“Look at Disney World. Do people go there just for the rides? No, you can find rides at local amusement parks. People go to Disney World for the experience. It's the same way at Planet Ford.”

IT WASN'T INTENDED TO BE ONE OF MY FIRST questions to Randall Reed, but it just came out.

“How old are you?” I said.

“Forty-two,” he said.

“Forty-two? You look like you're in your mid-20s!”

“Yeah, I know,” he said with resignation. Obviously I wasn't the first person to make that observation.

I didn't expect the principal of several dealerships to look so, well, youthful. Yet Mr. Reed, judging from his background, vision and success as a dealer has obviously been around.

He's chairman and CEO of The World Class Automotive Group, owner of Planet Ford (one of the biggest Ford stores in the country) and five other Texas dealerships.

Planet Ford, dubbed the world's first “Autotainment Mall,” features a space-age theme and is intended as a fun place to buy a car.

It's the $18.5 million brainchild of Mr. Reed and Michael Graves, a designer specializing in theme facilities. It was at an Indian Princesses' camp outing for their 10-year-old daughters that the two men started talking about converting a conventional metro Houston dealership with a plain name, Interstate Ford, into a theme dealership with a catchy name, Planet Ford.

“We had some wild ideas,” recalls Mr. Reed. “We were originally going to build a huge retention pond in the front, and stage water skiing shows there. Then the insurance company learned about that.”

Planet Ford is grounded in Mr. Reed's belief that an enjoyable “dealership experience” helps sells cars.

He explains, “Look at Disney World. Do people go there just for the rides? No, you can find rides at local amusement parks. People go to Disney World for the experience. It's the same way at Planet Ford.”

It's paying off.

He says, “Since opening Planet Ford we have totally bucked the current downtrend by more than a 50% upswing in new and used business. But that's not the greatest part. Since opening, our gross averages per vehicle sold has gone up over $600. Keep in mind I do business in one of the most competitive dealership regions in the nation.”

Mr. Graves recalls that in discussing plans for Planet Ford, “Randall said it has to be totally different or it will fail. For a car guy to say that is saying a lot.”

Mr. Graves next design project is to convert another of Mr. Reed's stores into a second theme store. For Hillcrest Ford Lincoln Mercury in Huntsville, TX, Mr. Reed envisions a Texas history theme featuring the heritage of Sam Houston and such.

The Planet Ford project had its detractors.

“Not too many people believed in this project,” Mr. Reed says. “A Dallas Morning News article said it wouldn't work, that people don't want fun at a dealership, they want the best price. I said, ‘Just watch.’”

It was sometimes no fun building a fun dealership. Planet Ford required a total retrofit and expansion of an existing dealership while staying open for business.

“The construction was disruptive,” says Mr. Reed. “A lot of dealerships wouldn't have survived it. It went on for two years.”

Mr. Reed's first dealership job was as a service technician in his hometown of Denver. He went to work at Ralph Schompp Oldsmobile in 1977 after attending trade school.

In 1980, Courtesy Ford in Denver hired him as a salesman. His career took off under the mentorship of Courtesy owners, the late Bill Beck and Terry Dixon.

“They saw I had raw talent. I've always been good at thinking out of the box, of bringing a concept to reality. They encouraged that.”

By 1986, he was the dealership's general manager. In 1988, at the age of 29, he and Mssrs. Beck and Dixon, started Prestige Ford in Garland, TX.

“They were great partners,” says Mr. Reed. “They shaped me into what I am today. We ended up with six dealerships.”

Prestige Ford is no longer one of them. It's now owned by Jerry Reynold, chairman of the National Ford Dealer Council. Mr. Reed hired him at Prestige.

Mr. Reed operates all his dealerships through equity partnerships.

“I learned that in Colorado,” he says. “If I have my life savings on the line, my partners have to have theirs on the line, too.”

He resides in Springboat Springs, CO, on a ranch with his wife and three children, ages eight to 12.

Is it tough living in Colorado and owning dealerships in Texas?

“No,” he says. “I can be everywhere or nowhere. I have a cell phone. I'm connected with the Internet. I fly my own plane. And again, I have equity partners. I tell my guys, ‘The greatest compliment I can pay you is not coming down to visit.’”

(A story on the way they sell cars at Planet Ford is on page 14. For a feature on the theme dealership itself, see the JM&A Today supplement in the July '01 Ward's Dealer Business.)

Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business. His e-mail address is: sfinlay@primediabusiness.com