Insight from a Controversial Consultant

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If Denny Hecker is depressed, he hides it well.

The former auto dealership mogul, who also has a long history of owning body shops, recently wrapped up a 7.5- year prison sentence, after pleading guilty in 2011 to one count of bank fraud and one count of bankruptcy fraud. At the height of the economic recession, in 2008, Hecker owed Chrysler Financial several millions (his overall debts reached $767 million a year later) due to the quick downturn of a business he had purchased, Advantage Rent a Car. And, not long after that, Hecker had countless assets repossessed, leading up to his stint behind bars.

Last summer, though, Hecker created a consulting business, and he insists both his business and personal lives are far less complicated than in the past.

“Nobody likes to have a detour,” Hecker recently told FenderBender, during an exclusive interview at his Minneapolis office. “But, when I was on detour, I continued to work on my mindsets, and planning, and strategy for how to become more valuable coming out than I was going in” to prison.  

You might ask why anyone would want consulting advice from an ex-con. Hecker, who also participated in a recent FenderBender CollisionCast podcast, would argue that he offers a unique perspective considering all he’s seen in nearly half a century in the auto industry—from the euphoric highs of flying private planes most weekdays to the dizzying, devastating lows of personal bankruptcy.  

“I can see [business] problems that you can’t see from within,” Hecker said, “because I’ve seen them” before.

During his time in prison, Hecker became more humbled, and hungry, than ever. He taught a business class to fellow inmates for 12 cents per hour. And, he closely studied the auto industry, including the collision repair realm.

“I was one of the original franchisees of ABRA, because they started here in Minneapolis,” noted Hecker, who recently wrote a book, Overcoming My Impossible, about the lessons he’s learned during his career. “So, where I see this body shop business going is, really, the consolidators have done a really good job dealing directly with the insurance companies, and taking the hands away from the guy that makes a living pounding fenders.

“The insurance connection is the preferred deal that’s hard to deal with.”

In the past, Hecker noted, collision repair clients could take their vehicle and get multiple estimates before choosing the body shop they preferred.

Now, insurers hold the hammer.

“Today, [as a collision repair customer] you shop and they write you a check, and they fix your car, and you have nothing to say about it. That’s just the way it is.”

Hecker feels it’s as important as ever for body shop operators to truly know their market.

“Dealerships today, for the most part, the cost of labor makes it more advantageous to outsource all the body work,” he said. “I do believe that someday body shops will just be a go-away deal, and the service department will become more prevalent. I believe that all the factories are going to go to a 100,000-mile, 10-year warranty. And, they may even just go bumper to bumper to cover all the things, to eliminate all the outside shops.

“That’s the biggest fear of being an independent business [operator] today in the automotive repair field. What happens when the manufacturer says, ‘We’ll do it within our own franchises’? So it’s a lot of challenges on the horizon.”

The former business mogul has a clear strategy when it comes to facing challenges: focus only on what you can control. It’s a strategy he’s utilizing more than ever these days, as he approaches life after prison.

“I had haters before, I have haters now,” Hecker said. “That’s just the way life is. And I can accept that.”

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