Pete Bulban is the founder and president of Texas Cars Direct in North Dallas. Bulban is friendly and plainspoken, and he’ll tell you everything you need to know about his dealership. In fact, everything you need to know about his business model is readily available on his operation’s website. The “About Us” tab even includes a recent Dallas Morning News profile that reveals all his secrets to success: highline vehicles, mostly off-lease Mercedes, Jaguars and Land Rovers, selling for $1,000 over net cost.
Texas Cars Direct is housed in a warehouse situated just south of the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway. It’s only open Monday through Friday, and the staff of 15, which includes Bulban and his wife, Jenny, end their day at 6 p.m. Since he opened for business in 1981, the clientele has been primarily well-heeled professionals looking for an immaculate, pre-owned luxury vehicle.
“Our reputation is pretty good in the community. Lots of professors, doctors, investment bankers and so forth,” Bulban says. “From a long time ago, we decided we would rather undersell. People feel like they get more than they expected.”
The same could be said for Bulban, who got into the business while still in high school. He would wake up early to read the classifieds, look for good deals and try to catch the seller before he or she went to work. He’d even recondition the vehicles himself before reselling them. He says he bought his first dealer license — for $120 — when he realized it would save him money on parts.
Early on, he specialized in Ford Mustangs, Chevy Blazers and Nissan Zs. He then moved up to Saabs — a local dealer “hated” the Swedish vehicles and sold them to Bulban, who cleared “a couple thousand” each time he drove one to the East Coast.
After selling 15 cars in one month, an accountant friend tried to convince him to buy a storefront. He compromised by renting a warehouse and inviting the friend to come work with him. The business took off when Bulban began traveling the country to visit Mercedes-Benz auctions. Bulban began tracking down Jaguars in 1995, after he visited an OEM auction on a whim.
“I wasn’t really interested, but the guy said their cars had really improved,” Bulban recalls. “He said, ‘Buy 11 and we’ll give you $1,000.’ I sold all 11 in three days. I got the check, and it was actually $1,000 per car.”
The added cash flow helped stabilize the business, but Bulban refused to slow down. Nearly 20 years after adding Jaguar to his operation, he has visited nearly every major Manheim and ADESA auction in the country.
Jenny Bulban runs the dealership’s reconditioning department while Dewayne Gill manages a four-person finance team. Both of them were persuaded to join Texas Cars Direct despite having embarked on seemingly incompatible career paths.
Jenny is a former schoolteacher who retired — temporarily, she assumed — when the Bulbans’ son was born. She had pitched in at the dealership when she was teaching and began working there full-time once their son started school. Gill had spent three years as a contract worker for Irving, Texas-based EFG Companies when a bank rep convinced him to meet with Pete. The three have been a close-knit team ever since.
“I think we’ve got as good or better product [than the franchised dealerships],” Jenny Bulban says. “We’re more hands-on. Pete goes to the sale, looks at and touches every car. When it gets here, I look at and touch every car.”
Every vehicle is subject to a multipoint checklist. Most cosmetic repairs and window replacements are handled onsite, and Pete Bulban claims they have a higher standard for tires than most certified pre-owned programs. Most vehicles are still under factory warranty, so they’re sent to the competition for mechanical repairs. The rest go to one of five local garages.
“I wouldn’t personally own a Mercedes-Benz out of warranty,” Pete Bulban says. “I know how expensive the components are.”
With his F&I background, Gill instructs his team to look for opportunities with every sale. “We sell products we think will benefit the client,” he says, noting that GAP and tire-and-wheel protection are his department’s best sellers. He says penetration rates vary from month to month and notes that even cash customers, which Texas Cars Direct attracts in droves, can be converted to finance.
“With rates at 1.7 percent, a lot of cash buyers are using the banks’ monies right now and keeping their money invested,” Gill says.
Pete Bulban says Gill believes in the products he sells and credits him with building an efficient, profitable department that meets the expectations of his clients. “A car purchase is serious. I want them to be treated like I’d want to be treated,” he says. “The four-square is like saying, ‘Here’s four ways we can screw you.’”
The store’s website lists all 100-plus vehicles in the store’s inventory, each with a lengthy description and links to Carfax and AutoCheck reports. Most descriptions include available rates for good-credit customers. And while most Texas Cars Direct customers are “A” paper, Gill says he has established relationships with finance companies that will finance deals for customers with credit scores as low as 500.
Texas Cars Direct now moves about 150 units per month. Pete Bulban says his edge over new-car dealers is his lack of overhead. The Dallas Morning News writer noted that the dealership doesn’t even offer free coffee. Bulban says he prefers to inspire loyalty by selling a superior product.
“Well over 50 percent of our business is repeat or referral,” he says. “It costs a lot of money to advertise.”
Gill says he is still occasionally surprised by how often customers drop by just for a chat — especially considering how many come from hundreds or thousands of miles away. “I was going on vacation last week, and the Thursday before I left, a gentleman who had a layover at [Dallas Fort Worth International Airport] stopped by to say ‘Thank you.’ I was blown away. Two hours at DFW and he decided to come out here just to say that.”
Jenny Bulban credits Texas Cars Direct’s success to the store’s employees and their relationships with their vendors. She notes that the dealership and its business model came together over a long stretch. The only constant, she says, has been Pete — and his unwavering dedication to his business model.
“In my mind, Pete built the business and I helped it grow,” she says. “I’m very proud of what he’s done.”