Sunday, June 13, 2010

How One of Baseball's Trailblazers Really Became BMW's 1st Black Dealer, Part I

It was a piece of popular fiction that Bud Selig (the current baseball commissioner), was responsible for initiating Henry's (Hank Aaron) second act. Selig's family roots were in the car business and thus it made sense to think that when Henry created the Hank Aaron Automotive Group, the umbrella for a string of car dealerships he would begin in 1999, Selig had been the inspiration.

Not only was that not the case but Selig recalled warning Henry to think twice, and then think some more, before entering the car game. "Everybody was going to blame me if it didn't work," Selig said. "So I wanted him to know exactly what he was getting into."

It was Henry's old friend Jesse Jackson who indirectly got Henry involved in cars. It turned out that, even as the millennium neared, not a single American distributorship of Bavarian Motor Works, the great BMW, was owned by an African-American. When the situation came to light, the corporate types at BMW grew skittish, at first denying the charge, while refusing to name the black-owned distributorships. This was embarrassing, even so when Jackson began to advertise the fact. Like other status symbols, owning a BMW meant you had made it. It meant, class, speed, and enough disposable income to accept no substitute. An African-American who owned a BMW represented a significant financial achievement; thus Jackson did not relent in his criticism of the company. The criticism resonated especially in Atlanta, the city that came, not always accurately, the
symbol of success of black capitalism. That meant in Atlanta, a lot of black people were driving BMWs, and they could afford to change allegiances, switching to, say, Mercedes-Benz. Offending such an influential constituency was not good business.

And thus it came to pass that Henry Aaron became the first black majority owner of the first BMW franchise int the country, Hank Aaron BMW, located in Union City, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Vic Doolan, an important man in the Atlanta auto business ( Doolan was once a senior executive at BMW and currently he's  an executive at Fisker Automotive, a high-end hybrid automaker) understood the necessity of being on the right side of a potentially explosive issue. He reached out to Henry and his people, and from protest came progress.

As a condition of ending the pressure, which had first been exerted on luxury import car makers for years by the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, BMW agreed to attract black ownership of BMW franchises, starting with Henry.

That was sweet, but not as sweet as the deal Henry received. Allen Tranenabum brokered the deal. He wanted two things, the first being choice of location. The second was that Henry would not have to put up his own money. BMW had come to him. The name Hank Aaron was currency enough.

Initially, not everyone was happy with the deal. The fact that Henry was receiving such a golden deal ruffled the minority professional (local Atlanta dealers) who had struggled and sweated in the low margins and glass ceilings of the car business ( with stores like Chevy and Toyota). To them, it was just another example of a celebrity handout. To read Part II, click here.

Editor's Note: This detailed account of how Henry Aaron became BMW's first black dealer just 10 years ago was reprinted from the recently release book, The Last Hero: A Life of Hank Aaron, which was authored by, ESPN sports writer and NPR correspondent, Howard Bryant. According to Bryant, he interviewed Aaron and a host of others for this insightful book. 

* Note: Anything in parenthesis was inserted by JeffCars.com to help bring some clarity to the piece.

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