Q&A: Auto Dealer Rita Case

Her family started America’s first Honda car dealership. Decades later, she placed the first HondaJet order.

Rita Case is president and CEO of Rick Case Automotive Group, the nation’s largest auto retailer owned and operated by a woman. It has 14 dealerships, 1,300 employees, and more than $1 billion in yearly sales. The Broward County, Florida–based company has dealerships in that state and Georgia that represent nearly a dozen brands, including Acura, Alfa Romeo, Audi, Fiat, Genesis, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Maserati, Mazda, and Volkswagen.

Case—whose parents owned America’s first Honda auto and motorcycle dealership—wanted to be in the industry from the time she was a young girl. She began working in her parents’ Santa Rosa, California company while in grade school, sweeping the floor and putting away motorcycle parts.

By the time she was in high school, Case was selling cars, and, eventually, she took over the operation. She wanted to prove she could be successful in a male-dominated industry, but she knew that to be taken seriously, she would have to work harder and be smarter than the men. 

Case has long been as passionate about airplanes as she is about the automotive field. As soon as she turned 16, she obtained her pilot’s license and soloed in her father’s single-engine Cessna. After that, she flew a variety of other single- and multi-engine airplanes. Then, in 2006, when Honda announced plans to design and build a jet, Case became the first customer to place an order and decided to earn a license to fly it. 

Ten years later, the HondaJet received final FAA certification and Case took possession of hers. “I probably have more hours on my HondaJet as a private owner/pilot than anyone else,” she says. “Every chance I get, I go flying.” 

Case’s husband and business partner, Rick Case, died in 2020, and she is now the sole owner of Rick Case Automotive Group. Her two children, Ryan (39) and Raquel (36), are also in the family business. 

We talked with Case about her automotive career, her love of flying, and more.

Rita Case Accepts The Horatio Alger Award


Who were your mentors?

My mother. My dad wanted my brothers to be more involved than me. My mom was the one who pushed me. “You can do this,” she said. “There's no reason why a woman can't be a car dealer. Just be smarter than the rest.” My mom broke a lot of glass ceilings. She was the first Honda motorcycle road racer in the early 60s, and she also worked in the store as a leader. She and my father were both pilots. 

What led you to go to U.C. [University of California] Davis and get an economics degree?

I was the first to go to college in my family. My dad, who knew I would eventually run the business, said, “Just stay here and learn from me. The best way to get on-the-job training is to be on the job.” But I didn’t want to miss college. The closest thing to being a car dealer at U.C. Davis was economics. They didn't offer a business degree, but I chose Davis because it was close to home. And when I graduated, my dad gave me the opportunity to run the dealership.

That was a Honda dealership?

Yes. I grew up with Honda motorcycles because I was born in 1955 and I was in high school when we got the Honda car dealership in 1970. I was driving a Honda car to high school, so it was easy for me to sell it. Back in 1970, the Honda had a 600-cc air-cooled engine that was very small. It was basically just a tin can on four wheels with a motorcycle engine. Everything else in the market was a big Buick, a big Chevrolet. Hondas weren’t popular, but I would talk people into taking a test drive and once they did that, they said, “Well, it's so inexpensive. It's only $1,400, the same price as a motorcycle.”

How did you meet your husband?

In 1977, I started a group of Honda dealers from around the country in the National Automobile Dealers Association, Rick was from Cleveland and I was from Santa Rosa, California, and we met there. We were the first two Honda dealers to ever get married, I think.

Together you built the Rick Case Auto Group. Did you combine his dealership and yours?

No. After I married Rick in 1980, we went to Akron, Ohio, and started building our dealership group by taking any new brand that was introduced to the United States because that was the way we could acquire a franchise without purchasing it. 

Video: Rita Case Discusses Her Auto Empire & Passion For Flying

Did you find that you had a disadvantage being a woman in a male-dominated field?

I've always been the only woman in the room, and that's one of the reasons I make sure that I stay up on all the latest information about the automobile business, the economy worldwide, the manufacturers, the brands, and what’s coming. When I speak, I better have something to say that they go, “Wow, she knows what she's talking about.” 

You've received dozens of awards for your business leadership, including, recently, the Horatio Alger Award. Which award are you most proud of?

