The Importance of Being Ernie

On those mornings, Boch wakes up in his Norwood home a little before 7, walks downstairs, folds his lanky frame into a comfortable chair, and calls into Greg Hill's Hillman Morning Show on WAAF, a freewheeling forum for unvarnished guy talk that bills itself as “the cake at the bottom of life's urinal.” As head of Boch Enterprises — a $1 billion-plus collection of corporate concerns ranging from automobiles to real estate — Boch has amassed the sort of wealth that usually buys deferential treatment. Plus, he and Hill are buddies.

But neither fact protects Boch from the barbs flung on the program.

Hill and his cast — the listeners who phone in, as well — bust Boch's chops, joking about how he's constantly jazzed about something, suggesting he might have attention deficit disorder. At this hour, Boch's voice sounds throaty, but he laughs through the abuse before slinging his own good-natured, expertly timed taunts. He comes across as a decent guy, smart and funny. It helps that he always gives away a prize, like prime tickets to sporting events, before hanging up.

Later in the weekend, Boch may hit a swishy fundraiser or grand opening, where he'll be spotted hanging out with Denis Leary or Dennis Lehane or whatever stars have been wrangled for the event; these days it seems he's running neck and neck with Johnny Damon in gossip-column mentions. We read about his outlandish toys and his charitable largesse. And in all these ways, he represents a new model of car dealer.

Son of the late, inimitable Ernie Boch Sr. — a pioneer who employed over-the-top marketing schemes to distinguish Boch Automotive from the homogenous competition — Ernie Jr. has advanced the family business (which now includes Toyota, Dodge, Mitsubishi, Honda, and Scion dealerships; a used-car operation; and New England's only Subaru distributorship) through the logical next step. He has kept his company in the spotlight by turning himself into the brightest bulb.

“He understands that he's the brand, totally,” Hill says. “He'll tell you that. He doesn't just promote the fact that it's Boch and I'm Ernie Boch. He promotes an image that he's an approachable guy who you want to buy a car from. Don't get me wrong, he's a media whore. And I say that to him, and I say it in a loving way. But he knows what he's doing. He's smart enough to know that by presenting his image through the radio or the newspaper or whatever, he's getting customers who will always want to buy from him because they feel like they know him.”

It's a savvy strategy, perfectly baked for today's celebrity-salivating culture. Accordingly, the impulse is to assume that Boch's persona is all shtick, a carefully crafted promotional tool dreamt up to sell more cars. To a certain extent, that's true: No one wants to sell you a car more than Ernie Boch Jr. But the silliness and zeal he exhibits in his public appearances aren't put-ons. They're not solely meant to increase his bottom line. “It's fun — it has to be for me to do it,” Boch says. “I'm not built to do things for the satisfaction of others.” The promoter doesn't stop promoting — can't stop promoting — when the lights dim or the radio goes silent. Boch's personality and commercial interests feed each other. His act is a 24-hour production.

Or as his wife, Kristen, puts it sweetly: “He's definitely different.”

His father was different, too. Before he died of cancer in July 2003, Ernie Boch worked more than half a century to build the family's now widely known name. In the '60s and '70s, people began noticing his products because they noticed him, a salesman who punctuated the fact that his dealership was “smashing prices” by filming a commercial in which he sledgehammered a windshield. Later, after acquiring three llamas and a donkey — soon to be known to Boston television viewers as Kramer the Magical Donkey — the elder Boch cast the animals in his ads. (Boch Jr. reports that Kramer is alive and living well at the Bochs' Vineyard home. “He loved my father,” he says with a straight face. “That donkey was very, very good friends with my father.”)

Before long, the Bochs became a Boston institution. As their company continued to prosper, the natural conclusion was that the son would follow his father and eventually run the business. But as a young man, Ernie Boch Jr. did not immediately accept his fate. Pedigree aside, he wasn't born with a spark plug in his mouth.

