The Boy Who Owned A Ferrari Dealership
Images: Brian Burnett
In 1975, Los Gatos, California, was decades away from coming to be known as ‘Silicon Valley’. A 34-year-old Brian Burnett, already having traded cars since the age of 13 and worked as a salesman at the Porsche dealership, along with friend Richard Rivoir decided against all odds to start their own Ferrari dealership. The dealership, Ferrari of Los Gatos would go on to ‘Selling more Ferraris than all other dealers combined west of the Mississippi’ and thereby help Ferrari establish its presence in the land of Ford.
As a young boy, Brian had been in love with Ferraris since 1954 when he heard the revered roar of Mr. Kimberley’s (Kimberly & Clark) V12 Ferrari when he went to the races with his father Rex Burnette, known for his cutaways in Hot Rod Magazine. Reminiscing the sound of the V-12 brings a grin to Brian’s face even to this day, some seven decades later!
Brian had spent the better part of his twenties working at various car dealerships and had worked his way up to being a sales manager of Anderson-Behl. Under his aegis, the company became the number one Porsche & Audi dealership in America. It was then that he was approached by Richard Rivoir (a real estate developer) to join forces and start a Ferrari dealership in a lot that Richard had just acquired in Los Gatos.
Brian lived by the motto that “If you're gonna be a bear, be a grizzly!”After quitting his job at the dealership, Brian along with Richard headed to Reno, Nevada to meet Vern Kiel, the manager of Modern Classic Motors, and more importantly the person responsible for authorizing new Ferrari dealerships. The boys arrived in jeans and polos and were greeted by a formally dressed Vern. As they walked around the facility, he warned them of the potential financial risks associated with running a Ferrari dealership. Vern knew that most Ferrari dealers depended on other sources of income to sustain the dealership, Ferrari dealerships were seen as a feather in the cap of large multi-brand dealerships rather than a money maker. His warnings did not seem to diffuse the optimism in their eyes.
They had gotten so far and were not willing to go back empty handed (“If we can't sell Ferraris and become the number one dealer in 90 days, we’ll give everything back,” said the grizzly). Vern had nothing to lose; rather, this would help him move the unsold stock sitting in the warehouse. Against all odds, Vern agreed and signed the contact with the boys. Ferrari of Los Gatos was born!
It was dark outside when they reached the warehouse, ominously the power was out. Using their flashlights, they looked around and saw a collection consisting only of new 308 GT4s parked closely together, covered in dust, in all shades of undesirable colours and none of them were red! To make matters worse, there were dings and dents on every last one. They would have needed to be fixed and resprayed if they had any chance of selling them. Where almost anyone could see impending catastrophe, Brian saw opportunity. He urged Richard to talk to their banks and convince them to increase the loan limit. Richard was successful. The stars seemed to have aligned, they were destined for greatness.
When they met with Vern again, he inquired, “Well boys, which one do you want?” Unflinchingly, Brian said, “We’ll take 'em ALL!” The contract had been signed, and Vern now had no choice but to adhere to it. Although the contract did say they could only take 4 Ferraris to begin with and the stock would be replenished only once they had been sold.
In the summer of 1976, Ferrari of Los Gatos opened for business. Almost instantly the showroom became a spectacle. People young and old flocked to see the prancing horses from Italy, and needless to say they quickly became the talk of the sleepy town of Los Gatos.
Ferrari of Los Gatos had a promise to keep, to be the number one dealer in America in 90 days or risk forfeiting the dealership. Everyone wanted a Ferrari, but only a few could afford it. Banks refused to finance Ferraris as they were perceived as unreliable, expensive to fix and therefore undesirable as a collateral. The dealership knew the only way they could meet their targets was if they made them accessible to people other than Rockstars, drug dealers, and industrialists.
After discussing financing options with their banks, they constructed a creative financing option called the 35 and 1 plan. “Thirty-five small payments and one big payment at the end. Now almost everyone could afford a Ferrari,” said Brian cheekily. They ran ads in the local publications with the headline ‘The possible dream’. And in just 40 days, the boys sold all the 19 cars that had been sitting in the warehouse in Reno!
The dealership would go on to sell 300 new and used cars each year, with annual sales of $48 million (or over $100 million in today's prices). They sold cars to rich and famous athletes, entertainers, movie stars and tech moguls. Each client is a chapter on its own, details of which can be found in Jim Ciardella’s book, The Dealer (How one California dealership fuelled the rise of Ferrari in America).
According to Brian (now 82), “That little place sold more Ferrari’s than… anyway I’m old now, don't ever get old… but I can’t believe those things actually happened to me and I was there to see it!” Ferrari Los Gatos for a few decades was not only the largest Ferrari dealer in America but also the largest in the world.
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