Friday Feature: Bruncati Pursues Passion
Southern California Businessman Successful On And Off Track
There was a time that Bob Bruncati got all the inspiration he needed by looking in the bathroom mirror.
During his early years as a Southern California car dealer, Bruncati went to a presentation by a motivational speaker.
“Times were tough for a while,” Bruncati recalled. “I stopped paying myself just to keep the doors open. I was looking for help.”
There were a couple things he took away from the presentation, he said. One he wrote on his bathroom mirror where he could see it every morning. It said:
“If it is to be, it is up to me.”
Decades later, that could easily have been the mantra for his life.
Today, Bruncati is the semi-retired owner of two of the most successful Ford dealerships in the nation. He also is owner of the two-car Sunrise Ford team in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
Derek Thorn, who is backed directly by the dealership and some of its suppliers, is leading the championship standings by a 23-point margin.
Dylan Lupton, sponsored by Vadio, Lupton Excavating and Bruncati’s dealerships, is fifth in the points and leading the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings.
For Bruncati, cars and racing have always been a passion.
“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I still get excited about them.”
But how does a guy who paid the bills by mopping out the remains of Saturday nights at neighborhood bars in New York City end up as an auto dealer in Southern California?
It began in 1965. Bruncati was newly married and scheduled to begin work as a factory representative for Chevrolet in Detroit. But when he and his wife, Maureen, returned from their honeymoon, there were more than wedding cards in the mailbox. Bruncati had been drafted.
“I remember being in Missouri, where we got on a plane for my next posting and it was 13 degrees when we took off. Twelve hours later we landed at Oakland and it was 80 degrees and I called my wife and said that when I get out, we’re moving to California,” he said.
So in 1967 he and his wife packed everything they owned into a 1967 Chevrolet Super Sport and headed west.
He went to work at a local Ford dealership, handling customers who came through the door.
“It was really dull,” he said. “You just kinda waited around for someone to show up, and then you tried to sell them a car.”
He met another sales associate who was working in the fleet sales operation, dealing with business and corporate clients. And he was doing quite well.
“So I began working extra hours,” Bruncati said. “If I was supposed to begin work at 2 p.m., I’d come in at 10 a.m. and start going through the yellow pages of the phone book. I figured every one of those businesses was a potential sale.
“I had an index card on just about every one of them. If they said they didn’t need a car for another year, I put the card in a tickler file so I could contact them before they bought somewhere else. If they were looking for a car now, I’d be at their business with a new one when they opened the next day. And everyone I talked to got a follow up letter,” he said. “We had a bunch of form letters and my wife would type them up the next day and mail them for me.
“Maureen is the real reason for my success,” he said. “I was actually very shy and she kept encouraging me and gave me the confidence to meet people and try the things I would have been too timid to do without her.”
Pretty soon he was working fleet sales full time, and within six months he needed help processing the paperwork. He also became one of Ford’s top sales people in the nation.
Then he decided to go out on his own.
Looking back on it, Bruncati admits he must have been a little bit crazy to think he could make a living selling cars in Tujunga, Calif.
First of all, Tujunga, was barely a wide spot in the road. In fact, it was miles and miles from the nearest major highway exit.
It was early in the 1980s. The unemployment rate in Los Angeles County was 17 percent. Interest rates hovered around 20 percent. Ford didn’t have much of a product line. And the dealership he was buying ate up owners.
It may have been prophetic that he got the keys to the dealership he named Sunrise Ford on April 1.
It was a tiny business with only a 2.5-acre lot and the barest bones for service and parts.
Bruncati worked the floor. He worked the phones. He worked with the people he had on the payroll. And in 1982, Sunrise Ford sold 3,200 cars and trucks.
In 1989 Ford held a national contest for truck sales, and the little dealership that could moved 780 of them to new owners in three months.
That sales sweep got Bruncati and his wife and invitation to an all-expenses paid trip to Europe with other dealers and Ford executives. It was a trip that paid dividends, as he made connections with executives who would help him move and expand.
“Some of the success came from doing things differently, and making decisions that paid off later,” he said.
In the early days of auto marketing, dealers would pick a poorly-equipped car on the lot and advertise it at a rock bottom price.
“Then the salesman had to convince the buyers they really wanted something nicer, with whitewalls, an automatic, maybe a bigger engine,” he said. “I began looking at what we were really selling, what buyers wanted, and ordered those cars. Then I’d advertise them, with all the options, for less than other dealers wanted. Eventually, dealers stopped using the loss-leader to get customers into the store.”