I'd have to say the Horatio Alger because this is their 75th-year celebration and out of the 790 honorees over that period, only 63 others have been women. It's an award for entrepreneurship, philanthropy, persistence, grit, and giving back. So, that’s really the highlight of recognition of what I've done to get to this point. The Automotive Women of the Year Award was quite a highlight, and I was also honored with the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

When Honda announced that it was going to come out with a jet, why did you want to be an owner?

My parents had a Cessna 182, our little family plane. They were both hobbyist pilots. But my dad’s hobby was the World War Two planes, so we had some antiques we would fly: a Ryan PT-22, an AT-6, a Beechcraft D18, and a B-25 Bomber. Even after I was married, I had a [Cessna] 182 that I owned, and I'd fly it just for fun. Honda had been working on a plane since 1985, but when they finally said they were going to take deposits on the HondaJet, we went to Orlando, and I said, “I am going to fly that.”

And that required a different pilot’s license.

I’m glad it took them time to deliver because I had to go from private to twin to instrument rating to commercial. Then I had to start working to get my jet license before the HondaJet came out. It finally came out in April 2016. I got a very early serial number. I was in the first FlightSafety class to train on the HondaJet.

What’s the advantage of having the engines mounted over the top of the wings?

It's very quiet inside. You could be on your cell phone, and you wouldn’t know you weren't at your desk but were up in the air in the cabin. Also, it leaves you a lot more storage space.

When you finally took delivery, did you just fly it home?

You go to FlightSafety and you learn the whole plane in a simulator, and then you take delivery. My plane was sitting in this hangar in Greensboro [North Carolina]. I got in the pilot’s seat, and they opened the doors and towed me out, and I started up, taxied out, and said, “Well, I hope it's just like the simulator.” It was. 

Have you upgraded since your first jet?

I had that HondaJet until this year. I had over 1,000 hours on it. I sold it because I want to work toward a larger plane. I have five grandchildren and my own children and their husbands. I travel for business a lot. The HondaJet was a great starter jet for me, but I couldn't get more than four people in comfortably, so I decided to get my license to fly an [Embraer] Phenom 300E. They have a great program and it's the latest model, so I'm building my hours with that. Right now, I am flying a Phenom 300E under a Part 91 dry lease with hopes to find one to purchase until the Honda 2600 is available.

If you could buy any airplane, what would it be?

It would be a [Embraer] Phenom 300E because I think that that's something that I could comfortably handle. And I’m not going to sit in the back. I want to be up front. It's a bigger and heavier plane and takes more people. I probably have about 40 hours in the 300 and it's easy to fly. 

What is the main purpose of your flights?

I have 14 dealerships, and there are lots of meetings and I'm flying all the time—about 175 to 185 hours a year. This year, I will definitely be flying more.

Will you be aching for the HondaJet 2600 when it finally comes out?

I've already been emailing the CEO of HondaJet. My goal is that he'll give me the opportunity to put in the first deposit and I’ll be able to get that plane in 2026. Honda is very patient, and they make sure they do it right the first time. 

You’ve raised over $100 million for nonprofit causes. Do you have a favorite?

Nonprofits are my hobby. Thirty-seven years ago, we learned about the Boys and Girls Clubs and completely fell in love with their mission, which is to provide a positive place in extremely high-risk neighborhoods for kids who have no one to go home to after school. Now we’re serving 12,000 kids. I’ve been on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs for 35 years, and Rick and I helped Broward County establish 12 clubs. We have raised more money than anyone. Rick and I were also recognized for raising more money in one year for the American Heart Association than anyone else in the nation.

What's the worst mistake you ever made?

Probably not taking the BMW franchise in Fort Lauderdale when it was available to us. The dealer had tremendous financial troubles, and we had the opportunity to grab that for almost nothing. But we had all these other dealerships so we didn’t do it. That was a bad decision. That dealership would have been a winner.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want people to recognize me as someone who opened the door for opportunity for others—whether it’s for the associates in our company or the Boys and Girls Club kids who want to go to college or vocational school. I want to be recognized as someone who put my resources and time into educating everyone in any capacity that I could. I believe that education opens the first door of opportunity. Perseverance, persistence, hard work, and passion open the next door. But without education, you really struggle opening that first door.

This interview has been edited and condensed.