In cementing its fourth-place ranking among megadealers, the V.T. (Van Tuyl) network went where other megas feared to tread last year and purchased six stores in three booming metro markets.

The 41-dealership V.T. group posted a 26.2% jump in total revenues to $3.5 billion on 1999 sales of 191,735 new and used vehicles.

Cecil Van Tuyl and son Larry for 30 years have assembled the privately owned V.T. network. The steady growth affirms a popular description of Cecil Van Tuyl, 73, as the "best" dealer in the U.S.

Mr. Van Tuyl's pursuit of a high-quality dealership collection underscores his focuses on training, customer and employee satisfaction and F&I penetration.

Headquartered in Shawnee Mission, KS, near Kansas City, Mr. Van Tuyl and his Phoenix-based son have set models for dealership performance that a competitor in Dallas says preceded the 1990s movement towards CSI-minded dealerships by "at least 15 years."

The dealerships purchased by V.T. in 1999, as other top megas pulled back from the expansion market, are:

Boomershine Pontiac, Gwinnett Place Ford and Gwinnett Place Nissan, all of Atlanta; Bell Honda, Phoenix; Scottsdale Nissan, Scottsdale, AZ, a Phoenix suburb, and Bellevue Motors, a Chevrolet store in Seattle.

The "best" description for the Van Tuyls comes from James C. Perkins, president and CEO of the Ward's Dealer 100 sixth-place Hendrick Automotive Group and former general manager of Chevrolet Division.

After the Hendrick chain lost its No. 1 berth to the now AutoNation Inc. empire in 1997 and was eclipsed by V.T. for runner-up, Mr. Perkins said "Cecil always has pursued a growth-with-quality business model at every dealership he owns or buys. His numbers tell the story."

In 1999, those numbers again exceeded many groups in per-dealer results.

The 41 V.T. stores, paced by a Phoenix trio that includes top-performing ABC Nissan, Van Chevrolet and Camelback Toyota, averaged $3.4 million in service department sales; $2.9 million in F&I income; a formidable $5.5 million in parts and accessories sales, and $1.6 million in body shop revenues.

The Van Tuyls strongly believe fixed operations and F&I contribute to customer loyalty and repeat sales of new and used vehicles.

The V.T. group in 1999 reported that three of its service departments exceeded $7 million in revenues; one exceeded $7 million and three exceeded $6 million in F&I; six passed $10 million in parts, and six topped $4 million in body shop results.

Reportedly resistant to offers to merge with any publicly owned megagroups, V.T. has joined in forming the Denver-based Internet Auto Dealers Association. Its auto sales website, Driveoff.com, also is co-owned by several other top western megas.