Denny Hecker not ready to leave the stage just yet

As he was forced to liquidate more than two dozen dealerships and other businesses at bargain-basement prices, he says he'll reinvent himself. Others see that as a rough road.

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Denny Hecker rode to prominence with his advertising that included ads on the side of a Metro Transit bus.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Denny Hecker's drive and salesmanship are what built his retail car empire over the last 25 years.

And it was his lust for growth and more success that also brought him down.

During an interview last Thursday night, moments after he filed personal bankruptcy in the face of court judgments and $1 billion in liabilities, Hecker talked more as a victim of circumstance than the high-living star of his own commercial demise. As he was forced to liquidate more than two dozen dealerships and other businesses at bargain-basement prices, Hecker said he was sorry about hundreds of layoffs, unpaid former employees and creditors.

Yet he's already predicted a second coming.

"For me, this is not the last chapter. It is part of life and turning the page," he said.

Great. But these are not exactly good times for Hecker's reputation or credit rating.

Still, this is America, the land of Donald Trump, Mine That Bird and long-shot revivals.

"For Denny Hecker to reinvent himself and just relaunch is not possible," said Chris Puto, dean of the business school at the University of St. Thomas. "I know Denny a little. There's some goodness there. To reinvent himself, he would have to look inside, identify the positive, and introspect those elements that allowed him to fail. He needs to figure out what he needs to change. And, then, he will have to convince key individuals that he has changed.''

In other words, Puto said, "It's not just going to be Denny Hecker as per usual, but Denny Hecker rebuilt. And it won't happen right away."

Hecker, 56, is the north Minneapolis son of the working class who excelled at car sales and attracted investors who underwrote his first ventures.

He reveled in the spotlight as the star of his own ads and the sponsor of charity golf tournaments. His headquarters, nearly vacant the other night, was adorned with photos of him and former President George W. Bush, other luminaries and Hecker-triumphant magazine articles.

He went from somber to animated as he described how he bought Advantage Rent A Car from Daimler-Chrysler in 2007, which had retained him to liquidate the struggling rental company. It proved to be the tip of the iceberg that sunk him.

"I said this deal is for buying, not liquidating," Hecker said. "They almost paid us to take it and we agreed to buy 10,000 cars a year. I sold them the deal and they got 35 percent of the upside [profits]. They financed it and they had plenty of money to loan. They were good character lenders. We talked to them on Thursday, closed on Friday and got the money on Tuesday. Zero due diligence. No business model."

Hecker expanded Advantage, all right, but lost more than $35 million doing it over the next 18 months.

By 2008, Chrysler had new owners who were alarmed at their $500 million-plus exposure to debt-laden Hecker. As the auto industry contracted, they called Hecker's loans. Others lenders followed suit. Hecker spent several months trying to work out of the situation, to no avail.

Classic risk taker? Or greedy empire builder and mediocre strategist?

Donald Trump, who knows bankruptcy, would have one answer. Hecker's more-prudent competitors, who have taken his market share, have other thoughts.

Hecker plans to remain in the car-finance business as a consultant to troubled dealers and banks.

"As far as the marketplace is concerned, Denny Hecker has not been damaged because of doing something terribly bad," said Akshay Rao, a professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. "He didn't kill anyone. He made bad business decisions.

"In that sense, it is possible to rehabilitate the brand. Whether that will happen, I can't answer without knowing more details. ... [But] given the right circumstances, it's possible he could resurrect a business and the 'Denny Hecker' brand."

Only in America.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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