Anyone in the U.S. who makes a living off of BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz or most other European brands owes a huge debt of gratitude to Max Hoffman.
Hoffman was the Austrian race car driver turned entrepreneur who became a funnel for European cars into the United States after World War II. His sense for partnership and product ("His insistence on roll-up windows, a proper soft top and a functioning heater gave the Alfa [Giulietta Spider] an advantage over its British competition," the New York Times wrote in a 2007 retrospective) allowed those companies to get their footing until they became big enough or savvy enough to stand on their own.
His era had been considered long gone.
But we may now be seeing a modern-day reincarnation in the form of HAAH Automotive Holdings and its chief cheerleader and CEO, Duke Hale.
That became clear this month at the NADA Show, where for the second time in as many years Hale, 70, and his team of similarly seasoned executives signed up dealers to sell Chinese cars in the United States.
Last year, it was Zotye USA, in a forlorn corner of a San Francisco convention center annex. This year — in the heart of the main exhibition area in Las Vegas — it was Vantas, a new brand formed with Chery Automobile Co. that plans to assemble crossovers in the U.S.
"We're not too dissimilar," Hale said when asked about Hoffman and other independent distributors that with few exceptions, (Southeast Toyota, Subaru of New England …) are now corporate dinosaurs.
A rectangle sketched on a legal pad by Chris Hosford, Hale's PR chief, helped complete the picture. Within that core, HAAH will handle legal, finance, IT, trade, human resources and other shared functions, perhaps even a credit arm. Extending beneath it will be the "brand" legs of Zotye, Chery, a third automaker expected to be announced within two months, and maybe even a fourth. Each of those will be led by its own general manager.
"It's no different than a dealer model that has a group of stores," Hale explained.
To be sure, skepticism would be healthy until a U.S. buyer parks that first Zotye into his or her garage. We've been hearing about the imminent arrival of Chinese automakers in the U.S. since the early 2000s, long before trade wars and the coronavirus surfaced as the latest threats to what once seemed imminent.
But, on paper at least, the training wheels provided by HAAH may give just enough support for these newcomers to get their bearings.
So much so that Hale envisions the day when HAAH won't be needed. That's why he is writing today's agreements with an eye toward tomorrow. He's been around long enough to know that those independent distributors of yore often went down in meteor showers of bad blood and lawsuits.
And he's determined to learn from their experience: "We know what the end game will look like."