Malcolm in the Middle of It All

SOUTHFIELD, MI Acting like a man who knows what he wants and expects to get it, Malcolm Bricklin arrives for an interview at a hotel bar with a small entourage, including a still photographer and son John Bricklin, 27, carrying a camcorder. Bricklin, 65, unsuccessfully tries to get a hotel staffer to turn off the background music, lest it interfere with the audio portion of John recording his father

SOUTHFIELD, MI — Acting like a man who knows what he wants and expects to get it, Malcolm Bricklin arrives for an interview at a hotel bar with a small entourage, including a still photographer and son John Bricklin, 27, carrying a camcorder.

Bricklin, 65, unsuccessfully tries to get a hotel staffer to turn off the background music, lest it interfere with the audio portion of John recording his father being interviewed.

Later, the elder Bricklin rolls his eyes as a waitress dims the lights and puts lit candles on the tables. “They turn up the music and turn down the lights,” he says, envisioning the sound and look of this audio-visual effort.

Bricklin is here to talk about his latest automotive effort. The fast-talking, expressive founder and CEO of Visionary Vehicles LLC wants prospective dealers to spend millions to build ultra-modern dealerships for retailing vehicles he intends to import to the U.S. from China. They will be priced like Hyundais and Kias but offer more content and luxury, he vows.

In return, he promises to give dealers a 15% profit margin, significantly higher than the industry average.

If his thinking is bold, so are his predictions.

“With the power of China, a luxurious high-quality brand of cars, and a new ground-breaking retail approach, Visionary Vehicles will forever change the landscape of the North American automotive industry,” says Bricklin.

He forecasts selling 250,000 cars in 2007, the scheduled first year of North American operations — and a million by the fourth year of operation.

Moreover, he plans to introduce a radically different type of dealership experience.

“I hate going into dealerships,” he says. “I hate someone in my face wanting me to buy a car in 15 minutes. So I'm looking for a new way to sell cars.”

He has come up with this: Visionary's stores won't be conventional dealerships. They will be “auto shows,” designed to resemble the alluring environment of an actual auto show.

“People are happy when they go to auto shows. They aren't happy when they go to dealerships,” says Bricklin.

There will be no sales people, per se. “We're not going to sell, we're going to tell,” he says of his proposed velvet-glove approach to moving the metal.

The process will be Saturnesque in its customer friendliness. Bricklin says General Motors Corp.'s Saturn subsidiary “was the only company, outside of ourselves, that had the guts to change the retail process. They forgot one thing: a product.”

Bricklin in March hired Pierre Gagnon to direct Visionary's North American sales and distribution. Gagnon lost his job as CEO of Mitsubishi Motors North America in 2003 after a failed “zero-zero-zero” finance scheme buried the firm with loan defaults.

“I've learned from my mistakes,” says Gagnon, as Bricklin sits and candles flicker nearby.

Before Mitsubishi, Gagnon helped establish Saturn's touted retail network. “His Saturn experience sold me,” says Bricklin.

Visionary's stores will be big and bold. They will include design elements that likely will keep municipal zoning boards busy with variance requests.

For example, Bricklin wants an outside wall of the building to include a 100-ft. by 35-ft. video screen rivaling the size of those in New York's Times Square.

Other proposed features include a:

  • Multi-story 22,500-sq.-ft. main building
  • Multi-story 24,000-sq.-ft. service building with 20 service bays
  • Gallery-like showroom with up to 15,000 sq. ft. of display space.
  • Test track, valet service, child care center

He's in the process of recruiting dealers. He talked to six prospects last month. The “profile” of dealers he wants is a veteran who owns five to 20 stores, a disciple of customer satisfaction and “someone who can connect to this thing we're doing.”

Each dealer must invest $10 million-$15 million. That covers product distribution rights, equity in Visionary Vehicles and the cost of building the dealerships.

“As the first car company of the 21st century, we are creating a new dealership network from the ground up,” says Bricklin. “Dealers will participate in the decision-making process in a way that has never been dreamed of before.”

Visionary' dealers will have exclusive territorial rights. Bricklin predicts each store will eventually retail more than 4,000 vehicles a year.

He wants to sign up an initial 250 dealers. The “smartest and most aggressive” will become members of a Founders 25 Group advising him on various issues, including which Chinese vehicles to import first from Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. in Wuhu.

“I can't deal with 250 dealers, but I can deal with 25,” says Bricklin. “We'll be taking them to China in April.”

He expects his dealers to contract with local automotive repair shops and train their various staffs to work on the Chery-built cars.

“That will give customers thousands of places to get their cars serviced,” he says. “I hate going out of my way for service.”

Bricklin founded Subaru of America Inc., starting out in 1968 selling imported Japanese cars for $1,200. His subsequent auto ventures failed: gull-winged Bricklin sports cars and infamous Yugos built in the former Yugoslavia.

Both were victims of poor quality. Bricklin vows that won't happen with the cars he plans to import from China.

“If any human being faced the penalty for poor vehicle quality it's me. So our cars are going to be of Lexus quality,” he tells a gathering of the Society of Automotive Analysts.

Some of those in attendance questioned his grand goals.

“It sounds too ambitious to predict selling a million vehicles here by the fourth year,” says one audience member after Bricklin's rousing presentation. “Nissan hasn't even reached that point yet. Then there's his track record…”

But no one faults Bricklin's salesmanship nor his ability to hold people's interest.

“I don't believe I've ever seen a more captivated audience,” says moderator Jeff Leestma.

Analyst Dave Andrea describes Bricklin as a bold thinker who shakes things up.

“He gets people thinking about what can and should be done differently in the auto industry,” says Andrea. “That can change the industry for the better, even if Bricklin himself doesn't succeed.”

But Bricklin is confident he'll make it all work. “I'm going to do it, or you can cut my tongue out,” he says.

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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