Kent Ritchey wants to sell you a car. Or, really, anything on his lot at Landers Ford. It’s in his blood.
The founder and president of Ritchey Management, LLC and Landers Auto Group has five decades of dealing wheels in the Mid-South, from individual vehicles to dealerships.
Even as a kid, he says, he was a joiner. His dad was an automobile dealer who had a rule in the house: You were excused from work if you were in a sports activity. Ritchey got involved in lots of sports. But he loved to work and decided to take his competitive nature and go into banking, where he liked the drive and energy. But he missed the automobile trade. So he left the bank and joined the family business.
Ritchey worked in small towns in the Mid-South but realized the action was in the city. “I came to Memphis,” he says. “I thought people in Memphis knew something I didn’t know about the car business. I found out they didn’t.”
While he didn’t know everything, he was an exceptional student. “I worked for Homer Skelton for many years, a legendary dealer in Memphis, self-made man,” he says. “He started from the floor selling cars and knowing multiple automobile dealerships. I watched how he developed relationships with people, and how he treated people, and how people were attracted to him. And for the last 10 years I worked for Roger Penske, and that was the Ph.D. You saw the attention to detail, the drive, and the way the business was going.”
Ritchey kept at it. But it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he took that big leap. He might have retired except that his plans don’t include retirement. “I took all my 401(k), and all my life savings, and all the equity in my and my wife’s house, and borrowed more money than you would’ve thought humanly possible to repay to start this operation,” he says. “In less than 10 years we’ve become the largest privately owned automobile dealership in the Mid-South. We have nine brands, we operate in three vast markets, we employ over 400 people, and sell tens of thousands of automobiles,” he says. “I have to pinch myself. What’s interesting, I did this in the teeth of the worst recession or depression since the Great Depression. It turned out to be a time of opportunity.”
Beyond getting people into his vehicles across the Mid-South, Ritchey’s mission is to improve the community.
“We’re not going to be any better or any more successful than our community is,” he says. “Many years ago we began an association with St. Jude through the FedEx St. Jude Golf Tournament, and now through the Memphis Marathon.” The company also supports area schools and other organizations. “Anyplace that you’ll let us put our name and one of our automobiles, we write a check and we show up.”
His company also acquired the naming rights to the Landers Center in Southaven. “It’s the jewel of the Mid-South,” he says. “I love the FedExForum, and it’s fantastic, but we also have a 10,000-seat venue, multipurpose arena that looks like a diamond and operates that way, and we love our association with them.”
Inside Memphis Business: What’s the secret to success?
Kent Ritchey: I think people spend most of their lives getting ready to get ready. They’re never ready. Get started. Be honest with yourself, surround yourself with good people, and accumulate as much capital as you can.
IMB: Anything else?
KR: I think that sleep is vastly overrated.
IMB: What makes Memphis such a good entrepreneurial town?
KR: It’s a crossroads of three states, it’s a river town, it’s very welcoming, it seems to attract risk takers, and it seems to reward risk takers. You watch that, and you watch that success, and you see other people do that, and you think, “Well, I can do the same thing.” Memphis produced the first multi-ownership automobile operation in the United States, and that was the Dobbs family. No one had ever done it, and they kind of set the example. In fact, my business model is modeled after the way they set up their stores.
IMB: What do you do to keep employees?
KR: We developed open pay plans with no cap — I don’t think you can ever pay too much for great talent. And I think that you surround yourself with good citizens to begin with, and they have the same values that you do, and the same ideals, and they have the same goals. In my business, you’d better surround yourself with people that are competitive. And then, don’t tell people what to do — show them what you want done and do it yourself. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, and don’t be afraid to get into the nitty-gritty, into the detail.
IMB: Beyond bringing home the bacon, what are the other rewards of your work?
KR: I love the automobiles, I love the competitiveness of it, I love the experience of dealing with people one-on-one, I love seeing the joy when someone buys an automobile. And I love it when we sell them their first one. And I laugh when people say, “This is the last car I’ll ever buy,” and that was three cars ago.