Twin Cities.com (http://www.twincities.com/) : February 13, 2011. “A Hard flier, a hard crash: Denny Hecker’s friends and family describe a life spiraling out of control,” by MaryJoWebster.
A HIGH FLIER, A HARD CRASH
Denny Hecker always worked hard. And lived big. But friends and family say his lust for luxury — and risk — finally spiraled out of control.
By MaryJo Webster
Denny Hecker’s family and close friends call him “Lucky.”
His parents thought he was lucky simply to have lived through his first year of life, when he nearly died from pneumonia and a fall from a hospital crib.
“My parents brought him home and said if he’s going to die, he would die at home,” said Hecker’s oldest sister, Beverly.
But he didn’t die. For a long time, he thrived, building one of the Twin Cities’ largest auto empires and becoming a self-made millionaire who spent winter weekends at his luxury condo in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, arriving by private jet.
Interviews with members of Hecker’s family, friends and former employees — many of whom have never before spoken publicly about him — depict a man whose drive to succeed and refusal to give up brought him great success but also contributed to his downfall. The Medina 58-year-old is now a convicted felon heading to federal prison after being sentenced to 10 years Friday,shackled to a mountain of debt he can never repay.
Many point to changes in Hecker around the middle of the last decade, as his business interests multiplied and he raised his public profile.
“He had a billionaire lifestyle, and to maintain that, you have to become bigger and bigger and more and more successful,” said Darrell Rooney, a former Pioneer Press advertising executive and a friend of Hecker’s for 20 years. “He got caught up in it.”
“He just got overwhelmed by it all,” said Tamitha Hecker, his wife from 1994 to 2009. “I think at some point he had a hard time separating the public persona and who he really was. Things just got larger than life.”
COURTESY TO THE PIONEER PRESS: KELLY HECKER
A 20-year-old photo shows Denny Hecker, second from right, with golf-tournament buddies, including longtime Pioneer Press executive Darrell Rooney, fellow auto dealership owner Steve Sands, Minnesota North Stars founder Walter Bush and Don Swanson of Norwest Bank.
Being successful was always important to Hecker. Some say it was too important.
He grew up in North Minneapolis, crowded into a small house with his parents, grandparents and two sisters. He married his high school sweetheart at 18 and lacked money for college.
Needing to pay the bills, Hecker thought the automobile business would be a good fit.
“I loved cars and have always enjoyed meeting people and like negotiating. I was never afraid to work harder than others,” Hecker said from the Sherburne County Jail last week, responding to written questions via an intermediary. “I saw that the opportunity to grow in the automobile dealership and the reward weighted heavily on hard work, and that was very easy for me.” By the time he met the woman who would become his second wife, Sandra, at age 20, he was working as the used-car manager at a St. Paul dealership and serving in the Army National Guard.
He was a natural salesman, she said. “Somebody once said to me, ‘He could probably talk a fish out of water.’ ” Outside of work, his ex-wife said, Hecker was “fun” — never wanting to sit in front of the television. “He wanted to do things.” They’d go ice skating and camping, to restaurants and pro hockey games, and got engaged at a Minnesota North Stars game. The former high school goalie also played in an adult hockey league and coached a youth team for a time. Even then, he was ambitious.
“He talked about being successful a lot,” Sandra Hecker said. “He wanted to retire by the time he was 40. … He believed in himself at a young age. I don’t think there was any doubt in his mind that he wouldn’t be successful.” In his mid-20s, he paid $20,000 to join the tony Wayzata Country Club. In 1979, at just 27 years old, Hecker bought his first dealership, Central Chrysler Plymouth in Roseville. But the business went belly up three years later in the midst of the nation’s energy crisis and a recession.
Again, Hecker didn’t give up.
He persuaded Walter Bush, best known for bringing a National Hockey League team to Minnesota, to join him in purchasing the Minneapolis Auto Auction. Bush agreed to put up $50,000; Hecker put in the sweat.
The unlikely pairing worked. They quadrupled annual sales at the auction and used proceeds from selling the business to buy dealerships in Minnesota and Florida, kicking off a decade-long partnership that launched Hecker’s career.
“This is not a man who went to Harvard Business School,” his sister Beverly said. “He did it the hard way, from the ground up — washing cars, servicing cars, selling cars. If he had one fault, it would be overachievement.”
Hecker wanted to be the biggest auto dealer in the Twin Cities. Although he never achieved that, former employees and friends say he acted like he was.
With his face plastered on billboards, buses and newspaper ads — Hecker’s idea — he appeared “bigger than life,” said Rooney, the former advertising executive.
