A Hard-Earned Dream: Bartow Ford Celebrates 75 Years
By Rj Walters
Photography by Bartow Ford
In front of the iconic Bartow Ford dealership along US-98 just south of Lakeland, there is a brick pathway that dealership President Benny Robles Jr. started constructing when he took over in 2017.
Every brick represents an exceptional employee who epitomizes the excellence and loyalty that characterize a dealership that was opened in 1948 by Ernest Smith, and eventually sold to Benny’s father, Benny Robles Sr., in the late 1970s.
Through economic highs and lows, vast changes to the car industry, and even a pandemic, Bartow Ford has been home to hundreds of incredible employees who have served thousands of customers, all part of constructing a distinctive path to 75 years in business.
“I’m so looking forward to 50 years from now, looking out there and seeing hundreds of names of people from Hispanic to Caucasian to Black that [shows] all the different people that have contributed to the success of Bartow Ford,” Robles Jr. said about the brick pathway. “It’ll be like our little walk of fame.”
No two bricks are exactly the same, but they align almost perfectly, which can also be said of the people who have made Bartow Ford a Top 100 volume dealer in the United States.
Robles Sr. was born in Spain and then lived in Cuba with his family for nearly a decade, before they fled due to political unrest under Fidel Castro’s regime. Robles attended the University of South Florida, and after college he worked at Ford Credit, where he met Smith.
Although he and Smith—who was born and raised in Polk County and worked for the family construction business at a young age—experienced very different journeys through adolescence, ultimately their paths and missions converged, and the foundation they created at Bartow Ford is being built on by Benny Sr.’s namesake.
“It’s crazy how well Ernest Smith passed along his philosophy of doing business and how identical my dad’s feelings are on the way we treat employees and our customers,” Robles Jr. said, reminiscing about how he used to soak up infinite wisdom from his dad and Smith as they frequented the Pizza Hut buffet together years ago. “And then, you know, what a great job [my dad] did at relaying that message to me and my business partners because it’s identical. If you could somehow, theoretically take Ernest and my father and all my business partners and put us in several rooms and say, ‘How would you handle this issue?’ I guarantee you the answer would be exactly the same.”
Part of the current leadership team includes minority owner Carlos Sandoval, who runs fixed operations at the dealership. He is 100 percent Mexican, and Benny Jr. said Sandoval is a reflection of the hard work of many people who move to America to seize opportunities not afforded to them in their home country.
“More so than ever I think there’s not as many people willing to do the hard work,” he said. “There’s a great advantage for anyone that’s come over recently from another country…or someone who is a second generation [American] because they have the opportunity to shine.”
The 44-year-old father of three constantly reiterates how blessed he feels to be leading a successful business where the employees feel more like family to him, but he’s quick to note that Benny Sr. certainly made him work for the opportunity.
“He was very particular about making me work for everything, and I had to take out a loan to buy it. But I got a great deal, so I’m not complaining,” he says with his trademark grin and a chuckle.
Benny Jr. started washing cars at Bartow Ford before his 13th birthday, and one thing that has always been instilled in him is to treat everyone the same, whether it’s the vice president of Ford Motor Company or the waiter down the road serving you lunch.
When it comes to the idea of legacy, Benny Jr. isn’t trying to one-up what’s been done in the past, he’s just trying to put his mark on the brand, and hopefully create more opportunities for others to succeed.
Last year he helped pull off a first-of-its-kind “Concert on the Lot” featuring country music star Michael Ray, just the latest community event to draw people to the Bartow Ford campus.
But his big next move, that he’s been priming for, is adding another dealership to his portfolio. He is hopeful that could happen in the next two years, and ideally that location would be within a 90-minute drive of Bartow Ford.
“I have a logjam of leadership at the dealership. My managers are somewhat young and buying a new store would allow some of my managers to move on and move up,” he said. “I don’t want to grow irresponsibly and I never wanna be so aggressive that I hurt our original baby…but right now, numbers wise, we are running the most efficient we’ve ever been, so that makes me less nervous on taking a chance on a [new] store.”