- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

Jack Fitzgerald's greatest regret in life is that he never earned a college degree after graduating from high school.
Instead, he started working as a car salesman when he was 20 years old, got married, had two children and became tied down with family and job responsibilities.
"I was a wise guy," Mr. Fitzgerald says. "I thought I knew more than the educators when I was young. That just shows how dumb I was. I wanted to get going in business and run the world."
Now 65 years old, he still hasn't completed a four-year college degree. He also still sells cars.
Now, however, he owns 10 auto dealerships in three states, which earned a revenue of $421 million last year and a profit of $7.1 million. He recently was named 2001 Auto E-tailer of the Year by the American International Automobile Dealers Association.
An e-tailer is like a retailer, but with the difference that e-tailers do electronic commerce. In other words, they sell products over the Internet.
From his office at his Bethesda dealership next to White Flint Mall, Mr. Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of Fitzgerald Auto Malls, explains how he has fit Internet sales into his formula for a successful business.
He sums up his business philosophy saying, "Tell the truth. Treat everybody like you want to be treated. Treat everybody like one of God's children."
His business philosophy also drove him to become the only major Washington-area automobile dealer who advertises the "full delivered price" for new vehicles.
As he looks over a flow chart his advertising personnel are putting together for their showroom that compares different dealers' prices, he explains this automobile dealers' term of art.
The full-delivered price includes costs such as freight charges, administrative processing fees and any special rebates available. Other dealers advertise prices for cars before the add-ons, which can jack up the price as much as $2,000 for an average new car.

Read the fine print

When the advertisements are published in newspapers, other dealers appear to have lower prices until you read the fine print, Mr. Fitzgerald says.
"I'm not going to do that," he says. "I don't think it's right."
Posted pricing sales also fit well with Internet marketing, which account for at least 10 percent of Fitzgerald Auto Malls' sales. Customers can click on the car model they want, immediately know how much they must pay without needing to include add-on fees and without bartering for a lower price.
The Internet has freed the dealership from the need to keep a huge inventory of cars at its lots and lowered advertising costs.
One local dealer advertises that he keeps an inventory of $125 million of automobiles on his lots for customers to see before they buy. Mr. Fitzgerald calls that foolishness. A large inventory drives up prices because the dealers must pay for insurance, interest on the debt, storage space and cleaning of the vehicles, all of which gets passed on to customers.
Instead, Mr. Fitzgerald keeps a more modest $50 million of inventory on his lots.
"Cars cost a lot of money," he says. "It doesn't take that many cars to add up to a million dollars."
When customers order a car, he relies on "just-in-time" delivery to reduce overhead expenses and keep prices lower for customers.
The just-in-time delivery also fits well with the Internet sales, in which customers who might never have visited his lots show up for the first time to pick up their newly delivered cars.
Visits to his Internet site, www.fitzmall.com, are running at about 60,000 per month, averaging 10.9 minutes each.
The closest he has come to varying from the full delivered price came when a customer who found his dealerships on the Internet drove down from Springfield, Mass., to purchase a car. The man brought along his four sons, all of whom had middle names of Fitzgerald.
Mr. Fitzgerald briefly considered giving him a discount on the car, but decided against it because he was concerned other customers would demand similar price cuts. Instead, he gave him discounts on accessories to the car.

Learning business savvy

He attributes his business savvy to experience and his first business partner, an appliance store owner.
In 1966, the owner of Diever Dodge on Old Georgetown Road died of a heart attack, leaving a small gravel lot dealership teetering on the edge of closing its doors forever. The selling price was $190,000, which was slightly more than one-fourth of the money Mr. Fitzgerald had saved through the years.
He needed to put up half of the money himself before he could qualify for a loan for the rest of the sales price. Mr. Fitzgerald contacted his friend and customer, Bob Dowd, owner of Dowd Appliance in Northwest, about joining him in the business venture.
"I called him on a Friday," Mr. Fitzgerald says. "He agreed to meet me on Sunday. On Monday, we made settlement with Chrysler."
Between car sales, Mr. Fitzgerald learned about financing, marketing and management from Mr. Dowd. Six years later, Mr. Dowd died of a heart attack, leaving his protege as sole owner of their business.
"I knew how to sell cars but I didn't know how to run a business," Mr. Fitzgerald says. "He taught me how to run a business."
Mr. Fitzgerald acquired his second dealership in 1970, third in 1971, and seven more over the next 30 years.
Unlike many Washington-area residents, Mr. Fitzgerald is no transplant from far-off states like New York or Florida or Colorado. He was born in Washington and attended both elementary and high school in the city. His first car sales job was in the District.
Even his family is rooted in this area. His great-grandfather, William Reith, was one of six Union soldiers to carry the body of Abraham Lincoln from the house across from Ford's Theater to the White House after the president was assassinated in 1865.
He attends Holy Cross Catholic church in North Bethesda. His second wife, Lori, is a doctor.
Among his distinctions, he counts the fact his dealership holds the national record for most child seat safety inspections in one day. On June 21, his staff and the Montgomery County Safe Kids Coalition inspected 777 child safety seats, besting the old record of 651 held by the state of North Carolina.
"It was 90-some degrees out that day," he says.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide