meant becoming an entrepreneur. “I believed if I could just get into something and keep it growing, I could do well. That’s when I looked at myself and said I was a businessman.”
FIELD OF DREAMS
Aaron’s road from the baseball diamond to entrepreneurship is a long one. Having played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues, the Atlanta Braves, and the Milwaukee Brewers, the baseball legend retired from the sport in 1976, with 755 career home runs. He also established 12 other major league career records, including most games, at-bats, total bases, and runs batted in.
After retirement, it was Aaron’s long-standing relationship with the Braves that fueled his new dream: entrepreneurship. Aaron quickly became the highest-ranking African American in professional baseball. Ted Turner, the Braves’ owner, appointed Aaron to run the organization’s six-team farm system. Aaron went on to become a member of the Braves’ board of directors and vice president of player development for the club.
From the boardroom, Aaron moved into the business arena. The friendship he developed with Frank Belatti, an executive with Arby’s at the time, spawned his entry into the fast-food business. Aaron bought his first Arby’s franchise in Milwaukee. “Frank Belatti has been extremely fathering to me,” Aaron said in a prior interview. “I tell all athletes to make valuable contacts when you’re playing baseball. In this situation, the people I made contact with eventually came back to me to get into business.” He eventually bought seven Arby’s stores and sold them in 1994. A short time later, Aaron would hunger for more.
A BRAND NEW GAME
When the BMW dealership first opened in December 1999, Aaron’s name was used to introduce the dealership to a new market of BMW loyalists via advertising on local television. It also helps that Aaron has an on-site office, which gives customers an opportunity to meet him. The impact is phenomenal. On the day of our visit, a little old man in tattered pinstripes wondered aloud, “Is it him? Is it him? He’s not as big as I thought.”
Aaron invested $5.5 million in startup capital for real estate, the physical building, fixtures, and furnishings. He managed to get his dealership to thrive despite breaking ground in a new area with no prior client base or sales performance. “The minute you are awarded a dealership of this caliber, it’ll probably be worth three times as much money as you make out of it now,” he says. Despite Aaron’s success, it’s been difficult for blacks trying to break into the dealership game.
A few years prior, the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers began pressuring automobile manufacturers, particularly the imports, to create more opportunities for minorities to become dealers. “Hank Aaron really benefited from a wave of relationships we had established early on with BMW to increase minority dealer ownership,” says Sheila Vaden-Williams, the association’s president.
To date, BMW has 340 dealerships, nine of which are African American-owned. Though black dealers represent a scant 2.64% of that total, Vaden-Williams sees progress: “At