PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAN AUSTIN
We sat down with the owners of Bartow Ford, Benny Robles Sr. and his son Benny Robles Jr., to further uncover the dealership’s story enriched in culture, hard work, and an authentic business philosophy that they have been practicing for over 70 years. Meet the Hispanic family that ran after their American dream.
Bartow Ford was started, roughly 70 years ago, by a benevolent and caring man by the name of Ernest Smith. The dealership was Mr. Smith’s baby, and he ran it by this philosophy: “When you take care of the customers and you take care of the employees, everything else will take care of itself.”
Benny Robles Sr., who came to the United States from Cuba and was working at Ford Credit, met Smith and discovered he could carry on the business in a way that would make Smith proud.
Benny Robles Sr., previous president of Bartow Ford, was born in Spain and lived there until he was about four years old, but when the Civil War started having true repercussions on his family, his parents decided to move them to Cuba, where they lived until Benny was 14. At that time, there was a lot of politics surrounding Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, and many thought he was going to get overthrown and that there’d be a revolution. So they started sending kids without their parents to refugee camps in the U.S., including Benny Sr.; they called it Operation Peter Pan. Benny lived with a foster family in Michigan for a while. Then, in his senior year, his parents came to the U.S. and were living in Tampa, allowing him to move back down to Florida where he attended the University of South Florida, studying behavioral management.
“I always found it interesting that my Michigan foster parents’ last name was Ford, with no relation to the company,” says Robles Sr.
Then, roughly 40 years ago, in 1977, Ernest Smith began the process of handing over the company to Robles Sr. The whole process seemed to take 10 years or so, allowing Smith to stay and help the dealership here and there as long as he wanted, and as long as he could. Though Smith’s mind gradually started to become very sick, Robles Sr. is glad he was able to be there for him and bring him some peace of mind knowing that the business was going to be carried out following his original philosophy.
THE SECOND GENERATION
Benny Robles Jr. assumed presidency as of January 2017 to continue and further grow his father’s legacy. Robles Jr. really started working at the dealership when he was around 12 years old though; washing cars, mowing lawns, and eventually becoming a part of the team full-time after finishing his undergrad in finance. Since Robles Jr. has started, he talks of how it has definitely been overwhelming because he has been working toward this his whole life and so intimately saw how his dad ran things. But, ultimately, he feels blessed to have grown up in this business and become equipped and inspired to carry on his dad’s legacy, because it is something he is authentically passionate about. “I am driven,” says Robles Jr. “Just simply carrying on my dad’s legacy isn’t enough. I need to create a legacy of my own.”
Robles Sr. also thinks the transition has been very successful and that 2017 was their best year yet. Through the conversion, Robles Sr. has still been very involved at Bartow Ford. But since he has been here for 40 years, he has decided it’s time for him to take it easy and relax.
Overall, the Robles think it has been a good transition for the company and for the other partners that have been there for over 15 years who are all like family, looking out for one another.
BARTOW FORD, A FAMILY
Bartow Ford has a unique culture. Following the wise words of Ernest Smith, Bartow Ford really extends itself to excel in the care of its customers and employees alike. This, in turn, has produced little turnover all around.
It is not uncommon for there to be two or three generations of people still working at the dealership. It’s a culture where you’re able to grow. The Robles share that at Bartow Ford you easily become like a family; even so that when something tragic happens in an employee’s life, everyone there is collecting money and checking in. From what is seen, it is a very unique culture — so much so that 70 percent of their business is repeat.
CULTURAL ROOTS RUN DEEP
The Robles’ Hispanic heritage is consistently reflected through Bartow Ford’s operation. Spanish people are very warm: they hug, and they kiss, and most think that this is the culture they have created at the dealership, too.
Robles Sr.’s father was an entrepreneur in Cuba, but he lost his business to Fidel Castro. He then came here and started over, but he didn’t take any money or social security; he just started over. This set an example for Robles Sr. to persist and work hard, which is definitely reflected at Bartow Ford.
“I think the Spanish culture is definitely a hard-working culture,” says Robles Jr. “It is very reliable and consistent. And, as I have seen in my life, my father has always brought that to fruition. Honestly, I wish I would have gotten more of that from him, because he embodies these qualities so well. Consistency is what separates people from being good or being great, and I think my dad has been consistent for 40 years. I think it’s very reflective of the Spanish culture.”
MAKING LAKELAND HOME
Though the Robles definitely consider their community to encompass all of Central Florida, they are also all individually involved closer to home. For example, Robles Jr. is heavily involved with Central Florida Speech and Hearing, the Achievement Academy, and also with the coaching of a basketball team in the community. But, most importantly, as Robles Jr. shares, he lives here in Lakeland, so Lakeland is definitely home to him. “If I am going to go to the movies or to dinner — it’s in Lakeland,” he says.
Robles Jr. also thinks that the community has definitely reciprocated their business model and says he wouldn’t know of any other way to do business but the one they have held to there. At Bartow, they are more about the big picture and taking care of the overall wellness of their people for the long run, ultimately emphasizing how the whole presence of the dealership feels, and Robles Jr. thinks the community has responded well and given back to them because of this.
A MESSAGE FOR OTHER HISPANIC ENTREPRENEURS
To other Hispanic entrepreneurs, Robles Jr. would say that the dream is still out there. “Unfortunately, there are people that are born here who say there is nothing for me to do, or no way to get ahead. And then there are people who come over here and they light up to the opportunity. Sometimes we forget how great we have it, not only in the U.S., but in Lakeland, too,” he says. So for Robles Jr., he would say to any minority, Hispanic or not, that the dream is still there.
“There is no other country in the world where you can go there, work really hard, and become very successful in your business,” adds Robles Sr. “I don’t think other countries have the facilities to do it as well as it is done here. You also see a lot of doctors in Cuba that when they came over here they were no longer doctors because they were not certified in the U.S. So they work as busboys or whatever they can get to get recertified and become doctors with successful practices, because they know there is so much opportunity here for anyone who will take it.”
Thinking toward the future, Robles Jr. wants to hopefully take their business model and branch out to other dealerships because, “We have so many managers who have been here for a long time who would do a great job managing a dealership or being a minority owner. I can only grow Bartow Ford so much, so I feel like my legacy will be to grow this same business model and take the same people who have been so faithful to our community and expand to other businesses and dealers,” he says.
Bartow Ford has impacted the Robles’ family, the community, and the employees tremendously, so to expand that community would be Robles Jr.’s future dream as he continues his own legacy at Bartow Ford.
2800 U.S. 98 North
Bartow, FL 33830