TORRANCE, Calif. — A simple question and a man who knew an opportunity when he saw one is how F&I and Showroom was born 16 years ago.

It was early 1998, and Edward J. Bobit and his Automotive Fleet magazine sales team had just stepped onto the bustling show floor at the National Automobile Dealers Association’s annual convention. Sherb Brown, an executive with Bobit Business Media (BBM), turned to Bobit at the time and asked, “How come we don’t have a dealer magazine?”

“Ed spent the next few months researching the market and spotted a segment that was underserved,” recalled David Gesualdo, current publisher of F&I and Showroom. “So many people have launched dealer magazines, but Ed dug deeper. At the company’s annual sales meeting that June, he surprised us with a mockup of what would become F&I and Showroom magazine.”

The magazine was launched as F&I Management and Technology that October. How it came to be isn’t so different than when Bobit founded BBM— then called Bobit Publishing — with the launch of Automotive Fleet in 1961. And over the next 53 years, his business would grow to include more than 20 magazine titles and various trade shows and websites.

“No one could find a niche like Ed,” Gesualdo said. “He was the king of niche publications.”

Tomorrow, funeral services will be held to remember BBM’s founder, who died peacefully in his sleep the morning of June 29. Bobit was a publishing icon who received many awards and accolades, including induction into the National Association of Pupil Transportation Association’s Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2009.

“He was a dear friend and mentor,” Gesualdo said. “And he was a great friend to the dealer market. You can’t underestimate the influence he had on the growth of the F&I segment.”

Bobit cherished his Automotive Fleet magazine, which remains the flagship publication for BBM. But in the late 1990s, he began to slowly turn over the reins to the sales team he had been grooming — made up of Brown, Gesualdo and Bob Brown Jr., BBM’s national sales manager for the Great Lakes region — when he traveled to the NADA convention 16 years ago.

“He knew the fleet market so well at the age 70 that he was ready for a new challenge,” said Gesualdo, who joined Bobit in launching F&I and Showroom. “I think one of the main reasons he went after the dealer market is because it reminded him of when he started fleet in the early ‘60s. It was a new industry for him to learn.”

F&I and Showroom launched with three issues in its inaugural year, with Bobit and Gesualdo splitting up sales and editorial duties during those first few years. The magazine expanded to six issues in 2001 with the launch of three supplements focused on training, compliance and software. Key contributors included Ron Reahard, president of Reahard & Associates, David Robertson, executive director of the Association of Finance and Insurance Professionals, and then-trainer Ron Martin, who now serves as president of VisionMenu.

“We faced the typical challenges of launching a new magazine, but then we came up with the supplements and turned the magazine into a ‘supplezine,’” Gesualdo recalled. “Our timing couldn’t have been better. Regulations were becoming a big concern and the electronic menu had just been introduced. Our readership grew by leaps and bounds.”

Bobit sold the magazine’s first ad — the coveted front inside cover page — to CNA National, a spot the company has yet to relinquish. As Gesualdo recalled, it was Bobit’s first sales call when he reached CNA‘s Julie Fosgate. “It was his proudest moment,” Gesualdo said. “He was so happy to sell the first ad in the magazine. And he stayed close to CNA, and over the years he developed a friendship with Julie. Just before he died, he told me he considered Julie to be a dear friend.”

The success of the supplements gave Bobit and Gesualdo their next idea: a conference dedicated to the F&I industry. At the time, General Motors Acceptance Corp. (GMAC) had been running an annual F&I training conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., for several years. So in early 2002, Bobit and his sales team traveled to the NADA Convention and Expo to meet with the man behind the former captive’s event, Louis Carrio.

“GMAC was an advertiser and we didn’t want to step on their toes,” Gesualdo said. “So we met with Louis and the rest is history. We conceived, launched and sold the show, all in the same year.”

The F&I Conference and Expo, which opened in November of that year, boasted 18 sponsors and about 200 attendees — half of whom were listed as panelists in the show program. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Gesualdo said. “It was a show that ran two and a half days. We had two rooms, one for the expo and one for all the sessions. And we had 101 people speaking on 14 or 15 panels.

“And we asked Ron Martin to serve as emcee,” Gesualdo added. “He asked us how many attendees we expected, and I said, ‘Well, there’s you, me and Ed, so we’ll have at least three.’”

It was Bobit who made the call that really solidified the show’s launch that first year. In need of a headliner, he reached out to longtime friend Dick Colliver, a larger-than-life executive for American Honda Motor Co.

“That was a real coup,” Gesualdo said. “Being able to tell companies that Dick Colliver was opening the show gave us instant credibility and immediately opened doors. We were off to the races after that.”

The success of the inaugural event and those that followed helped establish the publication, which became a monthly magazine in 2003. F&I was produced without a dedicated editor for the first eight years of its existence. Bobit and Gesualdo then brought on a string of hired guns to write articles and utilized an agent friend of theirs as a consultant.

“We would write the articles and then send them to the agent a week before the issue mailed,” Gesualdo said. “We would have lunch with him at Ed’s favorite lunch spot, which was then called Millie’s. The guy would give us his feedback, then we would go back to the office, make the changes and put the magazine to bed the same night.”

Gesualdo said the magazine took a huge step forward with the hiring of Joan Shim and Kristen Force, two young editors who helped run the magazine for several years. Then in 2006, the magazine hired its first senior-level editor, Gregory Arroyo.

“Greg was our first big gun, our first professional editor,” Gesualdo said.

Bobit retained his title as the magazine’s editor and pushed Arroyo to grow the magazine and the conference. “I’ll never forget the interview. He looked at me with those big blue eyes and offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse,” Arroyo recalled. “I’ll never forget the special moments I had with Coach. There are just so many. I feel fortunate and blessed to have worked with and learned from him.”

Bobit continued to provide editorial guidance until 2010, but he continued to work on the magazine’s annual conference, now called Industry Summit, until the week before his passing. His last assignment was developing the agenda for the conference’s newest educational track, Dealership Sales & Technology.

“He was doing what he loved most, launching a new trade show,” Gesualdo said. “He loved the hunt and he loved competition. I will miss him dearly.”

Bobit is survived by five children, including his son, Ty Bobit, the company’s president and CEO, and daughters Beverly Jacobson, Beth Edwards, Bobi Jo Banas and Barbara Jusseaume. Grandson Blake Bobit, a digital sales manager at BBM, joins 13 other grandchildren and one great-grandchild in mourning Ed Bobit’s passing.

For photos and other memories from Mr. Bobit’s career, click here.