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Brian Beirl, DDS

Kingery & Crouse PA

TZDesign Group

Century Buick, The Art of the Dealership
Let’s Make a Deal-ership – Like No Other!
The Ghioto father and son team build a true customer-centric dealership.

By Jay Winchester

One of the worst things about cars is all that time wasted at the dealership waiting for your vehicle to be serviced. You sit in a small waiting area on a bench with nothing to do but count the minutes until your car will be ready and you can return to your real life. Ah yes, the car dealership. Next to hospital emergency rooms and the DMV, it is the perfect place for wasting vast amounts of valuable time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could find a way to make that time spent waiting for your car notonly pleasant, but also productive?

The good news for automotive consumers in Tampa Bay is that the father and son team of Ralph and Ralph Ghioto at Century Auto Mall has accomplished exactly that. Century Auto Mall features Buick, Pontiac and GMC vehicles at the dealership located on Hillsborough Avenue just east of Dale Mabry, and Kia vehicles at the dealership located just west of Dale Mabry. Both are new facilities put into operation within the last three months. The original Century Buick dealership sat on the west corner of Dale Mabry and M.L. King, directly across from where Legends Field now stands. Ralph Ghioto II opened that dealership in 1969, and has owned it outright since 1975.

However, as with most things in life and business, the passing of time brings change. Eventually, Ralph Ghioto III succeeded his father and moved into the President’s office. However, his father didn’t go quietly into retirement. At 72, the senior Ghioto continues to be a valuable resource and respected influence in what is truly a family business. Together, they have forged a powerful partnership focused on the quality of the products they sell and the customers they serve. It is a passion that drives them to explore the benefits of change. “The location on Dale Mabry had served its purpose and it was time to update the retail experience for our customers,” says Ralph III. “To get some real functionality and exclusivity for these two dealerships, it was absolutely the right thing to do to break them up and build new facilities.”

While both facilities are new, the GM dealership is clearly the company’s flagship facility. However, calling it a car dealership is akin to calling Westminster Abbey a church. Century’s new location is more of a destination than a dealership. While the facility is attractive enough on the outside, it’s not until you walk through the doors that the real differences become apparent.

Once inside, the receptionist’s desk fronts a sweeping stairway to the second level where executive offices fill the left side of the floor, and a full gymnasium, open for use by ownership, employees and yes, customers, fills the right. Back on the main floor, the artfully tiled showroom extends to the right of the staircase where offices and conference rooms are located. To the left is an array of concierge-type services, including a nail salon, barbershop, children’s play area and an Internet café, with drinks and fresh sandwiches delivered from a local commissary every other day. There are even workspaces equipped with free Wi-Fi for those driven to be productive. Behind the showroom is a 29-bay service area that looks more like a sterile, high-tech laboratory than like what most people think an automotive service area would look.

Century’s new location, as old timers will recall, was once a Carmike Cinema, featuring eight screens and an art deco theme. Showing that the Ghiotos both have a healthy respect for tradition, tucked away behind the staircase is a fourteen-seat movie theater. It features state-of-the-art sound and picture, as well as seats that rock. The theater shows one movie each day, and there are three show times. It’s just one more example of the customer-centric thinking the Ghiotos put into planning the new facility.

“Much of what we did came from asking ourselves what we would want if we were to switch places with our customers,” says Ralph III. “I know that, for me, I’d like to be able to multi-task while I was here. Customer feedback was also important in our planning. At the old location, our customers sat in a lounge area with nothing to do. They’d ask if there was someplace nearby to get a bite to eat, which led us to the decision to include the in-house café. After that, our imaginations took over.”

To help make their dream facility a reality, the Ghiotos enlisted the services of Clearwater-based Suncoast Autobuilders, one of the premier dealership designers and builders in the country. Suncoast has been in business for 20 years, and has built over 300 dealerships in that time. The company has worked with every type of dealership in almost every imaginable location and specializes in high-end amenities. But the Ghiotos’ plans redefined the term “high-end amenities” for Tom Strickland, Suncoast’s CEO. “We have never built a facility with this many amenities in one place,” he says. “That, plus a product line that offers something for almost every consumer, makes Century’s dealership a rare thing. We believe that a company’s facility should be designed to be an asset. This one is definitely that, and it’s already starting to attract attention throughout the industry.”

While the palatial new digs have brought a certain amount of sizzle to Century’s business, both Ghiotos understand that sticking to the basics is foundational. As Ralph, III puts it, “We are in the business of selling and servicing cars.” While that sounds simple enough, the current flat nature of the auto industry provides ample testimony that not too many dealerships can accomplish that basic mission. At Century, and more specifically, at the new facility, the company’s business has increased dramatically in the first three months. “This move has created almost a reverse economy of scale,” says Ralph III. “Our trending is definitely up. However, the success isn’t just due to this building. We have a great team of people here who are passionate about what they do and excited to be doing it in a facility like this.”

Ralph III calls his team’s commitment to customers, each other and the company “heart power.” It stems from the culture his father first created and that he is extending and improving. “I believe that we have a tremendous loyalty factor here,” he says. “I also believe that if you treat people with respect, show them you care, are authentic in your dealings with them and work with them in accomplishing common goals, you gain not only their trust, but also their willingness to commit to your vision. That’s how we build heart power.”

This particular car dealership also owes a great deal of its success to the family factor: a son following in his father’s footsteps; a father willing to step aside to allow his son to find his own success; and a father and son willing to work together for the common good. It’s a rare combination, but one with which the Ghiotos are very comfortable. “Being able to work with my father and interact with him every day is a tremendous blessing and something I do not take for granted at all,” says Ralph III. “We work very well together. In fact, in all the years we’ve worked together, we’ve never once had a cross word between us in business.”

For his part, the senior Ghioto believes his son is the perfect leader to keep moving the dealership forward. “In my era, leadership was more dogmatic,” he says. “I viewed my responsibility as trying to set the stage to sell my ideas. Ralph’s style is much more participatory, and people respond well to him.”

Unlike some multi-generational family businesses, where the next in line might step away from the business either temporarily or permanently, Ralph III’s involvement in the company has been a lifelong concern. “I started as a clean-up boy in the service area when I was thirteen,” he recalls. “During college, I worked as a service advisor.” In 1989, he made the career move into the sales department. From there, he worked his way up the ranks of management and, eventually, into ownership. In 1992, at 28, he became one of the youngest GM dealers in the country.

It was an opportunity his father had long planned. “I wanted Ralph to have the same opportunity I had,” Ralph II says. “My son is part of the new generation of business leaders. I’m very proud of the way he has conducted himself in this business. It makes me feel good to see him succeed.”

What of Ralph III’s children? Will one of them take up the mantle of leadership in the family business some day? “I want my kids to work here if that’s what they want,” he says. “Between now and then, I’m going to follow my father’s plan and provide my kids with the best education I can. And if they end up wanting to work here, that’s fine with me. But I plan to be around here until they close the doors and kick me out. The beautiful thing about this business is that, if you have good people in key roles, you can stay in it and never retire.”

Clearly, the Ghiotos take their business, their employees, and most importantly, their family, to heart. It’s not surprising, really, given their combined focus on heart power. That’s the true mark of a father and son business. As the German poet Friedrich Von Schiller wrote, “It is not flesh and blood, but heart that makes us fathers and sons.”