Of all the cautionary tales of the Great Recession, it's the Denny Hecker story that is the most unsettling for car dealers.
It would be insulting to auto retailers everywhere to suggest they are epitomized by this former Minnesota-based megadealer and leasing giant, whose story of flagrant greed and avarice is legendary. But dealers might heed Hecker on the subject of how quickly and horrifically things can go off the rails in the business of building and maintaining an auto retail empire.
Hecker's high-flying success and over-the-top lifestyle exploded into a public fireball nearly a decade ago, and, as he made clear in an interview with Automotive News this month, he both packed the combustible materials and lit the fuse.
He served seven years of a 10-year sentence in federal penitentiaries after pleading guilty to bankruptcy fraud and conspiracy in 2010, two of 25 felony charges he initially faced.
Hecker says prison left him changed for the better, and we have no reason to doubt the claims. The story he now tells serves as a warning for anyone who mistakes success for infallibility.
"Car dealers have big egos; it just goes with their success," he says. "And sometimes, you know, you start feeding that ego, and there's no end to it. It's an addiction."
We don't believe Hecker can paint all car dealers with such a broad brush. What's more, a big ego can be a sharp tool in the high-pressure entrepreneurial world dealers operate in. Still, Hecker makes a point.
The auto business does attract big personalities thanks to its financial size and scope and its high-profile products. It makes a warm and welcoming environment for go-getters with egos in need of constant feeding. But when feeding them takes priority and commands resources at the expense of the general welfare of a company and its employees, trouble is sure to follow.
That's the easy part of Hecker's gospel of self-realization: Don't be that guy.
But his downfall also demonstrated how any earnest, hellbent-to-succeed entrepreneur can reach the point of no return one small step at a time.
It's a trap that's too easy to fall into — especially when the market turns against you.