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A Lot To Lose

With a catchy slogan and a strong work ethic, Rich Burd built one of the largest car dealerships in the city. But after the economy wrecked the auto industry, he felt he had only one way to turn.

Rich Burd, A Lot To Lose article in Indianapolis MonthlyHere comes Rich Burd, emerging from the rows of gleaming automobiles, extending his hand in your direction as if he’s been expecting you. You’ve seen him before, in his cheesy TV commercials—“Haven’t you heard? Burd’s the word!”—and here he is in the flesh. He’s a bit shorter than you expected, but there’s that same round face with heavy eyelids, the same blond buzz-cut standing motionless in the breeze, the same knowing smile. He wants to welcome you to his kingdom of freshly washed and waxed coupes and sedans, half-tons, full-tons, SUVs and hybrids, if that’s your thing, each adorned with a bright-colored balloon and priced to sell. He grips your hand firmly, looks you in the eye, and asks if he can show you something, as if he already knows exactly what you want, what you need, and what you can afford.

Rich is a salesman, after all, a pro, a closer who built the shimmering white 55,000-square-foot Burd Ford showroom and service center looming behind him brick by brick, sale by sale, starting at age 19. And he is more than owner and namesake. He is the father of this place, this supermarket of cars, and its salespeople and mechanics are as much a part of him as his wife and kids. Everything—from the classic rock on the sound system punctuated by thunderous, distorted pages to the lightbulbs behind the blue B-U-R-D sign—runs on his unbridled horsepower. Shake that hand, take those keys, and drive off in a Burd Ford, and you’ll become part of that extended family for life.

So what can he put you in? Need towing power and hauling capacity? There are some F-150s hot off the line. Packing the family around? How about a roomy Expedition, like the one Rich’s wife drives? Concerned about the price of gas? Friend, who isn’t? It’s 2009, and pretty much everyone is hurting. Rich knows you’ve been up late at the kitchen table, bracing for the worst. He understands that at the top of every household’s list of resolutions is squeezing a few thousand more miles out of the family car.

But what you may not realize is that Rich has been up nights, too. He has spent hours in his office, sweating beneath mounting piles of red numbers. The office window is one-way tinted glass. Rich can look out on his fleet of unsold cars, but you can’t see in. You don’t know that Rich once sold more than 130 cars a month from this lot. Or that there have been months this year when he has moved fewer than 80. That in order to build this state-of-the-art facility, Rich Burd gambled big, $8 million–big, just before the crash, when the car business bottomed out. You don’t know that he is still waiting for his $300,000 Cash For Clunkers check. You can’t see the framed photos on the shelf above his desk, a wife and four children looking down, counting on him to pull the family through.

Even they can’t see how bad it has gotten. His best friend, Chris, his spouse of 22 years, can’t guess the weight of the burden Rich has lately felt bearing down upon him when he shuts that office door. No one sees what this economy is really doing to Rich Burd. No one knows it will kill him.

Rich Burd was born a car man. His father, Gill Burd, was an auto wholesaler who moved his business here from Kentucky when Rich was 11. At local auctions, Rich observed his father’s skill at sniffing out a deal, watched him bid on clunkers to be hauled back to the family shop and refurbished and sold to dealers for a tidy profit. The elder Burd imparted his knowledge to his son, but he was a stern boss. “His dad was a pretty hard guy no matter who you were,” says Jon Parson, a childhood friend of Rich’s who also worked for Gill. In his early years, Rich toiled in the shop, detailing cars. When he was old enough, he ran rehabbed Oldsmobiles, Fords, and Cadillacs on the highways and back roads between auctions and dealerships all over Indiana.

Young Rich also had his pick of cars to buy and fix up for personal use, a fringe benefit he didn’t mind showing off, pulling up for class at Noblesville High in an MG convertible, Porsche, or Camaro. “Everyone thought he was a spoiled kid,” says Parson. “But of course that wasn’t the case.” Rich had helped rebuild those cars. Jeff Lindholm, a classmate and friend, remembers one spring helping Rich take the top off of an old Cadillac in shop class so they would have a convertible to drive to the lake in the summer.

