The large dealer groups follow population growth and avoid cold weather woes.

Top Dealer Chains Bask in Sunbelt

By Mac Gordon

The top eight megadealers in the U.S. have clustered their stores in six Sunbelt states, following the nation’s population growth and avoiding the North’s seasonal weather problems.

A Ward’s Dealer Business survey shows 495 dealerships owned by the eight top-volume dealership groups, or 51 % of the total of 957, are located in California (155), Texas (129), Florida (73), Georgia (51), North Carolina (46) and Arizona (41).

The concentration on warm climates for dealership growth has left 13 states, mostly in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, without any stores owned by the six publicly owned megas and two privately owned stores ranked in the upper bracket, Van Tuyl, Inc. and Hendrick Automotive Group.

In building their networks, four of the top-ranked megadealers amassed their largest holdings in their home states: AutoNation, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, has 47 stores in Florida; Group 1 Automotive, based in Houston, has 33 stores in Texas; Lithia Motor, headquarters in Medford, has 16 stores in Oregon; and Hendrick, of Charlotte, has 25 stores in North Carolina.

California and Texas are the only states where all eight top megadealers are represented. No.1 AutoNation has amassed 59 dealerships in California, more than it owns in Florida and 14 more than Sonic Automotive has there.

The top-volume national dealership chain also has acquired 30 stores in Texas. That puts 136 of its 287 stores in three of the most populous states.

UnitedAuto Group and Sonic are the most diversified of the eight in number of states where stores are located. UAG operates in 20 states plus Puerto Rico, the U.K. and Brazil; its largest state holding is 18 in Arizona.

Sonic, operating in 15 states, has gone cross-country for its largest state collection of 45 in California, followed by 21 in Texas and only six in its home state of North Carolina, with headquarters in Charlotte.

Other Big 8 highlights:

Van Tuyl Inc.’s 54 stores grossed a record $5.2 billion in 2003, landing in 4th place on the Ward’s Mega Dealer 100. It is concentrated in Texas, with 19 stores, and Arizona, with 10. Co-CEOs are Cecil Van Tuyl and son Larry.

UnitedAuto and Group 1 are the only top megas with dealerships in New England. UAG has four in Connecticut and 10 in Rhode Island, and Group 1 owns the Ira group of 11 in Massachusetts.

The largest state without a dealership in the Big 8 is Pennsylvania. Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Hawaii are the others without.

UAG has its roots in New Jersey, where it owns 16 stores. That’s been eclipsed by18 in Arizona, following the debut of UAG’s luxury auto mall in Scottsdale, outside Phoenix.

Asbury Auto, based in Stamford, CT, has remained a South/Southeast collection since its founding in the mid-1990s.

Lithia, a specialist in midsize markets, and Hendrick are the only members of the Big 8 to implant their names on most of their stores. There are no AutoNation, Sonic, Van Tuyl, Group 1, UAG or Asbury stores named after the parent companies.

UAG Chairman and CEO Roger Penske’s separate Penske group in Southern California is not part of UAG. The group owns the No.1 store on the Ward’s Dealer 500, Longo Toyota of El Monte, CA, and grossed $1.34 billion in 2003 to rank 14th on the Ward’s top 100 groups.