TAMPA - The building-block strategy of growing existing platforms has worked "like a charm" for the Asbury Automotive Group, which leaped into second place on the Ward's Dealer Business list of the Top 100 megadealers in 1999 with $4.1 billion in gross revenues.

The privately owned Asbury, based in Berwyn, PA, finished runner-up behind AutoNation, Inc., and slightly ahead of United Auto Group at year-end with acquisition of three stores from Frank Morsani's Precision Enterprises group in Tampa. They have been renamed Mercedes-Benz of Tampa, Infiniti of Tampa and Courtesy Nissan of Tampa.

With $4.1 billion in sales from 90 dealers with 120 franchises, says Asbury Chairman and CEO Thomas R. Gibson, "we have been successful in creating a national network with high-volume and top-profit dealers, whose principals remain in place and none of the concerns that have fallen on the publicly owned groups."

Mr. Gibson disclosed plans to roll out a tie up with Greenpoint.com, an auto sales Web site, across the Asbury network.

"We also are looking at a proposal to make JM&A Associates our preferred F&I provider," Mr. Gibson says. "JM&A and its World Omni subsidiary already cover all our Tampa stores and they excel in servicing and training."

J.I Wooley - CEO and president of the 13-store Asbury Automotive Tampa - says he enjoys being an Asbury platform chief "because they have a hands-off approach that lets quality principals run their businesses with minimum interference." His dealer background goes back to the Beaman stores in Nashville, TN, and the Swope outlets in Orlando.

"There's no stock-price agenda, either, nor is there any focus on the bigger-volume brands over the profitable niche brands," he says. "Our Infiniti, Mazda and Hyundai stores do very well."

Asbury's eight platforms have been unchanged, except for "spoke-to-hub" additions like the Precision trio on Tampa's N. Dale Mabry Blvd. auto row, since late 1998. The other platforms are based in Atlanta; Dallas; Greensboro, NC; Jacksonville, FL; Little Rock, AR; Portland, OR and St. Louis.

"Our strategy long-range is to build on these eight platforms, but to keep our eyes and ears open if a new opportunity arises in a market of one million to three million," Mr. Gibson says.

"We added a Ford dealer to the Scott Thomason platform in Portland, and with his Ford store are the biggest Ford seller in the Pacific Northwest. That's the kind of growth we like, rather than hop around buying anything and getting into trouble like some of the publicly owned."

Asbury Automotive Tampa competes with the AutoNation AutoWay dealerships in Tampa and across the bay in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, FL, but Mr. Wooley is newly ensconced in the glittering "hurricane-proof" Mercedes-Benz of Tampa facility and says he welcomes the challenge from AutoNation and its new CEO, former Mercedes-Benz of North America chief Michael J. Jackson.

"When you're a dealer in Tampa, as we are, or anywhere in Florida, you learn to live in Huizenga-land," says Mr. Wooley. "I like and respect Mike (Jackson) and about 60 of his dealerships are in Florida, but I know we can hold our own against them, or better."