“His father was an icon,”   says Boch's friend Sib Hashian, an original member of the band Boston. “He was huge in town. At first, Ernie wasn't sure he wanted that. There's a lot more to him than just business. He's into theater, music, jazz.”

When it came time for college, Boch went to Berklee. During those years, he toured with a number of bands, none of them well known, none of them very good. “I was on the road in '77 and '78 — every tune we did had the word 'dance' in it,” Boch recalls. “It was horrible. I remember I was in a band with these Filipino sisters that were big in Vegas in the '60s. They were doing a comeback, and I was the guitar player. That's what you did to make money.” When Boch went to see one of his idols, Dizzy Gillespie, play a set at a bar in Harvard Square, he finally had to accept that performing would mean perpetual financial instability. “After the show, because I knew the piano player, I was kinda hanging around. I saw Dizzy get paid — they gave him $600. He's Dizzy Gillespie. I said, 'Oh my god.' I had an epiphany: You can try to make a million dollars playing music, or you can make a million dollars and then play music.”

Boch called his dad for a job. His father offered him a spot as a salesman, but made him borrow money to buy suits. Within a few years, Boch had risen to the role of sales manager of the family's Mitsubishi dealership. Then, in the late 1980s, the market went bad, and Boch's numbers dropped. So his father made the obvious managerial decision: He fired his son. Really, it was more of a demotion. Ernie Jr. went back to selling cars for Toyota and quickly settled into the trajectory that led to his current position. But however you want to spin it, his dad axed him. “He saw it as a life lesson,” Boch says, smirking.

It wasn't until his father died that Ernie Boch Jr. became the face of the business. He assumed the role carrying hard-earned knowledge of the dynamics of the local car industry. “There are too many dealers around here for the amount of people, and that makes it very, very competitive,” he says. In such an environment, a reputation for honest dealing is vital. (Which is why Boch was relieved to weather the miniscandal that hit Boch Automotive last year — 6,500 former customers accused the company of violating state law by surreptitiously selling them a theft-deterring window-etching option they didn't want, leading to a settlement worth more than $400,000 — with minimal PR damage.) Beyond that, shoppers are lured to lots with trimmed prices and hyped savings. But because plenty of dealerships, including Boch Automotive, use that tactic, its effectiveness is limited: They can only discount so much without gutting their profits.  

As Boch has repackaged his company's image by creating his own, he has effectively developed a different game. He gives customers a new choice: Buy from the largely anonymous, or the would-be rock star. “If you get to know someone, the familiarity, that he's human instead of just someone on TV, there's no question it would be positive for sales,” says Boston University marketing professor Paul D. Berger. “When you acquire a customer, you're not just getting him for one transaction. It's that, plus potential future profits.”

Predictably, Boch's tactics have brought criticism from rivals. “We've always taken a more conservative or traditional approach,” says Herb Chambers, owner of Boch's chief competition. He's trying to be tactful, but there's no missing his point: He doesn't dig Boch's relentless showmanship. “I think he's trying to do what his father did, or achieve a higher level of recognition. His father was a good businessman, and very shrewd. I think [Junior] maybe is trying to be better known on a personal level.” Boch probably would not dispute that. But he wouldn't apologize for it, either.

When I first meet Boch in his office, the bespectacled 47-year-old looks smooth in his tailored suit with “EBJ” stitched on his crisp white shirt cuffs. For someone with such a well-documented penchant for goofiness, his style is surprisingly buttoned-down corporate. But once he starts talking, the wacky inner salesman takes over. He's particularly eager to show me a high-backed, well-crafted throne he's just brought back from New Orleans — he figured his kids would love to see Santa sit on it come Christmas. He goes on about how terrific it was to meet both Presidents Bush. And how he's friendly with the members of Godsmack and . . . really, the topic doesn't matter. No matter what he's discussing, he speaks with an irrepressible, almost adolescent enthusiasm, and soon you find yourself readily agreeing that whatever he's raving about really is the greatest thing ever.

