Frederick “Fritz” Hitchcock has spent nearly 50 years in the car business, buying and selling dealerships, mostly in Southern California. He bought his first dealership in 1969; now he owns four in the region. In the process, he’s become a leader among car dealers, serving on the boards of state and national car dealer associations. More recently, he’s taken his civic activism to a new playing field: he’s now the 2013 board chairman for the California Chamber of Commerce. Hitchcock, 73, recently sat down with the Business Journal at his corporate office in City of Industry to talk about the car dealer business, his views on the state’s business climate and his lifelong love of major sporting events.
Question: You dropped out of college to come to Southern California. How did that happen?
Answer: When I was a junior at the University of Iowa, I had the opportunity to come out to watch the Iowa Hawkeyes play in the Rose Bowl. That was Jan. 1, 1960. It was a very nice, sunny and warm day. On the spot, I decided I wanted to come to California. And it wasn’t just the weather. As I looked around, there was this whole sense of optimism in the air here. Back in Iowa, I didn’t feel there was as much opportunity. I figured there had to be more to life than being a paperboy, working in a drugstore and shoveling snow.
So you left for California?
Just about, yes. But first, I got married to my college sweetheart and we both came out here. We arrived in Long Beach on Labor Day 1960, just over eight months after that Rose Bowl game. Oh, and you know what? Just a couple years ago, the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership chose to honor me with an award – on the 50-yard line of the Rose Bowl, almost 51 years to the day of that game.
How did you get into the car business?
I got odd jobs doing janitorial work for dentists’ and doctors’ offices and selling men’s clothes at Sears. At the janitorial company, one of my jobs was calling on companies to see if they needed janitorial work or supplies. I stopped in at a Chrysler dealership in Anaheim. They already had their own janitors, but I saw a job posting for a sales management trainee. That looked interesting, so I applied and I got the job.
Was that your dream, to be in the car business?
Not really. I did not have a childhood fascination with cars like some. When I was in college, all I knew is that I wanted to be in business. I had no idea exactly what, just business.
So what happened then?
I worked my way up the sales management training ladder. After a few years, they wanted to promote me and send me to Detroit, to headquarters. But I didn’t want to go to Detroit. So I left.
Where did you go?
I joined Ralph Williams’ dealerships out in Encino. At that time, in the late 1960s, Williams was the largest Ford dealer in the nation. I was only there about 20 months before I became a Ford dealer myself in Redondo Beach – that was January of 1969.
Had you actually saved enough to buy a dealership yourself?
I bought the dealership from the actor Leon Ames (from “Mr. Ed” and “Father of the Bride”) and his wife, Christine. I first came in as sort of a partner, then bought the dealership entirely four years later, using some of the profits that I had accumulated and some borrowed money.
What was it like running your first dealership?
The dealership was in some financial distress, so it took a little while to return it to profitability. Some of the things I did: I expanded the parts and service departments and expanded our advertising in local print media.
But you didn’t just rest on your laurels. You went out and bought some more dealerships.
Yes, in 1976, I bought a Toyota dealership in Long Beach and then three years later I bought another one in Carson City, Nev.,
followed soon by this Toyota dealership here in City of Industry. Actually, I’ve bought a total of 16 – no, wait a moment, 18 – dealerships over the years. But I’ve sold most of them, so I now only have four: the one here, Toyota-Scion dealerships in Northridge and Santa Barbara and South Bay BMW-Mini.
Were you looking to form an auto dealer empire? And why did you then sell most of them?
There was no master plan here. What drove me to acquire and sell dealerships was the constantly changing nature of products acceptable to the consumer. I bought dealerships where the product looked good. But over time, many auto dealers had models that just weren’t selling anymore. I learned not to sit on stores very long: My rule of thumb is that if you lose more than your rent three months in a row, you first cut expenses and then, if that doesn’t work, you sell the store.
That sounds rather arbitrary.
You’re right, it’s not a common philosophy. But many dealers stay too long with a particular brand and end up in financial distress or going broke when that brand falls out of favor with customers.
You mentioned that Cal Worthington has been one of your role models. How come?
Even though he was kind of corny, he was a very good and very successful businessman, especially in used-car sales.
What kind of car do you drive?
I drive a BMW coupe. And I love it.
What’s the biggest challenge today in running your dealerships?
No question it’s keeping up with the technology, making sure my team continues to upgrade their skills and boost their Internet and social media presence. Right now, about 20 percent of our business can be directly attributable to our websites. Yet for most customers, it’s not the Internet that determines where they buy the car, it’s the test drive. The Internet gets them in the door, but that doesn’t mean they buy. You have to get them on that test drive. That’s where the decision to buy is generally made. That hasn’t changed much over the years.
