Photo: Eileen Escarda
Florida Icon: Rita Case
My goal in high school that I told my dad: I’m going to prove a woman can be a successful car dealer.
A lot of this is birth order. There wasn’t anything that I did not become the best at. Whether it was in school, whether it was horseback riding or if it was water-skiing. I was a pilot at 16. It’s because I was striving for my parents’ attention. It was very difficult in that birth order to be recognized, to be No. 3. I’m not the baby. I’m not the first girl. I’m not the oldest. I’m just there.
I learned, ‘Wow, you can earn a lot of recognition when you’re good, and you can build a lot of confidence.’
Before Rick passed away, it was more like he was 70% charity and 30% of the business. I was more 70% running the business and 30% doing charity.
We’ve raised over $100 million for the Boys & Girls Club. Big yacht owners — they’ve got money. So we had this Yacht Rendezvous event for them. We started Bikers Bash. We went to Pebble Beach to learn the Concours business. We stalked (Jay Leno) until we finally surrounded him, me and Rick. We said we want to start a Concours to benefit the Boys & Girls Club. We talked as fast as we could. We had somebody take a picture. So he could remember us. We sent him the proposal. He was our first entertainer. He’s been our entertainer every five years, and he’s come out other years just to judge and be a part, and he would get us entertainers. He’s a very kind man. He’s a very generous man with his time.
My dad opened a foreign car garage in Santa Rosa (California) where he was the mechanic and my mom answered the phone. Honda came in 1959 to the United States peddling the Nifty Thrifty Honda 50 (motorcycle). My dad said, ‘Well, I think I can sell those.’ And then in 1968, Honda announced they were going to bring a car over. Two years later, they actually arrived.
There I sat in this building with a Honda car in the showroom. I was in high school. People would come in and I would say, ‘You can’t believe this car. I drive one myself. I love it. You’ve got to try it.’ I was just so enthusiastic.
Even with all that enthusiasm, we only sold 10 a year. They were sales proof. It was an air-cooled 600cc motorcycle engine in a tin box, and it was so small. In 1970, people were driving like Bonnevilles, Buicks. Everything was big and comfortable and cushy.
Our first date was a motorcycle ride. Rick and I were still riding up to the year he passed away. I always ride a Gold Wing. I drive the Genesis G90.
I met Rick at a car convention. I was 23. He was 36. I moved to Ohio. I had to start all over as the dealer’s wife. It was really tough. Rick was like, ‘Come and live with me awhile. Let’s make sure this is going to work. What if you don’t like Ohio?’ My dad was all about no test drives. Good Catholic family. He wouldn’t let me live there.
I’ve let both of my children experience the business through the dinner table.
He was diagnosed with cancer Dec. 21 of 2019, and he passed away on Sept. 21 of 2020. He just said, ‘I’m struggling breathing. I wonder what’s going on.’ We went to Cleveland Clinic, and we knew that day. No one else knew that he was sick at all. We hid out because of COVID. It came in that March. When it started to open up a little in May, we got on my little Honda jet. We flew to Idaho, where we had a home. We had time there to decide what to do. He helped me through what I should do, knowing he was passing away. A very brave man.
There will never be another Rick.
People always say to me, ‘I wish I could wear a hat.’ They say, ‘I just don’t look good in a hat.’ I say, ‘Well, then pick another style. There are brim hats. There are no-brim hats. There are pillboxes. There are fascinators. There are headbands. None of those look good on you? You don’t wear a hat because you don’t want to stand out. Until you want to stand out, you’re not going to wear a hat.’ I wanted to stand out.
How does a woman end up breaking the ceiling of a man’s industry and get to be the largest privately owned retail automobile dealership group in the United States owned and operated by a woman? She built the business every step of the way.
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