His is a dizzying approach to life, one he happily applies to how he spends his money. Boch doesn't go for expensive paintings and wine you can't drink. He's into toys. After chartering Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's private jet, he shelled out $15 million to buy himself a similar plane. Somehow, even that is not as flashy as his ground transportation: a silver Subaru Forester turbo all-wheel-drive Boch had converted into a stretch limo. It cost more than $100,000 and includes two DVD players, three plasma TVs, a hands-free cell-phone connection, and an iPod hookup so Boch never has to be without his beloved cache of songs. For good measure, he had the Subaru logo embossed on the glass partition that separates the front and back seats. “When the Japanese come to town,” he says, “they love that.” It's as outrageous as any of the clunker-turned-pleasure-cruisers Frankenformed on MTV's Pimp My Ride.

Boch is flamboyant with his money even when giving it away. In January, he pledged $500,000 to Caritas Norwood Hospital. In exchange, the hospital's emergency room will eventually be named after his father and mother and the playroom rechristened in honor of his kids. For “added value” he asked that the morgue be dedicated in his honor, something his wife found weird. (“I don't think it's strange,” Boch counters. “Morgues are cool. I'm not infatuated with death. I love horror movies. I like the aspect of it — it's a little eerie, a little spooky. I definitely didn't do it for the shock value.”)

Boch likes to say he's a “Norwood nut,” and at the rate he's going, it seems conceivable he may one day own the whole town. Several months ago, he bought the house behind his Norwood mansion. In April he purchased the house that sits to the right of his home. The plan is to combine those properties into a four-plus-acre spread and erect guest lodges, garages, a playground for his kids (two-year-old Alex and four-year-old Kelsey), and an indoor pool that will all orbit the main residence like moons. When I visit, he can't wait to give me a tour and, specifically, explain the wiring. Everything is controlled through conveniently located keypads. There are buttons for working the XM radio or digging into the 500 CDs Boch has burned into the system's computer. He can get weather reports, control the thermostat, or check feeds from the security cameras. “I love gadgets,” he says. There will be plenty when the compound is finished, a project that will take close to three years and cost between $6 and $7 million.

One of Boch's decorative flourishes has already attracted significant attention, earning a lengthy and some might say uncomfortably graphic write-up in the Boston Herald' s “Inside Track.” It's a fancy bathroom fixture called the Toto Washlet S300, and it sells for around $1,700 . . . for a toilet. It has a control panel on the wall for myriad functions, allowing the user to extend a wand for washing his or her undercarriage, control the water pressure and seat temperature, or kick on a powerful exhaust fan. You'd almost expect that punching the right combination of buttons mobilizes a secret rebel army. Boch was so thrilled upon discovering the Toto while traveling in Japan, he bought three — one for his office, one for his box at Gillette Stadium, and one for his basement. He'd like to buy more, but Kristen isn't a big fan.

“I think it's silly what people find intriguing about other people,” Kristen says. “Even the UPS guy has asked about the toilet.” Boch, however, is not at all embarrassed by the subject. During our conversation at his office, while I'm struggling to figure out the etiquette for asking a man about his commode, he broaches the subject for me. “I hear you wanna see my toilet,” he blurts. Then he asks me to follow him into the bathroom. Which, only an hour after meeting him, I do. Later I learn that he introduced WAAF DJ Mistress Carrie to the Toto in much the same way at a Pats game. He wound up giving her one as a Christmas gift.

And there it was again: Even though we're talking about a toilet, his enthusiasm is completely infectious. That quality has a great deal to do with why he's been so successful. It's why people love reading about his exploits or listening to him on the radio. It's why he can sell you on anything. Before you know it, it's too late. You've gone over to the Boch side.

“Ernie Boch is the only man on the planet,” Mistress Carrie says, laughing, “who could buy me a toilet and make me happy about it.”