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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Big Dealer

On seven acres in the Lancaster Auto Mall, construction is nearing completion on the largest Ram truck center in the area – and maybe the country. When the 40,000-square-foot Ram of the West center opens next month, it will represent a $10 million investment by H.W. Hunter Inc., operator of the Hunter Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram dealership in the north Los Angeles County city. The dealership sells all Chrysler products; the new truck center separates out the trucks into its own dedicated space, across 10th Street West from the existing dealership. Tom Fuller, co-owner of the dealer with his brother Tim Fuller, called the Antelope Valley a market where it’s easy to sell the full-size Ram truck. “We are one of the few markets in the U.S. that sells more Ram trucks than the other (brands),” Fuller said. The motivation to build Ram of the West came from the simple fact that the business had outgrown its existing dealership, especially in the service area. The new center was designed specifically with trucks in mind. The parking lot has wide stalls and the service bays feature heavy-duty lifts. Also, the sales staff and service technicians are knowledgeable about trucks. “You should be able to call and talk to any one of our sales people and they will be truck experts, which is something you will never find anywhere else,” Fuller said. While Fuller anticipates the local population will support the service end of the business, sales will be generated by buyers coming from elsewhere. About half of Hunter’s truck sales are from outside the Antelope Valley area, which takes in Lancaster and Palmdale and north to Rosamond, Tehachapi and Mojave, he added. People from the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys have bought trucks from the dealer, but they have also come from as far south as San Diego, and up north as far as Fresno, Fuller said. “Because we are able to have a lot of inventory and concentrate on trucks, we’ve been getting sales from all over the state,” he added. The dealership had 489 trucks in inventory last week. When the new space is built out, it can have well over 500. Hunter Dodge sold 1,020 Ram trucks last year, up from the 983 in 2016. It has consistently been the top selling Ram dealership in Los Angeles County, Fuller said. Total sales at the dealership were $100 million last year, Fuller said. With the dedicated new space, it may be the largest Ram dealership – by square footage but not by sales – in the country. At least, the Fullers have been told that, although it could not be independently verified. A new Ram truck at Hunter can start at $30,000 and can go up to $70,000. Outfitted trucks, such as the kind used by contractors, can go as high as $100,000. Used trucks at the dealer can start at about $20,000 and go up from there, Fuller said. ‘Best prices’ Lancaster Vice Mayor Marvin Crist said that what Ram of the West means for the city is that other dealers may follow Hunter’s lead by expanding in the auto mall. After all, the Chevrolet and Toyota dealerships there are among some of the top-selling in the region. There are 10 dealerships in the mall. “A lot of vehicles are being sold into the L.A. basin because we have the best prices,” Crist said. Crist estimated the city receives about $1 million from the Hunters’ current dealership in sales tax. “The lifeblood of a city is sales tax revenue,” Crist said. In addition to the potential for higher tax revenue from the new truck center, it will also add about 60 jobs, Fuller said. Ivan Drury, senior manager of industry analysis with Edmunds.com Inc., the online vehicle information provider in Santa Monica, said that with land costs being cheaper in Lancaster, it is favorable to Hunter if they have a large inventory of truck configurations. If a consumer is in the market for a new truck and can drive 10 miles but needs to order the truck they want and must wait for delivery versus driving to Lancaster to get the truck they want and drive it off the lot, Drury said that could “guarantee” business for the Lancaster dealership. “Nobody wants to wait,” Drury added. “If they can have the inventory on hand, it is a sure-fire way to get people through the door.” Hefty market Last year, in the full-size pickup category, Ram came in third in new sales with nearly 33,000 registrations, or about 20 percent of the market, according to the California New Car Dealers Association. The Ford F-Series was the best-selling full-size pickup last year with a nearly 34 percent market share followed by Chevrolet Silverado with a 26 percent share, the association said. Overall, including used trucks, light truck registrations in California increased by 7.4 percent last year, to just more than 1 million from 978,600 in the previous year, according to the association. Ram had the biggest percentage increase, hitting nearly a 20 percent gain, in the sales of used vehicles six-years-old or newer, the association said. Drury called truck buyers a dedicated type with one of the highest trade-in rates to buy another truck. And if the dealer they bought from made the experience a good one, that is all the better. “If you had a good experience five, six, seven years ago, I’m sure they will end up with your service once again,” he said. Dodge heritage Founded in 1944 by their grandfather, Hank Hunter, the brothers took over the dealership in 1997 when their father decided to retire. Despite the family tradition of selling cars, the brothers were not in the car business when they came to Hunter Dodge. Tom had been living in San Diego and worked retail. Tim was in Virginia where he was an administrator with the World Wildlife Fund. The pair learned about the business from the ground up by working through the various departments. Tom started out in sales and marketing while his sibling went into parts and service. “There are few jobs that we have not done between the two of us,” Tom Fuller said. “That is how it started.” Today, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US designs and manufactures three models of Ram trucks – the 1500, the 2500 and 3500 – as well as the Ram Chassis Cab and the Ram Promaster and Promaster City work vans. In the Antelope Valley, Hunter has developed a strong following from businesses, contractors and other tradesmen who will always need trucks. There are also residents who have horse trailers, camping trailers and fifth-wheel trailers that need a truck to tow them, Fuller said. “A lot of people just like to have trucks,” he added. “They ride so well now and get such good fuel economy that a lot of people take them for family cars.” Drury, of Edmunds, said that more well-to-do people are now buying trucks. With the average price at $45,000, dealers must attract a higher profile buyer, he added. “They could clearly buy a BMW, they could clearly buy a Mercedes or a Lexus or any other vehicle type,” Drury said. The bread and butter at Hunter comes from primarily single retail truck sales. The dealer has never been aggressive about going after large fleet sales to, say, an energy utility that has hundreds of trucks, Fuller said. While Hunter does have a fleet department. it handles sales to contractors who may need a handful of trucks up to those with 20 or 30 trucks. It has sold to the Los Angeles County Fire Department and few other agencies, but it is not a large part of the business, Fuller said. There is not a lot of upside to going after large fleet sales, he added. “It is a competitive business and there are dealers where that is all they do is fleet sales,” Fuller said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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