charity event last year. In 25 years, the Cases have raised more than $50 million for the one organization.