Billy Fuccillo spent his Fourth of July weekend relaxing and sipping vodka tonics at the Delano Hotel in the South Beach section of Miami, Fla., with several of his managers. It was a rare occasion. The 52-year-old ex-football player — now a big league auto dealer — doesn’t often take a vacation.
The group had just finished a 30-day, nonstop sales promotion at the Syracuse dealerships and, as a reward, Fuccillo flew them to Miami for a few days of fun and relaxation.
“It’s very important that if I ask them to work hard I let them play hard,” he said.
“Work hard and play harder” is Fuccillo’s M.O. He always has a phone in his ear. He wakes up at 4 a.m. and doesn’t sleep until 11 p.m. seven days a week. And he expects his employees, especially his managers, to follow similar schedules. However, his employees are one of the secrets to his success, he said, so he treats them accordingly.
Corporate General Manager George Zenner, who has worked for the company for 20 years, said Fuccillo has taken employees and their spouses from an entire dealership, about 600 people, on a cruise for meeting their quota — without charging them for vacation time.
“He does a lot for his people,” Zenner said. “He expects 110 percent but he returns it 110 percent.”
“He recognizes and respects hard work,” former employee Sarah DiMezza, of Utica, said, “and if you work hard he’ll take care of you.”
Fuccillo travels in his own plane. He has vacation homes in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and Montego Bay, Jamaica and homes throughout upstate New York, though Fuccillo said he rarely spends time in any of those places. Instead he spends most of his life in hotels, promoting his dealerships with his team of corporate managers and salespeople.
Fuccillo has become somewhat of a celebrity throughout New York state, with an attitude and approach to selling cars that is, in his own word, huge.
While the national economic recession has closed many car dealerships, Fuccillo seems to be unaffected. In fact, he said, the Fuccillo Automotive Group has experienced one of the best first quarters in company history and the second quarter is shaping up to be good too. His Kia dealership on State Street in Schenectady, which he purchased from the Lia Group in January, has become the top selling Kia dealership in the country.
Fuccillo was born in Greenport, a small coastal town on Long Island. He attended Syracuse University on a football scholarship, majoring in marketing. He played tight end.
After graduation, he said, he was dead broke — no debt but no money, and he was about to be evicted from his apartment.
He applied for a job at a Chevrolet dealership in Fayetteville, a town outside of Syracuse. The first time he applied he didn’t get the job. In fact, he had to go back four times. But within a year he was the top salesman, Fuccillo said.
A few years later he got into the wholesale end of the business, buying cars from dealers and selling them at auctions. He bought his first dealership in 1989 in Adams, south of Watertown, where Fuccillo Automotive Group is headquartered today.
Fuccillo has 23 dealerships throughout New York, seven in the Capital Region. His company employs 1,486 people and brings in about $700 million a year. He said his profits are about 2 percent of that.
Fuccillo said he has sold as many as 31,000 cars in a year, but last year he sold roughly 25,000.
He said much of his success comes from having cars “on both sides of the pew.” He sells both domestic brands like Ford, Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac, and foreign lines like Toyota, Kia, Hyundai and Suzuki.
Fuccillo said the things that make him successful are having a lot of working capital — cash in the bank — and the best people working for him. His ability to provide credit to pretty much anyone — “I once got a dead man financed,” he said — is also a factor in his success.
“Any guy can have pretty good advertising and marketing, but if I generated all this traffic and we didn’t have good people, we wouldn’t be successful.”
Fuccillo is well-known primarily from his distinctive and frequent TV commercials. He believes in stepping up his advertising when business is bad. If business is good you can cut back on your advertising a bit, he said. Car sales in the Capital Region were in the tank, so Fuccillo had to step up his advertising.
“If you stop advertising, you stop doing business. That’s my motto.”
Dean Reuckert, president of Reuckert Advertising and Public Relations in Albany, said the frequency of the commercials attracts people to a Fuccillo dealership more than Fuccillo’s antics.
As an advertising agency owner, Rueckert said, he shudders to think that someday he might have to make commercial spots like Fuccillo’s. But, “it works for him.
