About 30 years ago, Theodore Robins Ford co-owner Dave Robins heard a saying about family-owned businesses that has stuck with him ever since: “The first generation makes a company, the second generation will take the company and the third generation will break the company.”
“When I heard that, [it became] my lifelong goal to prove that saying wrong,” he told an audience of 350 at the Business Journal’s 23rd annual Family-Owned Business Awards.
As the Costa Mesa-based business celebrates its 100th anniversary, it’s safe to say Robins met his goal. Robins and his brother, co-owner Jim Robins, received the Longevity Award during the ceremony held on June 2 at the Irvine Marriott.
Robins Ford, the oldest Ford dealership in Southern California, generated $84 million in revenue in 2021, up 19% from the year prior.
Jim and Dave were both born in Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. They grew up in Newport Beach and graduated from Newport Harbor High School.
When they were kids, their father, Theodore Robins Jr. never pressured them into taking over the family business.
“‘If you’re really not interested in [running the dealership], go find something you enjoy,’” he told them.
But working in various roles at the company “hooked” Jim and Dave on the car business.
The weight of knowing their “grandpa and dad put their whole lives into [the dealership]” also inspired them to carry on their family’s legacy.
Dave’s grandfather, Theodore Robins Sr., started the business as an auto repair shop in Balboa in 1921. Two years later, two men approached him asking if he’d like to work for the Ford Motor Company franchise they were planning to open.
After telling them he would think about it, he “hopped into a Model T,” drove to the Ford office in Los Angeles and signed a franchise agreement with the company.
Grandpa told the two men, “Well, if it was going to be a good deal for you, it’s going to be a better deal for me.”
A week after signing that deal, Robins Ford sold its first Ford car for $637.10.
Over 40 years later, he bought 10 acres of land in Costa Mesa and moved his dealership there.
He died in 1978, leaving Theodore Jr. to take over the company.
Theodore Jr. ran Robins Ford until he died in 2016. That same year, Dave and Jim became the Robins Ford co-owners.
Started at the Bottom
Before Dave and Jim reached the top of the company, they worked their way from the bottom.
Their first jobs as teenagers entailed cleaning the fish tank in their grandfather’s office and stamping car brochures.
From there, they moved onto washing cars for 25 cents apiece to working in the parts department.
Eventually, they became used car managers.
“Because we’ve done all those jobs, nobody can tell us that we [don’t know what we’re doing],” he said.
Dave majored in business for two years at Chapman College in 1980; he then worked as a rental car manager at the dealership.
Almost 20 years later, he enrolled in the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy. The year-long program taught him the ins and outs of running a dealership’s five businesses: parts, service, body shop, new car sales and used car sales.
What he learned at NADA Academy couldn’t prepare him for the dealership’s current low inventory levels caused by supply chain issues.
Yet, such challenges keep the brothers excited about their work.
“Doing the same thing the same way for 20 years, where nothing is going to change—I couldn’t do that.
“Grandpa made it through the Great Depression. I can’t imagine the challenges he was going through at the time. So, we will push through.”
Celebrating 100 Years
For Dave, connecting with employees has been integral to staying in business for a century.
“I enjoy passing paychecks out to all the employees and personally thanking them,” he said.
“Little things like that go a long way.”
He also attributes the dealership’s involvement in the community to part of its success. The dealership was one of the original members of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce. It joined the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce when the family moved there.
The company still follows “grandpa’s philosophy [of] always [giving] back.”
For the 100th anniversary since Theodore Sr. started the business, the dealership is aiming to donate about $100,000 back to the community by next April.
Robins Ford will switch up the charities it donates to every quarter. Customers who purchase a car this quarter can choose between donating to veteran’s service organization American Legion, Hoag Hospital’s cancer research support group Circle 1000, no-kill pet rescue Priceless Pets and Share Our Selves, which provides healthcare, financial assistance and meals to homeless and lower-income individuals.
Although Jim and Dave already have a succession plan for the fourth generation of Robins Ford, Theodore Sr. did not have one for their father.
“Grandpa didn’t know estate planning, so Dad got left with quite a huge problem, which almost took us out.”
After Dave and Jim’s father paid their grandfather’s taxes off, “he did a lot of estate planning and trusts … so when he passed, we had zero tax implications.”
Seeing his dad struggle with the dealership firsthand motivated Jim and Dave to “not leave a huge burden on our kids” when they take over the company.
Two of Dave’s daughters, Nicole Boukather and Ashley Farrell, are currently working at the dealership. Nicole serves as the e-commerce director and Ashley is a used car sales assistant.
“Nicole will be the one to carry on running the business. Ashley likes to be behind the scenes,” Dave said.