On a casual drive-by, the AutoMaxx car dealership opposite the airport on Sarasota's North Tamiami Trail doesn't look ground-breaking. It's a "Buy Here-Pay Here" dealership, selling quality used cars and offering dealer-controlled financing for people with tarnished credit ratings.

But it's also the site of what Chris Leedom of Sarasota's Leedom and Associates, LLC, an automotive retail and finance consulting firm, calls the nation's first teaching dealership.

Since last fall, some 12 to 20 students from across the country come to AutoMaxx each week to participate in one- to four-day workshops. In Operation Boot Camp, for example, would-be auto dealers learn "everything from how they turn on the lights in the morning to how to take an incoming phone call," says Leedom. They also shadow AutoMaxx's core group of four salespeople.

A frequent keynote speaker and contributor to such publications as Used Car Dealer magazine, Leedom is out to professionalize an industry that, rightly or wrongly, has negative connotations. "The goals," he says, "are teaching a method that works and a consistent practice."

Program graduates receive a certificate; and the company is working with the National Independent Auto Dealer Association to establish continuing education credits through an educational institution to those who complete a certain number of workshops.

Leedom, former CEO of an automotive group and partner in an automotive consulting firm in Kansas City, moved to Sarasota with his family in 2000. His firm collects data for 3,500 clients across the automotive industry in the U.S. Canada and Mexico. "We collect info on about 300,000 to 350,000 auto purchases a year: what dealers are spending on advertising, what they're paying in commissions, average sales prices and inventory levels," he says. "We use that data to help our clients better run their businesses."

"Each year we conduct about 300 seminars, traditionally at hotels across the country," he says. "We decided to open AutoMaxx so people could send their staff to a place where they could actually see a real-life working model."

Do people buying cars at AutoMaxx know it's different from a regular car dealership? "No, absolutely not," says Leedom. "All we hope is that they have a very pleasant car-buying experience."

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