But of all of Rich’s rides, it was a roaring cream-colored dually pickup that first caught the eye of Lindholm’s sister, Chris. And even though she was two years younger than the boys, she was bold and made plain her intentions of someday dating her brother’s friend with the white truck. Rich and Chris’s first date was on Valentine’s Day 1984. He bought her balloons and took her to a movie. From then on, they were inseparable. Every morning, Chris had the thrill of being picked up for school in Rich’s current wheels, and every afternoon he’d drive her home. When she was 15 and he was 17, Rich asked her to marry him. He knew they were too young, but he told her to keep it in mind, “and get back to me when you’re ready.” Two years later, they were on a plane headed to Hawaii for a Christmas vacation when Chris leaned over. “Okay, I’m ready,” she said. He looked at her, and sweetly replied, “Ready for what?”

At that point, Rich was a sophomore at Ball State, but he didn’t belong in school. He’d be sitting in classrooms and lecture halls, drifting off into fuel-injected visions—sparkling rows of polished chrome under a sign lit up with his name. “School was not important to him,” Chris says. “Working was. And since he’d been around the car business with his dad, he knew that was what he wanted to do.” A 19-year-old starting a dealership from scratch was fantasy, but when Rich asked his father to help him open a retail outlet under the family business name, Indiana Car & Truck, the austere Gill agreed. He would start the financing, he said, but everything else would be left up to Rich.

Chris and Rich married in June 1987. They pooled the money they each had saved and made a down payment on a three-bedroom English Tudor just off the campus of Butler University, where Chris was studying TV and radio. Rich enlisted his old friend Parson to help him start the used-car business, and the two labored tirelessly sprucing up an old gas station at 9002 Pendleton Pike in Lawrence, then set to moving the small inventory Gill had bankrolled. Rich and Parson were the only two employees. Still, Rich was happy. He was finally doing what he was born to do.

The first years were tough. Six days a week, Rich clocked in at 8 a.m., went through his records, and made the daily “phone-ups” to customers he thought might be in the market. He and Parson took turns greeting the walk-ups and leading them through the lot, feeling them out. Rich would be there beneath the lights until 9 p.m., maybe later—you never leave a customer. But he was in his element. He knew every gear and knob of what he was selling and he had a knack for understanding his customers. “He was a great used-car guy,” says Bill Skillman, the owner of Ray Skillman Ford, who met Rich at local auctions as they were both coming up in the business. “He was dealing with a lot of credit-challenged customers at that location, and he understood the type of car to stock for that market.”

Before long, Indiana Car & Truck was moving close to 100 used cars every month. Still, Rich longed for the day when he wouldn’t have to report to his father or anyone else, when it would be his name on the bumper decals and license-plate frames. He had even come up with a slogan, a play on the refrain from the 1960s radio novelty song “Surfin’ Bird.”

Meanwhile, Rich and Chris were also building a family. A daughter was born in 1990, followed by two boys and another girl. Rich threw himself into the business, but he was never too busy to take Chris’s calls, or to hop in a car and make the 20-minute drive home. Monday was Date Night—no matter what, Rich would come home from work, and the two would go out to dinner or see a movie. “Even when we had children, ” says Chris, “we always said the husband and wife are the most important people in the family.” As long as that foundation was sound, they figured, the family built upon it would be strong.

One day in 1999, Rich came home with news that Family Auto, which owned a handful of area dealerships, was going out of business and selling off individual locations. Rich thought he and Chris could scrape together enough to buy the cheapest one, a Ford store at 38th Street and Arlington Avenue. “He wanted his name on the sign, ‘Burd’s the Word,’ the whole nine yards,” she says. “So we made it happen.” By April 2000, Rich was the proud owner of a dilapidated 60-year-old building and a cramped, crumbling lot on a crime-ridden corner. At the outset, monthly sales were less than half of what he, alone, had moved at Indiana Car & Truck.

But the dream sustained them. Chris ran the marketing department, buying radio and TV time and starring in the commercials. In late 2001, Indianapolis saw the attractive blonde joined for the first time by a 35-year-old Rich, now happily setting up his wife—“Haven’t you heard?”—for the punchline: “Burd’s the word.”

