BARDEN’S Excellent Adventure

Intrepid entrepreneur Don Barden teams up with General Motors to conquer the Namibian auto market. Can he triumph over stiff tariffs and tough labor issues?

It was only a matter of time before North America became a bit too small for Don Barden.
After all, we’re talking about a man who has amassed a fortune by always being two steps ahead of the pack. And whether it was stints as a newspaper publisher, real estate tycoon or cable television czar, Barden realized many years ago the only way you truly get ahead is by going into areas where others fear to tread.

Perhaps that explains the BE 100s CEO’s latest venture, Barden International (BI). Brokering a deal between U.S. automaker General Motors and the African country of Namibia, Barden, 54, has built a $15 million auto manufacturing plant where he will retrofit vehicles purchased from GM from left-hand to right-hand drive and sell them to Namibia.

BI has become a General Motors Overseas Distribution Corp. fleet and retail sales dealer of Chevrolet and Cadillac vehicles in Namibia. As part of the 1996 agreement between BI and the Namibian government, the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications has purchased 823 vehicles for $31 million. The shipment included 1997 and 1998 Chevrolet light- and medium-duty trucks and its Bluebird line of buses. Barden’s fleet will comprise one-quarter of the government’s vehicles.

But why set up such a potentially risky venture overseas? While the partnership is a potentially lucrative move, Barden could certainly have brokered a domestic deal with GM or another auto manufacturer if he was determined to enter the auto industry. Ask Barden, and he says auto manufacturing holds no real lure for him. The deal with GM is simply a means to an end — establishing a business base in Africa.
“We want to explore other opportunities on the continent, and this gets us there, admits Barden. “First you establish a profitable business, then you move into other areas. For us, that might include telecommunications or the development of natural resources. You just need a foothold.”

That said, Barden has set his sights on and invested his money in the low-profile nation of Namibia. He plans to establish a beachhead there that, he hopes, will be just the start of his global empire.

ROLLING THE DICE
If Don Barden believes in past lives, then surely he imagines himself as a swashbuckler from days gone by. How else to explain a brash business style and gambling nature that would give even the most aggressive executives reason to pause?

Well, whatever Barden may have done or accomplished in a previous life, in this incarnation he has made a career out of living on the cutting edge. Whether it was being one of the first African Americans to jump headfirst into the billion-dollar cable industry or deciding one day to dance with lady luck by running his own riverboat casino, he clearly thrives on new and risky challenges. Indeed it was Barden’s flair for risk-taking and his success in a variety of business endeavors that made Barden Companies Inc. the BE Company of the Year in 1992. Today, with revenues currently at $93.2 million, his firm is

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