You may not know Robert Bassam, but you probably know his theme song.

Bassam is the founder and CEO of Eastern Automotive Group, the local car dealership responsible for that ubiquitous "Where your job’s your credit" jingle. The catchy tune, rivaled by only "It’s a Small World" for its ability to get stuck in your head, has been a Washington area staple since it debuted on local radio stations in 1995.

"We’re on the air 300 times a day between radio and TV," said the 40-year-old Bassam. "I don’t think there’s anybody really left in the Washington area that doesn’t know who Eastern Motors is."

Bassam’s ascent to car king status is a classic rags-to-riches story. Raised on food stamps, Bassam now heads an empire of 15 car dealerships in Virginia and Maryland, $300 million in annual sales and a personal fleet of 19 vehicles, including a Lamborghini and a Ferrari.

Bassam, who moved to Washington from Miami in 1986 to work as a waiter in a Mexican restaurant, decided to open his own car dealership after a trip to the Salvation Army. He bought two cars there with his tip money for $50 each, then sold them to co-workers for $300.

"That’s when the light bulb went off," Bassam said.

He then got together with another co-worker, pooled their money and bought 20 more cars. After a stint in the car wholesaling business, Bassam opened his first commercial dealership in 1991 in Arlington. He quickly established the Eastern Motors brand as the place for "second-chance" credit and began adding stores in 1992.

"It became obvious that we had found a niche when the second-chance service that wasn’t being provided," he said.

Three years ago Bassam recruited Redskins players, such as Clinton Portis, and other NFL stars to make cameos in his television commercials, which to this day include the original jingle — despite the fact that it’s now out of date.

"[The song] still says we have 600 cars, even though we have 1,500," Bassam said. "Every time we’ve tried to [change] the jingle, it loses its magic ... it’s lightning in a bottle."

With the Washington market nearly saturated, Bassam has plans to expand Easterns beyond the region into both Baltimore and Atlanta, where he’s sure his signature song will be just as popular.

"It’s a phenomenon. It’s in everybody’s ear," he said. "I hope they’re ready for our jingle."

BUSINESS

» Current job: CEO

» Last job: Waiter

» Number of e-mails a day: 300

» Number of voice mails a day: 10

» Essential Web site: easterns.com

» Best perk: Travel

» Gadgets: iPod

» Education/credentials: Community college

» Last conference: Hyundai national meeting

» First job: Pizza boy

» Original aspiration: Car business

» Career objective: Have fun

PERSONAL

» Date of Birth: June 15, 1966

» Hometown: Miami

» Sports/hobbies: Racing, soccer

» Transportation: 19 of them

» Favorite restaurant: Capital Grill

» Computer: Dell

» Favorite clothier: Tommy Bahama

» Vacation spot: Miami, Vegas

» Role model: Wayne Heizinger, owner of the Miami dolphins and the Auto Nation Group

» Quote: "Where your job is your credit, everything develops."

kwilmeth@dcexaminer.com