'Tidal wave of positive energy' defines Ricarts' leadership style

Laura Newpoff
Rick Ricart in action

Large Employer: Ricart Automotive Group

As the face of Ricart Automotive Group, Rick Ricart had big shoes to fill when he succeeded his father as company spokesman about a decade ago. Fred Ricart, dating back to the 1980s, had achieved local celebrity status as the guitar-strumming, “We’re Dealin!’” pitchman for an auto dealership on the southeast side of Columbus. He produced thousands of television commercials in his studio and, along with his brother Rhett, helped grow Ricart into the largest single-point, family-owned auto dealership in the United States.

While Rick Ricart has plenty of fond memories of those old commercial shoots, it’s a singular email from his father that he saved a few years ago that symbolizes other lessons he learned from his dad and what he considers important to carry forward in his role as co-president.

“I sent him an email asking him some pretty complicated, really deep questions about realigning the business and restructuring things,” Rick Ricart says. “He wrote back and says, ‘Any of those things will work as long as you put a tidal wave of positive energy behind it.’ I believe in carrying that positive energy in everything we do is important.”

Rick shares his co-president role with his cousin Jared, who is CEO Rhett Ricart’s son. With Rhett now vice chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association and Fred semi-retired and enjoying life as a grandfather, the keys have been turned over to Rick and Jared, who are the third generation to lead the business. Their grandfather, Paul, started Ricart in 1953 when he spent $1,300 to purchase a Ford dealership in Canal Winchester.

Today, Ricart is a mega-dealership on South Hamilton Road that offers seven brands, a “Used Car Factory,” heavy duty and diesel repair facilities and one of the largest parts inventories in the Midwest.

Rick and Jared grew up in the business and worked in every department as teenagers with tasks like cleaning cars or painting light poles.

Jim Hern, the creative director who’s been at Ricart since 1992, says that was the “genius” of Rhett and Fred and the family succession plan.

“They didn’t want them to understand just one thing, like where does a car come from and how do you sell it to someone else,” Hern says. “The path they had to go through nurtured them and taught them all aspects of the business, so when they did climb to these positions they don’t just say, ‘Hey let’s put some LED lights in the service department.’ They know you do that because it helps the employees see the cars they are working on better.”

In addition to that hands-on work, Rick and Jared say their leadership styles have been shaped by observing Fred and Rhett at work all those years and watching how they interacted with each other and the employees.

What they saw during those observations were two men who, at facing desks, would have robust and animated discussions to solve problems, mixed in with plenty of joke telling and reminiscing. Hern likens those conversations to “Thanksgiving day discussions” among family members.

What Jared and Rick took from that was an eagerness to work together and make the workplace fun. Jared says the focus is on family, culture, relationships, innovation and marketing.

“The goal is to create a great experience for employees because it’s impossible for consumers to have good experiences unless employees are happy,” he says.

“This isn’t Disney World, though. Everybody here is real and we want to make sure they enjoy what they’re doing.”

That’s why he and Rick speak with each orientation class of new hires.

“We tell them, if at any point they are driving to work and don’t want to come in, they should turn around and go home and call us and tell us why they didn’t want to come to work,” Jared Ricart says. “We want them to love it here, have passion for it and be extremely happy with what they do.”

The approach is working. In addition to its Large Employer award in this year’s Top Workplaces, Ricart received a special award for leadership based on employee comments.

Rick and Jared also are carrying forward another important lesson they learned from their fathers—an eagerness to value every worker.

“There are more than 500 of them, but we learn their names, their spouses’ names, their kids names and all about their family,” Jared Ricart says.

Q&A with Rick and Jared Ricart, co-presidents

What has the transition been like to bring the third generation into the leadership ranks?

Jared: I started working at Ricart when I was 14. I started cleaning cars in the summer going into my freshman year of high school. I thought for sure I’d be hanging at the pool with my buddies all summer, but my dad had a different idea. I’m forever grateful that he brought me into the company when I was that young.

At the time I thought he was disciplining me, but looking back, it was great life lesson about learning about the business by being “in” the business. I worked in everything from maintenance, painting light poles, as an operator, in sales, service and parts. Looking back, the transition started long before I was given the title of president. Rick and I are lucky our fathers put their trust behind us. They’ve done a wonderful job building us up as well as all of our family members to prepare all of us for the opportunity. 

What did you observe watching your father and uncle at work?

Jared: They were always present. They taught me early on that the only way to lead is to be among your people and get insight and a vision from them. The best ideas in this company have come from our employees, who really are family. When you learn from them, you’re able to come up with visions for the future together. My dad and Fred are always communicating, joking and being side-by-side the employees. That’s the greatest thing they could have ever shown us—that relationships are what build great companies. They also taught us that we have to earn the respect of our employees every day. 

Can you share any fun stories about employees participating in television commercials?

Rick: About eight years ago we started doing a holiday lights campaign. The first year we shot it, we had to have people in the cars and needed them to turn lights on and off when they were called upon. We brought in 60 and asked them to sit still for hours and do one action when their number was called upon. The timing had to be exactly right, the sequence of the choreography had to be precise. So we gave them cards with letters and numbers on them. I remember standing on a hill trying to give commands to get their lights to flash. The employees didn’t realize how imperative it was to sit still in the car. I looked out and could see that they were on their phones or honking their horns at each other, which meant they missed their cue. It was a shoot that should have been done in two hours. It took us six.

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.


Founded: 1953

Ownership: Private

Sector: Auto sales

Employees: 547

Headquarters: Groveport

Ricart Automotive Group