after half a CENTURY, bert boeckmann STILL RULES the largest automobile dealership in the world Bert Boeckmann has been in the car business since 1953, taking Galpin Ford in the San Fernando Valley from a small obscure dealership to the largest in the country with 20,000 vehicles sold annually. He expanded his business empire to include Galpin Lincoln/Mercury in 1988; Saturn of the Valley, the first Saturn dealership in the Valley, in 1990; and Galpin Jaguar in 1995. Currently, he is building a state-of-the-art Lincoln and Jaguar dealership across the street from the Ford dealership in North Hills. Besides running his car dealerships, Boeckmann has been a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission since 1984, first appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley and, after a brief break, reappointed by Mayor Richard Riordan in 1991. Among Boeckmann’s many philanthropic works have been the donation of 80,000 Spanish language books to the USC Library and the funding of Galpin Hall at the Valley Presbyterian School. Question: How is the Firestone tire recall affecting your business? Answer: We’ve been fortunate because I haven’t seen any negative impact on our sales. In fact, what surprised me was that, for the first two weeks after the recall, our sales were up substantially from a year ago. At the same time, it has been a very formidable task to undertake the changing of the tires. Those customers that have a concern want it done immediately and, of course, if you don’t have the inventory to do it, it is pretty difficult to make those changes. However, I think we have a good handle on it now and we prioritize on the basis of whether the customer is going to do any travelling or undertake a long drive. Q: From a marketing perspective, it put a big dent in Ford’s image. A: Unfortunately, it is a dent but, in my mind, Ford acted very responsibly once they recognized what the problem was. We can always be critical and say people should have done this or that, but it is different if you’re trying to determine whether there is a real problem other than those things that are just going to happen and that are beyond anyone’s control. I think Ford acted responsibly in supplying additional tires and in coming to the dealers and saying, “Do for the customers what needs to be done to make sure that they’re handled as well as they possibly can be.” Q: How has the business changed since you started back in the 1950s? A: The biggest change that I have seen is that people want their sales transaction to happen more quickly. When I first started in the business, I might spend nearly a day selling the customer the car, going through the whole process. It was at a very easy pace, it was going to be a major decision about what they were going to spend and so there was no push to want to finalize the deal. In fact, you really developed some wonderful relationships with your customers because you got to know each other quite well. Today, we took a measure on it to find out what people’s thought processes are, and the large majority tells us that, from the time they select their car and sit down to do the deal and settle on a price, they want to drive out in an hour and a half. In the measure, I have had people tell me anything from 30 minutes to eight hours, and I believe that the guy who said eight hours must have been retired. Q: How have things changed for the salespeople? A: The salespeople today have to be more knowledgeable and more accurate in what they say. We have a lot more product than we used to have, and we have a lot more within the product, the cars, than we used to in terms of options. On the other side, what works against them, is that we have a lot more regulation so that means there is a lot more documentation. There is more documentation in buying a car than there is in buying a house. And there are more issues to address. You have not just the sales price of the vehicle but, more often than not, you have the value of the trade-in, you got the financing, you got items like an extended warranty, you have to be sure that he is insured before he drives out of the dealership. So, you have a whole number of issues that you’re dealing in with in a transaction so it is not like buying a TV or anything else.” Q: Are you still closely involved with the day-to-day running of the dealerships? A: I work every day. I’m here five to six days a week, and if I’m not working here on Saturday, I’m normally working at home. I still enjoy it. I arrive at 8 in the morning and leave between 6 and 7 at night. Q: Do you still deal with the customers regularly? A: Oh yes. I’ve got customers that go back four generations. I’ve sold cars to the great-grandfather, the grandfather, the father and the son. From that standpoint, although I don’t necessarily work the deal and don’t go out and demonstrate the car and do all that, we always chat a little bit and usually I oversee the transaction to make sure it goes smoothly for them.” Q: You grew Galpin from a small lot to the biggest in the country. How did you go about that? A: Actually, we’ve been the largest one in the world for the last 10 years. When I started Galpin it was in the city of San Fernando, we had a three-car showroom and were located on an acre and a half of land. We retailed maybe 20 or 25 new cars and around 30 or 35 used cars a month. I started out as a salesman, then I became his manager and then (Galpin) offered me an opportunity to buy into his dealership, which I did over a period of time, and ultimately bought the dealership. Q: Are there any particular business decisions you made that you think of as crucial to your success? A: I’m not sure that I made them or that they weren’t forced on me to a degree. If I’m trying to treat you, the customer, the way I want to be treated myself, and I really do care about you, you’re going to want to come back and do more business with me, and with you comes your family and friends. And as my business grows, if I can continue to do this through the people who work for me, what happens is that I’m forced to expand. And as I expand, I try to say, “What is it that, if I were a customer that comes here, I would want to have when I come to this dealership?” So, we put a restaurant in our dealership, which we’ve had now for 34 years, and the only thing that keeps me from enlarging it is that it would infringe on our parking. Q: Are you concerned about increased competition from online car dealers? A: Well, we’re on the Internet, so we’re pretty familiar with what’s happening. We find that the majority of our customers go to the Internet site for information, but most of the sales are still done at the dealership, and it’s a real advantage to come to the dealership. So often customers find things that they didn’t know existed or colors they like better or whatever it is. Plus, if they have a trade-in, they want that handled. And there is just a difference when you have that relationship within the dealership, because you’re going to come back to it probably for service, and it is nice to have the comfort of coming in and knowing where you’re going and who to talk to. Q: You have been a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission which, in light of the Rampart scandal, has been criticized for not implementing the recommendations of the Christopher Commission. A: People always go back to the same things and talk about them, but most of the time they haven’t taken the time to find the truth. I’m very familiar with the Christopher Commission’s recommendations and I believed in and agreed with most of the recommendations. The key to a lot of the recommendations and any that weren’t implemented usually came down to dollars. They were very costly and the City Council had to agree to spend the money before the commission could do anything. So, if you see any that have not been completed, you have to ask, were they given the money and when were they given the money. Q: Why do you think there is the perception that the Police Commission has not been active enough in addressing the problems with the LAPD? A: One problem that the commission has is that there are many things that we really cannot properly talk about. In fact, in some cases we were told by the city attorney not to talk about them, and that puts us at somewhat of a disadvantage.