NORWOOD, MA - John P. Madden Jr. admits freely to being a party animal in his younger years, but since the mid-1970s, his focus on Jack Madden Ford on the Auto Mile in this town south of Boston has been intense.

"In May of 1974, the Middle East shut off the oil and we were really up against it," Mr. Madden recalls. "My father called me in and said, `If you can keep this together, you can have it.' And here we are."

Mr. Madden took the traditional route to the top of the dealership, starting as a "lot kid" and working his way through the service department, the sales floor and various management posts. He took the place over for good in 1991, when his father, John P. Madden Sr., now 90, retired. The elder Madden founded the business in 1957. It's been in the same location on Route 1 the whole time.

The dealership sells 2,000 new and 1,200 used vehicles per year. The new vehicle split is 500 cars to 1,300 trucks.

There are three keys to the success of his operation, says the son. The first is cost control. The second is customer service. The third is working closely with his sales staff to improve their individual numbers.

"We do a good job in controlling costs," says Mr. Madden, who is president of the Massachusetts State Auto Dealers Association. "We have a small facility with a one-car showroom and we deliver 70 units per week.

"We service the living daylights out of our customers," he continues. "We have a climate-controlled, drive-up service department that our customers love. We try to use the `Nordstrom' approach to service."

The third of Mr. Madden's keys to success arguably is the most important. He has 24 sales people. The top 20% do 80% of the business. He leaves them alone. The bottom 20% does negligible business, and they eventually go away. But the middle 60%, which does 20% of the business can improve...with help.

"We work closely with the salesmen to develop their business," says Mr. Madden. "If we can get that middle 60% from 10 deliveries per month to 15 or 16, that works."

In the 130-employee Madden organization, there is one team leader to every four sales persons. The team leaders work with the sales people every day in one-on-one training to help them improve their performance.

Jack Madden Ford is right in the middle of Ernie Boch's dealership empire in metro Boston's Auto Mile. What's that like?

"It's a non-event," says Mr. Madden. "My competition in new cars are my fellow Ford dealers. When people get to the Auto Mile, they've already made their minds up about what kind of car they want."

The used-car side is another matter. "Ernie Boch is a wonderful competitor," Mr. Madden says. "He's very good and has a huge advertising budget, compared to ours."

Mr. Madden suspects that he gets a bit of used-car business as a result of Mr. Boch's advertising.

"They might be driving to a Boch store for a used car, pass our place and stop in to see what we've got."