Les Eck took a different path to ownership of Rusty Eck Ford

It might seem as if Les Eck simply inherited a successful business, that it was his birthright to become the owner and president of Rusty Eck Ford, one of the city's top-selling dealerships that was founded by his father.

But consider that under the second-generation Eck, the company that comprised only the East Kellogg Ford dealership and Priced Right Used Cars when he took over has grown to include dealerships in Hutchinson, Omaha and St. Joseph, Mo., and a Wichita boat dealership.

And last year, Rusty Eck Ford was one of 19 Ford dealerships across the country — out of nearly 4,000 — to receive Ford Motor Co.' s Triple Crown award. The award is based on a Ford dealership winning the President's Award, the Premier Award and being in the top 100 in sales across the country.

Eck's path to ownership of the dealership that Rusty Eck started in 1953 in Haven was not clear cut.

His first general manager job came not at Rusty Eck Ford, but at a Ford dealership in Leavenworth.

For nearly a decade, life's circumstances took him away from the dealership business completely.

The twists and turns in his life are something Eck said he has learned to accept.

"I'd like to say I have this grand plan, but I don't," Eck said. "I just take life as it comes."

Eck, 57, said he never really thought about doing anything other than being a car dealer.

Like many of his peers, he worked at his father's dealership in high school and college.

After graduating from Wichita State University with a business administration degree, he went to work in the accounting office at Rusty Eck.

In 1975, while at Rusty Eck, he was asked by the owners of a Leavenworth Ford dealership to run their store.

"It wasn't even Dad that got me started (as a general manager)," Eck said.

He stayed with the Leavenworth dealership through 1983. At that point he decided he wanted to come back to Wichita and his dad's dealership.

But in 1986, two years after Eck returned to Wichita, he said he found himself divorced and raising his three children — Ryan, Kyle and Christy — on his own.

"I quit my job to focus on raising my kids," Eck said.

For a while, he didn't work at all, he said. But when the money began to run out, he decided to work for himself by buying and selling cars wholesale. That work, Eck said, allowed him to get his kids ready for school in the mornings and to be at home for them after school.

He said those nearly 10 years were some of the best of his life.

"I coached baseball and probably did all the things I wouldn't have done," Eck said.

During that time he also developed Mere Ridge in northwest Wichita.

Eck, an avid water-skier since age 5, wanted to buy the 60-acre lake at the high-end residential development at 25th North and Ridge so he could have his own place to ski with his children.

"My only chance to buy it was to develop it and sell off the lake lots," Eck said. "It was just about being in the right place at the right time."

Eck said after nearly 10 years of being a full-time dad, he felt his children had reached the age where he could return to work at Rusty Eck full-time.

And in 1997, Rusty decided it was time to retire and Les took over the dealership.

Involvement with schools

In a September 2006 Eagle article, Eck's name came up frequently when 30 community leaders were asked about the next generation of Wichita business leaders who could make an impact on the community.

His name was there because of his leadership on a business community effort four years earlier to retain former Wichita school superintendent Winston Brooks.

Eck said it wasn't his idea to be the front man for the effort.

He said his role in that effort, in which tens of thousands of dollars were raised to bolster Brooks' salary, came about because he joined a conversation among a group of businessmen at a Wichita State baseball game.

He said they were discussing Brooks' candidacy for a Portland, Ore., superintendent's job and ways to keep him in Wichita.

Eck said colleges and universities often go to business leaders and boosters to raise money to hire or retain a coach.

"Then why can't we take some of that same money to keep the coach of 50,000 students?" Eck said.

It wasn't a comfortable experience for him.

"What turned out to be what I thought was a very simple thing was very controversial," he said.

Retired Koch Industries president Bill Hanna worked with Eck to raise the money.

Hanna, who up to that point had never met Eck, said one of the first things they had to do was meet with the school board to see if it was legal to raise money for Brooks' salary. And some board members were trying hard to find out his and Eck's motivations for doing it.

"He took quite a bit of heat," Hanna said. "Even I did."

Hanna said he got involved because of Eck's statement in an April 2002 article in The Eagle when he said he'd be willing to pay $40,000 himself to keep Brooks.

"His statement in the paper was an inspiration to me," Hanna said. "It made me wonder if we could go do something together."

Eck continues to focus many of his dealership's charitable activities on schools today. He helped organize the Adopt-a-School campaign, which continues today in the form of an annual golf tournament. The money raised from the tournaments goes to teachers to buy books and supplies for their classrooms.

Eck said his charitable efforts are focused on education because "I think every kid has that special teacher that helps mold their life and their future."

A positive attitude

Eck said his dealership's success is because of two things: the people who work for him and positive energy.

One of those people, Janet Cervantes, has worked for Eck for 11 years. She started at the dealership as an office manager and later was named controller. As the company grew and added more dealerships, Cervantes was named chief financial officer.

A mom herself, Cervantes said work has never prevented her from missing an important event with her child.

"He's very caring and very understanding, and he will also push you as hard as you want to be pushed," she said.

The past year has been a challenge in terms of sales, Eck said, "but we've got great people."

"That makes my job so much easier, when you have great people who care," he said.

He's also a big believer in positive energy. He wasn't always that way, he said.

When the dealership had to move farther north because of the Kellogg expansion in 2003, it was a time of major stress for Eck. It was stressful, he said, trying to run a dealership at the same time he was building a new one just a few feet away.

One of the engineers he worked with during that project was always positive, he said. Eck said the engineer was upbeat every time he called him.

"Even the day I call him and his wife is dying, he's got positive energy," Eck said. "I realized then that's the way to be."

Nowadays, that's how he approaches life. He tries to start each day with a positive attitude.

"If there's a negative, just turn it into a positive," he said, "no matter what it is."