Off-camera, Rich sold cars—at the beginning, around 20 new vehicles a month. But he fixed up the lot, increased inventory, and started selling cars online—one of the first dealers in Indy to do so. By 2006, monthly sales had ballooned to more than 100. The staff also grew from its original 25 to 55. Rich was a hands-on boss, never far from the floor, still pressing the flesh and closing deals. He would even help out in the service department, readying cars to be returned to their owners. His employees respected this realness, and he in turn treated them like family. He knew the names of their spouses and their children, their birthdays and what sports they played. When the sales manager told Rich he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and given three months to live, Rich told him he would keep him on payroll, even if he only made it to work for a couple of hours here and there. “We’re going to ride this out together,” Rich told him. The man lived another 18 months.

Burd became one of the largest Ford dealerships in Indianapolis. And with de-mand seemingly poised to continue its decade-long climb, the dealership was outgrowing its tight eastside digs. Rich had been eyeing a location in Lawrence on Pendleton Pike, where he envisioned a mega store, a vast lot of vehicles surrounding a giant, state-of-the-art building replete with modern repair and service facilities, a vast showroom, even a 30-seat movie theater where kids could eat popcorn and watch the latest DVDs while Mom and Dad debated how they were going to finance their spacious new Explorer. The sticker price of this fully loaded dream was more than $8 million. But times were flush; the banks had money and were happy to lend. The economic engine was running with the throttle wide open.

In December 2006, burd ford moved to the giant property, just outside I-465 at the junction of 56th Street and Pendleton Pike. The area was rapidly developing, but Rich could still walk out onto his new lot and see barren pastures in several directions. “The location was a little restrictive,” says Skillman. “It’s a good little drive from the city. But he built a beautiful facility out there.”

Beautiful—and big, with plenty of room for rows and rows of cars to meet the mounting demand. But increased inventory meant increased liability. Most dealers can’t afford the millions of dollars it costs to buy the dozens of vehicles on their lots. Instead, many use floor-plan financing—taking short-term loans from a bank, or, as Rich did, straight from the manufacturer’s financing arm. When a customer buys a car, the dealer pays off the principal plus interest and pockets anything left as profit. But waiting to be reimbursed can stretch the dealer’s budget, making it difficult to meet overhead expenses like payroll, utilities, and, in Rich’s case, a multimillion-dollar mortgage. The only way to stay ahead is to keep selling cars.

Throughout 2007 and into 2008, selling cars wasn’t a problem. Burd Ford was moving 130 new cars a month—more than he had ever sold—driven largely by demand for trucks and SUVs, where dealers usually made their nut. But most of Burd’s profit went toward the costs of the new facility. “We sold a lot of cars,” Chris says. “But we didn’t make any money.” Still, business was booming, and no one in any industry saw reason for concern or conservatism. Burd added 20 new employees.

Then came September 2008. Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the country, failed. In October, the stock market tumbled, taking with it retirement funds and years of investments. Millions lost their jobs. Credit dried up, and car loans became scarce. The price of gas jumped to more than $4 a gallon, and overnight, the paltry 15 mpg of SUVs and trucks was more than drivers could afford. By October 2008, nationwide car sales were down by almost 20 percent from the previous year. By the end of that year, sales of the cash-cow SUVs had plummeted 39 percent. Over the coming months, more than 1,400 U.S. dealerships closed.

“I’ve seen some rough times,” says Skillman, who has been in the business for more than 30 years. “But I’ve never seen a drop that dramatic.” Where Rich had been moving 130 cars a month in mid-2008, he was now sometimes selling fewer than 80. And, as Skillman points out, Rich had just taken out an $8 million loan: “He probably couldn’t have done it at a worse time.”