The public knew Denny Hecker as the car king — his empire grew to include about 15 automobile dealerships in Minnesota, plus several used-car lots. But most people didn’t know that, by the time he filed bankruptcy in 2009, he had an interconnected network of 236 closely held, private companies, including a lucrative leasing company and a national car-rental business.
Even as the empire expanded, Hecker knew everything that was going on and remembered every detail, former employees said.
“His thumb was over everything,” said one who asked to remain anonymous. “His managers and executives, for the most part, did not make a final decision — ever.”
Hecker was a workaholic, known for texting, e-mailing or calling the office during a vacation or in the middle of the night.
Although he had only a high school education, those who worked with him say he was unusually smart.
“He was one of the best negotiators I’ve ever been around,” said Denny Miller, a former friend and the finance director for Hecker’s companies for about 20 years. “His mind was so quick that you’d say something and he could instantaneously come up with an answer or a solution or antidote to what you said.”
He was also impulsive, operating “by the seat of his pants,” Miller said. “Everybody thought he threw caution to the wind all the time,” Miller said. “He did that a lot and made some mistakes — and paid for them — but he made the right decision most of the time.”
Hecker treated loyal employees generously, with hefty paychecks, bonuses and perks. Those who didn’t meet expectations were yelled at and usually fired.
Hecker says it was all just a part of doing business and that people who describe him as egotistical and ruthless are among those who didn’t live up to his expectations.
“I was in business to make a profit, and many times people didn’t deliver what they promised to my face … and they were held accountable,” he said last week. “I have not met many businessmen or businesswomen that did not have an ego. To some, that’s considered a negative. For me, ego is selfesteem. … When people don’t have self-esteem, confidence and the ruthless desire you referred to, well, they most likely won’t make the cut.”
Hecker’s allies point to his generosity.
He routinely picked up the tab at expensive restaurants for those at his table, usually bankers or prospective business associates. Friends, employees and others joined him on his private jet for trips that usually involved either golfing or gambling.
Trusted employees often got bonuses larger than expected; others received a handful of cash — sometimes $100, other times $1,000.
“A lot of people don’t know what he gave back,” Miller said, noting Hecker donated $250,000 to save the University of Minnesota golf team from being cut because of budget constraints or the many contributions he made to national charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation or Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Some say Hecker was just trying to buy friends and get his name in the news.
“It’s not that he didn’t mean well,” said a former employee who asked to remain anonymous. “But he would take any opportunity to get in the media. It was really important to him to have this huge public presence.”
Hecker disputes that.
“Giving was inherent — it was a way of life. That’s who I am,” Hecker said last week. “It wasn’t about giving, it was about giving back. … Each and every human being, charity, school, neighborhood that I was able to help was a significant part of my personal desire for success. The harder I worked, the more I was able to help.”
His sister Beverly said his donations weren’t always monetary. In the 1980s, when his oldest two children were young, he often took them to serve food at a homeless shelter, she said. “He was always willing if somebody needed help,” she said.
In 1995, Hecker’s close friend Patrick McLarty had been diagnosed with end-stage cancer and suddenly took a turn for the worse while on vacation with his wife in Phoenix. Doctors said McLarty wouldn’t make it back to Minnesota on a commercial plane. Hecker, who was in Las Vegas for the grand opening of a new auto auction, flew in his private jet to Phoenix and brought the couple home. McLarty died nine days later.
Miller told a story of a young Iowa family on their way to see relatives on Christmas Eve about 10 years ago when their car broke down near Hecker’s Southview Chevrolet in Inver Grove Heights. The car wasn’t repairable, Miller said, and one of the dealership’s managers called Hecker to ask permission to rent them a car. “(Hecker) paused for a minute, then he told the manager to pick out a 2- or 3-year-old van and just give it to them,” Miller said.
Family members, even distant relatives, frequently asked him formoney, and he almost always gave it, said Peggy Daher, a cousin. One rare exception: in January 2008, when relatives approached him at his mother’s funeral. “He just shook his head and walked away,” she said.
Hecker achieved an upscale lifestyle early on, living in an affluent neighborhood, sending his children to private schools and acquiring vacation homes in warmer climates.
Then he took it all to another level.
He bought a bigger private jet and a 53-foot Hatteras yacht to cruise the St. Croix River.
In 2004, he traded in the family’s five-bedroom, 5,370-square-foot home in Medina for a new $6.5 million mansion down the street, with six bedrooms, indoor and outdoor pools, a guesthouse and an 11-car garage.
