Hank Aaron goes to bat for BMW

Famed baseball player signs on as luxury auto dealer franchisee

Hammering Hank Aaron is at bat again. This time he’s swinging for the corporate skyboxes. Aaron, who holds the career lifetime Major League Baseball record for home runs-is breaking new ground with luxury auto dealer Bavarian Motor Works, more commonly known as BMW.

He was recently selected as a BMW franchisee — making him one of the first African Americans to own a dealership with this automaker. The luxury lines — Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Acura and Jaguar-have at least one black-owned dealership. And while BMW declined to release specific breakdowns, approximately 10% of its 341 dealerships are minority or women owned.

In addition to Aaron, BMW already has letters of intent with other African American dealers.

Tentatively named Hank Aaron’s BMW, the franchise is scheduled to open in late 1999 or early 2000 in the southwest Atlanta area. Aaron will own a majority, but agreements with his partners are not yet finalized.

“I’m quite proud of the fact that I’m with BMW regardless of [my being] the first African American or not,” says Aaron. “It’s an honor to be one of those chosen to have a luxury line like this. BMW is one of the top manufacturers in the world and I want to be able to carry that going forward. I’m presented with literally hundreds of people coming to me with deals all the time. When this presented itself several months ago, I gave it to my attorney and the pieces fell in place.”

But while industry insiders don’t necessarily begrudge Aaron’s accomplishment, some question the wisdom of appointing a high-profile franchiser with little to no automotive experience.

“Quite frankly, we were surprised,” says Sheila Vaden-Williams, executive director of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers. “Especially since we’ve provided BMW with names of established dealers with an interest in the Atlanta market.”

BMW President Victor Doolan describes Aaron as a “car person” and adds, “for BMW, to love cars is an important prerequisite.” But as Vaden-Williams points out, “In a rapidly changing industry where competition is increasing on every front, a mere love of cars is not enough to step into a major operation and be successful. I would hope their criteria is a lot more sophisticated than that.”

Aaron’s attorney, Allan Tanenbaum, bristles at the insinuation that his client is simply a front man. “Aaron’s business experience is substantial and he doesn’t have any concern about his ability to become successful. He didn’t have any prior experience in apparel licensing or restaurant franchising. So any suggestion that there are ulterior motives at work is ludicrous.”

Aaron, whose business background includes experience as a fast-food franchiser with eight Arby’s restaurants in Milwaukee and six Churchs in Atlanta and as the holder of a national license with Major League Baseball Properties, says he is ready to get the job done for BMW. “I bring my own business experience to the table. Plus, I’ve always been willing to sit down, look at things and learn. I look at people like Magic Johnson with his various businesses, NFL’s John Elway’s auto dealerships

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