Still, Rich was reluctant to cut staff or salaries. This was his business, his family. His problem. He dug in. He was a salesman, and to him, there was nothing a sale couldn’t fix. Cash For Clunkers, which rewarded consumers who traded in their gas-slurping trucks and SUVs for more fuel-efficient options, spurred business a bit. But in August 2009, the same month the program was discontinued, Burd told a local TV reporter that he was still waiting for his check. “Having the government owe us $300,000 is a little nervous,” he said into the camera. “Keeps you up at night.”

Rich was starting to show his strain during the day as well. Co-workers began to notice he was visibly stressed. He was smoking more, one employee says, a habit he had long struggled to break. He wouldn’t joke like he used to. And rather than floating around the lot as he usually did, Rich was spending more and more time locked in his office, glued to his computer screen for hours at a time.

Chris saw that Rich was agonizing. But she had no idea how bad it might actually be. She watched their personal savings, an account that once held $1.2 million, drain to practically zero, all funneled into the dealership. Of course she was concerned. But she would never tell him what to do with the business. Chris had known him for more than a quarter of a century. He was her best friend. She trusted him. And as distressed as he seemed, she saw nothing in his behavior to suggest he might do something drastic. “He was extremely stressed,” she says. “But everybody was.”

So at 9 p.m. on Monday, November 9, 2009, when Rich put on his leather jacket to head to the dealership and finish up work on “an idea” that he said might revive the company’s fortunes, Chris’s initial reaction was hopefulness. When he wasn’t home by 10:30, Chris and her two sons drove her Expedition down to check on him. They walked through the glass doors of the dealership, which were unlocked. As Chris approached her husband’s office, she noticed a piece of paper taped to the door, but Rich, seeing her and the kids come in, quickly ripped it down.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, flustered. He explained that he just had a few more things to do.

Chris felt a strange mood hanging in the air. But her 14-year-old son broke the silence: “You promise you’re going to come home tonight?”
Rich told him he would be home soon.

Chris and the boys returned home and went to bed. At 2 a.m., she rolled over to see the other half of the bed undisturbed. Her first thought was that Rich had succumbed to the stress and suffered a heart attack at his desk. She hurriedly got dressed and drove back to Burd Ford. She saw Rich’s Taurus out front. The dealership’s doors were now locked. She didn’t have a key. She banged on the glass. There was no answer.

You can begin to form your own explanation. You probably faced your own hardships. At the height of the financial crisis, the news was filled with stories of desperate people—laid off, broke, foreclosed on. Some of them, including nearly a dozen car dealers, committed suicide. And when you consider how much of Rich was invested in his business, it’s not hard to imagine his despair when he felt his dream begin to crumble around him.

But that’s not enough for Chris. The note Rich left for her said “I’m sorry. I’m doing this for you”—and indeed, the payouts from Rich’s life insurance helped Burd Ford back to profitability. “All his life,” she says, “he wanted to take care of me, and he wanted to take care of his kids. And he felt like this was the only way to do it.” Still, Chris knows that the numbers don’t really add up. She knows that when Rich locked his office door, laid down on his leather couch, and ran a hose from a helium tank to a bag pulled over his head, he failed to factor in all the costs. When she volunteers with local mental-health organizations, sharing Rich’s story, she always ends with the conclusion that her husband could not have been of sound mind when he decided to end his life. That something prevented him from seeing that the business wasn’t everything—because as much as he had invested in the dealership, she had invested even more in him. “Money can be made and it can be lost,” she told one group last summer. “But he was the one who made us a family.”

Meanwhile, what’s left of that family and Burd Ford move forward. You can see that for yourself almost every day. You can turn on your TV and see Chris, that same striking blonde, standing in front of the gleaming cars and the bright balloons waving in the breeze below the blue B-U-R-D. But now she stands beside a 17-year-old boy, Nick Burd, doing his best to fill his father’s role. He has the same heavy eyelids, the same blond buzz cut. He’s even starting to make his pitch like a pro, smiling and inviting you to come down and buy a car, just like his dad did. And as the commercial fades, he helps his mother deliver the famous tagline.

Burd Ford and its family may be solvent, even successful. But they will never again be whole. “Rich wanted to save us,” Chris says. “But I still don’t understand why he thought the money was all we needed.”

This column orginally appeared in the June 2011 issue.