Robert Garff

Using Cowboy Ethics to Sell Cars

Gail Newbold Jul 1, 2016

Robert Garff can get emotional when talking about the culture and ethics of the West. "The Old West lives on, and I'm trying my best to portray that to my employees," says the chairman of Garff Enterprises and self-avowed "gentleman farmer."

Back in the day, he explains, ranchers left their doors unlocked so the other cowboys threatened by unforeseen dangers had a safe haven. They were allowed to take shelter and eat whatever they wanted. "I've experienced that hospitality myself when my life was threatened," Garff says. "Ranchers have a tremendous work ethic, are honest and would do anything they could to help a neighbor."

Behaving Like Ranchers

And that’s just how Garff wants his 4,500 employees to behave — like ranchers. It doesn’t matter that his workers are driving cars instead of cattle, cowboy ethics apply. Founded in 1932 by Garff’s father Ken, who was a rancher before selling cars, the company is now the fourth-largest privately owned automotive retailer in the nation.

The principle from James P. Owens’ Code of the West (see accompanying box) that Garff most emphasizes to the employees of Garff Enterprises, the parent company for Ken Garff Automotive Group, is “Ride for the brand.”

Riding for the Brand

“In the old days, ranchers drove cattle 800 miles from Texas to Kansas,” he says. “It was a dangerous journey during which a rancher might encounter harsh weather, Indians, bandits and so forth. It was critical for a rancher to carefully choose who was riding on his left and right — men of character who wouldn’t abandon their post during a stampede or other danger.”

The brand these cowboys were riding for was stamped on the side of the cattle and represented the name of the ranching operation, such as the Quarter Circle J or the King Ranch. “The brands meant something,” Garff says. “They meant your ranch had character and integrity. Each was an earmark for who you were and what you stood for. People respected those brands.”

Earning a Respected Brand

Well-known brands in today’s business world include the Olympics, McDonald’s, Nike and Coca-Cola, to name a few. Some have said a respected brand is worth more than all the assets a business has, according to Garff.

“You want your brand to portray your ethics, who and what you are to the public,” he continues. “We spend countless hours teaching our employees to buy in on the company’s mission to treat customers with loyalty and respect. Our customers need to have faith in us and have a good buying experience so that our brand means something in the same way that Zions Bank’s does. Our company loves doing business with Zions because of its respected brand and reputation. Its contribution to our society is unmatched by any other financial institution,” Garff says.

“You know, your word is your bond,” he concludes. “So act with great courage. I can still hear my father give me the lessons of his life. And he lived them, let me tell you.”

Robert Garff
Photo courtesy of Robert Garff

Code of the West

By James P. Owen

  1. Live each day with courage.
  2. Take pride in your work.
  3. Always finish what you start.
  4. Do what has to be done.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. When you make a promise, keep it.
  7. Ride for the brand.
  8. Talk less and say more.
  9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
  10. Know where to draw the line.

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