The following year, he began extensive renovations and new construction at three adjacent lakefront properties in Crosslake, Minn., that eventually became the crown jewel of his properties: an 11,438-square-foot main house, complete with pool, game room, home theater and gym. By 2008, what neighbors called “the compound” had a total assessed value of $11.8 million.
When the Heckers’ house manager, Madeleine Mernik, returned to her job in 2004 after a four-year absence, she was struck by the changes. In a recent interview, she described the family’s lifestyle as “over the top” and said that it seemed as if they were “throwing money around.”
Hecker was considered a “whale” in Vegas. At the Bellagio, he and his family stayed in a private VIP apartment that included a living room, staffed kitchen, dining room, gym, sauna, beauty salon, pool and hot tub and two bedroom suites, according to Mernik, who often traveled with Hecker and his fourth wife to take care of their young children.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Mernik said.
Rooney said Hecker seemed obsessed with buying things. “He’d go to Augusta (National Golf Course) to the Master’s Tournament, and the first thing he’d do would be to go into the pro shop and buy several thousand dollars’ worth of golf shirts, hats and things, and then ship it all home,” Rooney said.
By April 2009, the end of Mernik’s tenure with Hecker, the closets in his Medina mansion were packed, including about 500 pairs of pants. When his shoes no longer fit in his closet, Mernik turned an 8-by-12-foot room in the nanny’s quarters into a spare shoe closet.
By the time Hecker filed for bankruptcy in 2009, he had accumulated 325 golf clubs, 30 snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, 21 boats and personal watercraft, and numerous motorcycles, scooters, dirt bikes and golf carts.
There were more than 100 luxury watches, such as Rolexes and Hublots, and many others, with a dot of red nail polish on the back, that are most likely fake. Mernik said that at one point Hecker instructed another household employee to mark the fakes so he could tell them apart.
Rooney, who parted ways with Hecker in 2004, said he questioned Hecker’s lifestyle. “I said to him, ‘When is enough, enough?’ ”
‘ BIGGER THAN LIFE’
Others asked the same question.
“I don’t even know the Denny that is alive today,” said Dee McLarty Sally, Patrick McLarty’s widow. At McLarty’s 1995 funeral, Hecker compared their friendship to that of Ed and Ralph from “The Honeymooners,” she said.
But she said that toward the end of his life, her husband questioned Hecker’s values. McLarty left audio recordings that included a message to his friend asking: “When is enough, enough? You’ve finally got the son you’ve always wanted. Isn’t that enough?”
“But he never stopped,” she said. “He just kept going.”
By the mid-2000s, Hecker seemed to have become “bigger than life,” several people said, taking more risks and gambling for bigger stakes.
“You could just tell that things were getting way too out of control,” said Kelly Hecker, a daughter from his second marriage.
Hecker’s business interests multiplied, expanding beyond the auto business. He launched a mortgage business and partnered with others in restaurants, a Canadian fishing lodge, technology companies and real-estate ventures.
In 2004, Hecker announced he was joining a group of investors looking to buy the Minnesota Vikings football team, an attempt that never panned out.
But Tamitha Hecker said the bid put him in a position he wasn’t accustomed to. Suddenly he was being photographed in his courtside seat at Timberwolves basketball games and people saw him as “a rich guy who got lots of attention,” she said.
That same year, Hecker had gastric bypass surgery, dropping from about 350 pounds to 225. Several people said this made him more self-confident, boosting his ego even more.
In October 2005, Hecker sold part of his lucrative leasing business to General Electric Fleet for $20 million, a big windfall for an operation that largely operated on borrowed money. Early the next year, he took the biggest gamble of his career by buying Advantage Rent-A-Car, an ailing company that he says Chrysler Financial asked him to fix. He sunk his windfall from GE into the business and borrowed $500 million from
Chrysler Financial. He personally guaranteed hundreds of millions in business loans, making him liable if his companies couldn’t pay.
Kelly Hecker said that around this time, her relationship with her father soured and they saw each other only at holidays or family events, until last year.
“He was very disconnected,” she said. “Every focus was on business. I think the family life took a toll. … I think he went to work for his family, but I think he forgot about who we were.”
Longtime friends walked away, feeling they no longer had anything in common. Steve Sands, a fellow automobile businessman who had been friends with Hecker since the late 1970s, said he was particularly turned off by Hecker’s increasing penchant for gambling over a game of golf.
“I didn’t want any part of that,” Sands said.
