MINNEAPOLIS — In the 1990s through mid-2000s, Denny Hecker jetted around the country almost daily on one of 14 private planes he owned over those years, commanding an interconnected maze of businesses that grew to include 236 closely held private companies.
The wealth-flaunting mogul from modest means piled up millions in revenue each month and borrowed millions more from willing lenders as his empire of auto dealerships, auto leasing companies and related businesses, and an insatiable appetite for success, grew ever larger.
A few years later, he was earning 12 cents an hour teaching a business class in prison. The students were his fellow convicts. And the flying he did was from one federal penitentiary to another while shackled to the floor of one of the U.S. Marshals' ancient "Con Air" planes.
Hecker, now 66, pleaded guilty in 2010 to conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud and was sentenced in 2011 to 10 years in prison for defrauding Chrysler Financial and other lenders out of more than $80 million in loans and $13 million in losses by falsifying loan documents.
But now, the onetime Minneapolis-based tycoon -- whose over-the-top lifestyle and spectacular fall in the wake of the Great Recession shattered lives and left him with a mountain of debt -- is free and is talking.
In an exclusive interview with Automotive News last week, conducted in the conference room of a borrowed office here, this former poster boy for a life of excess insists that seven years of incarceration, a heart attack and a cancer scare have left him a changed man — albeit one who still knows how to make a buck.
Hecker, paroled to a halfway house here in March, has written a book that will come out in September and has launched a business, D.E.H. Consulting. But even if his new ventures take off, he insists he is done with what he calls the "roller coaster" of his former lifestyle.
Still dapper and still a charmer, this former titan is today relaxed, easygoing and, he says, contented. And he has a few messages for dealers who might, as he did, mistake a run of good fortune for invincibility:
Luck runs out.
Circumstances change quickly.
And your comfortable world can turn into a hellscape in an instant.
"Car dealers have big egos; it just goes with their success," Hecker said. "And sometimes, you know, you start feeding that ego, and there's no end to it. It's an addiction."