The lights have been knocked out by a blustery winter storm, and Rhett Ricart, CEO and owner of Ricart Automotive Group, Columbus, Ohio, is preparing for a holiday party with a guest list of 800 as he sits down to talk to NADA Show Magazine. “There’s a power outage today affecting the whole area. Traffic lights are out, everything,” says Ricart with a chuckle.
Nevertheless, Ricart is excited to talk about the family business he has been involved in since he and his brother Fred were kids. “It was my father’s dream,” says Ricart about Paul Ricart Sr.’s decision to buy a Ford dealership in 1953. “My dad had a lot of good ideas—loaner cars, Saturday service hours. He provided the vehicle for the community welcome wagon service for new residents.” He even had a big mannequin of himself with a cowboy hat (“The Spineless Salesman”) placed on the lot, and if someone came by and was interested in a car, they could slip a note into his pocket.
Building a Business
Ricart graduated from Ohio State University with a marketing degree in 1978 and owned a vehicle-repo company before returning to the family dealership in 1981. The next year, Rhett and Fred assumed co-ownership of the store. “When my brother and I came along, we were in the lowest 20th percent of dealerships,” says Ricart of that period, which coincided with a recession in the early 1980s. “By 1986, we were the No. 1 Ford dealer in the United States.”
Ricart credits the turnaround to his involvement with the Ford 20 Group, a willingness to innovate and embrace change, and his brother’s marketing savvy. The Ricarts have their own on-site production studio, which at one point was cranking out more than 60 television commercials a year.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, the Ricart Automotive Group continued to expand, buying and selling a variety of brands and franchises. Today, the dealership group holds Ford, Genesis, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan franchises, employs more than 560 people, and sells more than 16,000 new and used vehicles a year.
Working With NADA
Looking for a way to give back to the industry, Ricart became involved with the Columbus Automobile Dealers Association, where he was president in 2012-2013 and chair of the Columbus International Auto Show in 2011-2013.
For the past four years, Ricart has been actively involved with NADA, including serving as the Regulatory Affairs Committee chairman. He was NADA vice chairman in 2019 and continues to represent Ohio’s franchised new-car dealers on the NADA board.
“I’ve always been active in state associations, so NADA was a natural step,” Ricart says. “NADA always has an eye on the future. It is aware of everything that’s going on in the industry, and a lot of that comes from working closely with ATAE and state associations and the ability to start dealing with issues when they’re only campfires.”
In 2020, Ricart says, NADA will face important issues head on, despite all the noise around “a presidential election that will be expensive and exciting.” At the top of the list is how to protect, store, use and share customer data in a clear, fair and efficient manner.
“I believe the dealer should be the conduit of our customers’ data. The retail customer shook the hand of the dealer during the transaction. Since we are the point of contact and they rely on us for the security and use of their data, for that customer’s safety and convenience, the dealer should be the tip of the spear on that connectivity to that customer,” says Ricart.
With eight family members working at Ricart Automotive—including two of his three children, Jared and Katie—Ricart is interested in bringing more diversity into the industry and employing more women at dealerships.
“As my daughter says, for the industry to become more authentic to buyers, we need to make it easier for any demographic to get involved in the business. We need to reflect our customer base.”
Promoting NADA Academy and the Women Driving Auto Retail initiative also will be a focus of Ricart’s chairmanship. “NADA has the gold standard in training,” says Ricart, who has had four family members graduate from the Academy and another who just began classes last month.
“It’s more than a dealer academy, it’s for anyone in the organization—manager, general sales manager or whoever is next in line. When they graduate and come back, not only do they have a tremendously valuable skill set, but they have a good, clear direction on how to operate the business in good times and bad.”
Overall, 2020 is shaping up to be a productive year for Ricart and NADA. “Over the next year,” he says, “I want every auto-mobile dealer in the U.S. to become richer and more prosperous, to have a better trained and educated staff, and NADA is here to help on both of those fronts.”