He also tells of buying a contract for TV commercials that ended up being his biggest bargain.
“It was one of those contracts where to buy a certain number of ads at a discount, many of them are placed in different, less desirable, time slots. Some of them are at three in the morning, and others get better time.
“The contract I had included ads for a time slot when reruns of the old ‘Simon and Simon’ show were on. The viewership was awful, but the ads were cheap. A few months into the contract, the station dropped “Simon and Simon” and picked up “Geraldo Rivera” when he was really popular. The station tried to buy me out of the contract but I wouldn’t sell. It was a gold mine.”
And then there was the TV ad slated to run during a program that followed the Super Bowl.
“But the Super Bowl ran into overtime. It was the best $200 ad I ever bought,” he said.
Eventually he closed his original dealership and opened one in Fontana.
“When Ford asked me to open the Fontana store I told them I already had one Tujunga and didn’t need a second one. But the research said the area was ready to grow and the store would prosper. And they were right,” he said.
He followed it with a second store in North Hollywood.
Both dealerships consistently rank inside the top five in sales in California and the top 100 in the nation.
The success has allowed Bruncati to hand the day-to-day controls to his sons as he enjoys semi-retirement.
“They still call me if there is a problem,” he said. “And I’ll go to work if one of them wants to take time off.”
But he’d prefer to spend time cruising with his wife in his Corvette or Ford GT, or running around in a Lotus Seven.
But his passion is the race team.
He entered the series beginning in 2006 and has compiled an impressive record.
During the 2007 season, Jason Bowles finished third in points and earned Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year honors with one pole and two wins. The next year, with the addition of Bill Sedgwick as crew chief, Bowles got five poles and four wins to end the season in second place. In 2009, he picked up four poles and three victories to capture the season championship.
Derek Thorn leads the championship standings in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, driving the No. 6 Sunrise Ford/Lucas Oil/Eibach Ford owned by Bob Bruncati. Getty Images for NASCAR
“I can’t imagine a better team owner,” said Sedgwick. “He’s about the most honest guy you’ll ever meet in racing. When he says he’ll do something, you can trust he’ll do it.
“In return, all the crew is really devoted to him. Our job is to win races and make sure Bob has a good time.”
Some of the Sunrise Ford success has been in the stability of the crew. There is a small handful of full-time employees, but most work other jobs and turn out at the track on weekends.
“It’s like spending the weekend with the family,” said Jeff Harrison, who works full time as an aircraft mechanic and has been on the Sunrise team for eight years. “Bob treats us well, lets us do our own job and is always encouraging.
“Because we are a family, sometimes we get into family feuds, but Bob has a way of getting things settled so we get on with the job,” he said.
“Most of the crew is here because they love it,” Bruncati said. “They are passionate about what they do and really care about the results. They would be successful in anything they do.”
Bruncati added a second full-time team to the series in 2010, with one funded driver and one who competes under the Sunrise Ford banner.
“My sons raced for a while a few years ago, but as they got more involved in the dealership, they became less interested in racing,” Bruncati said. “During the time they raced, I was struck by the number of talented young drivers who never got a chance to race in really good equipment and develop their talents,” he said. “So I decided to give them a chance.”
“It’s a two-year deal,” said Thorn, who is in his second year with the team and is expected to be looking for a new ride at the end of the season. “Bob’s been straight-up about it. He gave me two years in really good equipment with a great crew, and it is up to me to show what I can do.
“I wish I could say teams have been calling me about driving for them next year,” he said, “but that isn’t the case. Right now I’m not sure what I’ll be doing.”
Not being able to place talented drivers is a source of frustration for the team owner, who has no ties to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series or Sprint Cup Series teams back East.
“I’d love to be a development team,” Bruncati said, “but I’ve got to run Fords and Jack Roush already has his own extensive farm team program. He doesn’t need me.”
So, for Bruncati, success is its own reward. It’s been that way since he began thumbing through the yellow pages looking for customers, and remains that way today as he and his crew search for victories.
And when wins are hard to come by, he goes back to another saying he retained from that motivational seminar decades earlier:
“It’s OK to fail, if no one else, given the same circumstances, could have succeeded.”
It is a phrase he doesn’t have to fall back on very often.
The Sunrise Ford Racing team celebrates in Victory Lane at Colorado National Speedway. Getty Images for NASCAR