Then what’s the challenge with the Internet?
We have to begin to use the Internet like President Obama’s team did in the recent election. I call it “walking the precincts electronically.” They connected with millions of people in a very targeted way and then worked with them to convince them to vote for Obama. We have to do the same thing in the car business.
You’re now board chairman of the California Chamber of Commerce. Business interests now have their work cut out for them at the state Capitol, with Democrats now holding two-thirds majority in the Legislature.
I think business is going to be playing a lot of defense this year, fighting things like the split roll tax (that removes Proposition 13 protections from commercial properties). But it’s the governor who has the power, so that’s where we’re going to be putting a lot of our focus.
How do you see the state’s business climate?
We’re overtaxed and over-regulated. I see this continuing to get worse, especially with the Democrats running things in Sacramento. I’d like to see business treated more fairly in the state.
What’s your main goal as the 2013 board chairman of the chamber?
One of the biggest challenges for CalChamber is to better balance the needs of large corporations against the needs of small and midsized businesses. The chamber has 14,000 members, but only about 350 of those are what you would call the large corporations. And the needs differ.
What are some of your other goals?
We need to work more closely with the other chambers and business groups up and down the state. That means our board members must get out more and interact with local businesses and business groups.
The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce occasionally takes the opposite position on a ballot measure from the California chamber.
That’s exactly why we need more communication between the state chamber and other chambers, so we can get all business groups in the state on the same page more often. The more we can try to get to a unifying position, the stronger the business voice becomes.
How do you balance running your car dealer enterprise with the demands of your state chamber duties and your involvement in state and national auto dealer associations?
Actually, it’s not that difficult, especially with the staff I have. The dealerships all have terrific general managers capable of handling day-to-day issues. And the staff here at our headquarters can fill in for me when I’m gone. Plus, I’m not actually gone that much. The chamber board meets in person four times a year and we have weekly teleconference calls. That’s how the other boards I’m on generally function.
You have a famous last name. You’re not related to the famous director, are you?
As far as I know, there’s no relation. Our family has no ties to the movie business. If Alfred was related, it’s like so distant that it doesn’t matter. Hitchcock is a longtime family name, back when family ancestors were Methodist ministers riding around on horseback in Kentucky territory.
You’ve attended Super Bowls and are a longtime season ticket holder of both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Dodgers. How did you become such a sports fanatic?
I’ve always loved watching sports. That’s why I came out here for the Rose Bowl back in 1960. But even more than football or baseball or basketball, I’m a huge Olympic Games fan. I’ve been to every summer Olympic Games since Montreal in 1976. And I would have gone to earlier Olympic Games, but I didn’t have the money back then.
Really? Every Olympic Games? That’s quite a feat! Which one was your favorite?
They have all been great, of course. Sydney in 2000 and this past games in London were just super. But if I had to pick one that stood out for me, it would be Barcelona in 1992. Being at that opening ceremony was absolutely amazing. When that athlete shot the arrow through a ring of fire and the whole torch lit up, that was truly a magical moment for me. And the scenery at some of the events was just spectacular. But I’m concerned now that my streak may be broken.
Well, it’s the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. There’s talk now about restricting foreign visitors through a lottery for most events, including the opening ceremony. That doesn’t sound very promising. Sure, there may be a couple of events open to the public, but it doesn’t sound like it’s worth it to go just for one or two events. So I’m watching that very closely.
You now spend at least half your time living in the Ritz Carlton Residences at L.A. Live. What’s that like?
I just moved in about six months ago. I must say, I really like it. That type of – how would one put it, vertical living? – is not for everybody, but it’s great for me and Nikki. We live in a one-bedroom on the 40th floor. It’s a great view and you have the services of the hotel, from maids to room service. Of course, I’m a 42-year Lakers season ticket holder, so it’s very convenient.
What do you like besides watching sports?
I used to golf, but not much anymore. I also used to collect wines. I also devote a lot of time to education: I’ve personally set up a scholarship fund that’s helped put 55 students through college – mostly the children of our employees. All have graduated without any debt.
You were a wine collector?
Yes. I had amassed quite a collection – some 21,000 bottles of wine from around the world. But it got to be too much, so I sold the entire collection about 20 years ago.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Something I received very early on: If you weren’t honest before, going into business will make you honest. I truly believe that having to work for a living makes an honest man out of someone.
You can’t be a successful entrepreneur working 9 to 5 unless you’re an inventor or an artist. It’s the nights and weekends that make a difference.
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