ST. ALBANS, WV - Pray. Then sell. That's not practiced at any place of worship. But it is a daily ritual at West Virginia's top-volume dealer in a suburb of Charleston.

"The daily prayer started in 1992 when a retired professional baseball player who moved here from New Jersey, the late Pete Riggan, thought it was a good way to begin a sales work day," recalls C&O Motors' long-time general manager, Gene Walker.

"I don't know if we're the only dealership that holds prayers before sales meetings, but the idea sure has worked here. The personnel are focused, and we've steadily risen on the Ward's Dealer Business 500 after getting on it first in 1987."

Owned by James F. Love III, 70, C&O (Chevrolet & Oldsmobile) also has added Love Toyota and Love Lexus of St. Albans since its opening under the present management in 1966 on McCorkle Avenue.

Mr. Love remains active. He divested several North Carolina dealerships in the 1980s as his St. Albans business grew.

A separate truck center opened on the 23-acre spread on both sides of the avenue. So has a used-unit superstore. Mr. Walker says an SUV building will be completed this spring.

In 1999, C&O boosted its total revenues to about $180 million from $164.8 million the previous year.

Mr. Walker, a Charleston native who began working at C&O in 1969, credits four factors for the steady growth in a state not known for big dealerships. Those are:

* A 100-person sales force out of 200 employees. That includes 22 sales managers.

* Always keeping huge inventories, about 1,200 new vehicles and $6-1/2 million used. It was the 7th largest used-car dealer in volume on the 1998 Wards Dealer Business 500, with 4,143 used-unit deliveries and 5,098 new.

* The long-time service of managers, "with lots of repeat business from customers loyal to their brands and their salespersons and technicians."

* A consistent daily newspaper ad program of full-page spreads two newspapers. No TV is used, and very little radio, mainly on broadcasts of University of West Virginia football. Mr. Walker adds, "As for the Internet, we have a 50-page website, but no more than 5% of sales are made directly off the Internet, though 50% to 60% of our customers may look at the site." Besides the prayer sessions, with a roll call that brings responses of what individuals sold the day before, C&O is unique in its use of off-beat topical jingles in its newspaper ads. The day President Clinton was impeached, the Walker-written jingle read, "Other than that, how did the rest of your day go, Mr. Clinton?"

To remain an air of impartiality in a heavily Democratic state in Presidential and Congressional elections, the ads latched on to former President Bush's "read my lips" exclamation as well, and Mr. Walker expects the fireworks of the 2000 campaign to keep his ads highly watched-for and acted on.

The Toyota and Lexus surge over the past two decades has been a boon for C&O. It is the only Lexus dealership in the state, and Toyota has outsold Chevrolet for the company since the mid-1990s, when Toyota opened an engine plant at nearby Buffalo, WV.

Mr. Walker prefers to work out of a tiny office in the Chevy-Olds store rather than larger quarters in the Toyota building.

He recalls when imports accounted for a mere 6% of West Virginia's new-unit sales.

"Now it's one out of three or four, and C&O is the largest seller of Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicles in the U.S," he says.

Do the daily prayers play a role in C&O's steady growth despite its presence in a market of no more than 300,000 persons?

Says Mr. Walker, "I can't say one way or the other. The salespersons are free to pray for whatever they wish or not to attend the meetings. Many pray for the recovery of an ill loved one, or a successful new marriage, or for their kid's team to win the game, or for a good sales day.

"They feel better starting work after the prayer, and if they feel better, so does the management."