“I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘What turns me on about Fuccillo is Billy.’ You hear more people say, ‘They annoy me,’ ” Rueckert said. “There is a lot to be said about frequency. When an advertiser can afford frequency he’s able to achieve tremendous power.”
When people start thinking of purchasing a vehicle, said Reuckert, Fuccillo is one of the first things that comes to their minds. They may visit the dealership first and even though they don’t purchase right away, they look around and compare all other dealerships and offers to Fuccillo, he said.
“It’s hard to put a value on mind awareness.”
Of course, no story about Billy Fuccillo would be complete without some discussion about “huge,” the adjective that he’s made his trademark. Every Fuccillo commercial includes an exuberant Fuccillo declaration that the deal or the selection is “huge,” a word he tends to stretch out while gesturing to his audience or draping his arm around his commercial co-star.
Jeffrey Durgee, associate professor of marketing at the Lally School of Management and Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said Fuccillo’s snappy catch phrase helps him build brand identity. Brand consistency also makes his commercials successful.
When Fuccillo says “huge,” he is referring to a huge selection or huge savings, but he is physically huge, his voice is huge and his personality is also huge, Durgee said.
“If he was a small person saying ‘huge’ it would be less effective than his saying ‘huge,’ ” Durgee said.
Fuccillo said his tag line “huge” follows him wherever he goes. The saying started on a radio commercial during his company’s early years and has taken on a life of its own.
THE BIRTH OF ‘HUGE’
“I just turned to Tom [Park] one day and said, ‘It’s huge, Tom. It’s huge,’ and it blew up from there,” Fuccillo said.
Radio stations in Syracuse would have contests where people would call in trying to imitate him.
“I thought it was just a Syracuse thing at the time,” Fuccillo said, “But no matter where I went, people would be yelling and screaming at me.”
Fuccillo doesn’t know how much he spends on advertising per year, but he guesses it’s about $20 million. “If I added it up I wouldn’t be able to finish the sandwich I’m eating right now,” he said. Last month in Syracuse, he spent $1.2 million on advertising for two dealerships.
Fuccillo has been working with Tom Park Productions since he started his business. Tom Park is the guy holding the sign in many of his commercials. Recently Fuccillo added Caroline Renfro, a personality he discovered while she was announcing for the Charlotte, N.C., Bobcats basketball team. Fuccillo said he saw Renfro do a spot for a Kia dealer down there and thought it would be a good marketing strategy to have Renfro do the spots for Kia dealerships and Park do the spots for Hyundai during Fuccillo’s three Hyundai verses Kia sales each year.
“It’s something we tried in Rochester and it worked to a ‘T,’ ” he said.
The Fuccillo team this month moved into Schenectady for a Hyundai verses Kia sale. Fuccillo said he has been focusing his energies on the Capital Region market. He spent between three and five months out of the last year in Schenectady.
When Fuccillo isn’t selling cars, he’s watching horse races, golfing or deep sea fishing. His home in Mexico is on a golf course. However, he doesn’t have much time for recreation.
The car sales king drives a different car every two months so he can be knowledgeable about what he’s selling. He said he isn’t really into collecting nice cars because he doesn’t have enough time to spend with them, but he does have a few collector cars in his possession, including a 1966 Chevrolet Impala.
He definitely doesn’t read. “I hate it. No patience,” he said. “But make sure kids know that’s not the right thing to do.”
Fuccillo is involved with a number of children’s charities including hospitals and pediatric cancer organizations. He also speaks with children in schools about the importance of saying “no” to drugs.
“I hate that. It’s my number one thing. I hate drugs.”
Fuccillo wouldn’t comment on his marital status, but he does have a son, Billy Fuccillo Jr., who is going into his junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is being groomed to take over his father’s company.
Despite his somewhat gruff television image, Fuccillo has been a comfort to store managers and sales associates during the troubled economy, according to Zenner, the corporate general manager.
“He’s stayed in contact with us to assure us that we’re doing everything we can to still grow. It’s a down market, but he is a no-nonsense type of guy,” Zenner said. “A lot of guys are playing golf, but he’s out there pounding the streets.”