(Article courtesy of the Ocala Star Banner. Reproduced with permission.)
By Fred Hiers, Staff writer

DeLuca Toyota in Ocala began breaking ground last week on its new $14 million showroom and service center on State Road 200.

Owner Frank DeLuca said when he started the dealership 33 years ago on a 3.5 acre lot, selling a relatively unknown brand of car made in Japan, he never suspected the dealership would do so well.

Construction of the new 65,000-square-foot facility will begin in four months and take a year to complete. It will replace the dealership’s current 22,000-square-foot showroom and service area. It will be built on the 6-acre site that once made up the Ocala Rallye Motors dealership, which DeLuca bought for $3.75 million 2½ years ago.

DeLuca said much of the success of his dealership is due to loyal customers who return to buy new cars.

“Seventy-eight percent of our customers are repeat customers,” DeLuca said, adding later, “We treat every customer like an honored guest in our home.”

“This is my baby,” he said of the business. “This is my No. 1 business that I have here. I really care about our customers.”

The latest Ocala Rallye Motors land purchase puts the Toyota dealership at nearly 25 acres. The business employs 131 people.

The new facility will not only expand the showroom and office space, but also increase the number of service bays from the current 19 to 42.

The expansion also will create jobs, DeLuca said. All told, the expansion will involve hiring as many as 40 more employees, about half of whom will be mechanics.

Construction of the facility will put between 150 to 200 people to work, DeLuca estimated.

DeLuca said the new facility also will include entertainment for people in the process of buying a vehicle or getting one serviced. The facility will include a movie theater, salon and massage chairs.

Customer service also will include free coffee, cappuccinos and sandwiches.

“And I try to meet every customer and personally thank them (for buying a vehicle) … and shake their hand before they walk out of the dealership,” DeLuca said.

On the facility’s second floor, DeLuca said, there will be a putting green. The green is for customers to entertain themselves, but DeLuca also welcomed customers negotiating the price of their new vehicles to use the green to settle price disputes with the sales staff.

Although Toyota sales and profits slumped after last year’s tsunami in Japan, DeLuca said sales are back to normal, and his dealership recently experienced one of its best three-day sales periods, selling 47 vehicles.

The DeLuca sales mirror a resurgence in the U.S. auto industry after a slump in mid-2011. Sales of all brand cars and light trucks had fallen to about 900,000 new vehicles in January 2012, a tumble after sales had reached a December high of about 1.2 million.

By February, sales again were improving and were surpassing 1.1 million, according to motorintelligence.com, an industry website that analyzes automotive sales and trends. In March, U.S. vehicle sales reached 1.45 million, rounding out the best quarter for U.S. vehicle sales since 2008.

Vehicle sales for the year through March hit 3.45 million, about 400,000 more than for the same time frame in 2011.

Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. saw its share of the upswing. March sales reached 203,282 vehicles, a 15.4 percent increase from March 2011. Between January 2012 and March 2012, Toyota Motor Sales USA sold 487,284 vehicles, a 12.3 percent increase from the same period a year ago.

Following the sales, Toyota increased its worldwide sales forecast to the low-to mid-14 million range from 13.6 million.

“We’re starting to see improvement in consumer confidence and, combined with rising fuel prices and aging vehicles, the market is starting to move,” said Bob Carter, Toyota’s group vice president for U.S. sales, in an April 5 Automotive News interview. “It’s happening quicker than anyone thought.”