Hecker himself admits that he buried himself in his mission to rescue Advantage Rent-A-Car, hoping it would mean big money for his company and his family. Instead, he said, that deal was the impetus for his empire’s collapse.
His fiancee, Christi Rowan, says Hecker “consumed himself” with business because he had nothing else. “He had people around him — but they all wanted something from him. … When everybody wants something and puts you on a pedestal and says, ‘You are it,’ you are taken in.”
Even Hecker sees that now.
“I had people coming out of the woodwork — family, friends, employees — who all needed something from me, and nine times out of 10 it ended with a dollar amount,” Hecker said.
Desperate to make the Advantage deal work, Hecker now admits he crossed a line. Prosecutors say that between 2006 and 2009, he orchestrated a scheme to defraud lenders out of millions of dollars, repeating the crimes several times with different lenders. In each case, he instructed employees — including two who have also pleaded guilty of felony charges — to alter documents that were presented to lenders for financing new car purchases for Hecker’s leasing company.
Hecker’s crimes were unique, prosecutors said, because he kept going, even after getting caught — again and again. He lied to the court, defied court orders and denied any wrongdoing until threatened with jail.
“Hecker had the talent and the good fortune to earn a tremendous living in an honest way. That was not enough,” prosecutors wrote in a court brief just before his sentencing. “Even when given opportunities and privileges, whether in business or in this (court) case, Hecker chose to squander those privileges. He chose to put his own financial interests above all else, including the rule of law and our system of justice.”
One former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said that even after Hecker began to sell off dealerships and shut down others, he didn’t give up his high-flying lifestyle.
“It was horrible to watch other employees lose jobs and not get paid, knowing that he was off flying around on his private jet,” the employee said. “It was just complete heartbreak. How can someone not have a soul and know that you’re hurting a lot of people and affecting a lot of families?”
In June 2009, owing a staggering $767 million, he filed for personal bankruptcy protection. But that, too, proved a disaster.
The bankruptcy trustee, Randall Seaver, accused him of hiding assets and continuing to live lavishly, pointing to hundreds of thousands of dollars Hecker gave to his girlfriend, vacations to Hawaii and Aspen, and thousands of dollars paid to country clubs.
The behavior that drew the ire of Seaver and prosecutors is common among white-collar criminals, says Jan Schwartz, a forensic behavioral scientist and president of Forensic Fraud Research, an Ohio company.
She said such criminals often show no remorse or guilt, accept no responsibility for their actions, have a sense of entitlement and are often pathological liars who are exceptionally proud of this skill.
The lack of empathy noted by Hecker’s former employee and the reluctance to accept responsibility are hallmarks of a psychopath, she said. While the public generally associates the term “psychopath” with serial killers, not all are violent.
Insensitivity, charm, domineering behavior and a preoccupation with greed — all traits of psychopaths — can be beneficial if a person’s end goal is making a lot of money.
“They do not perceive themselves as criminals,” Schwartz said. “They just want their own way.”
HE’D CHANGE EVERYTHING
Some longtime friends still have a hard time seeing Hecker as a criminal.
“Maybe he did some dumb things to try to save his company,” said Miller, Hecker’s former finance director, who retired in early 2008 before the fraud allegations surfaced. “All the lying and stuff that has been coming out, I just can’t believe it. We didn’t see that side of him that much.”
One former business associate, who said he didn’t want his name connected to Hecker’s, said he thought he understood what sort of man he was dealing with when they were doing business together, but now he’s not so sure. “Who is Denny Hecker?” he said. “I keep wondering that.”
Hecker himself has had a lot of time to think about that. He’s been sitting in jail for the past four months, after spending money he was supposed to turn over to pay creditors.
His family frets about the weight he has lost and the toll jail has taken on him.
But Hecker said last week that being away from the stress of his shattered life has helped him “return to my roots.”
He is creating what he calls an “internal transformation program” that he’d like to teach to other prisoners around the country.
Kelly Hecker said her father told her during a recent jail visit: “If I could go back and do it all over again, I would. And I would change everything.”
PHOTO AT LEFT COURTESY OF KELLY HECKER; PHOTO AT RIGHT COURTESY OF MADELEINE MERNIK
Left: Denny Hecker and his daughter Kelly in an undated photo. Of her father, Kelly Hecker said that by the mid-2000s, “you could just tell that things were getting way too out of control.” Right:Hecker hosted a fundraiser for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at his Medina home in August 2006.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MADELEINE MERNIK
Hecker with his fourth wife, Tamitha, whom he was married to from 1994 to 2009. Tamitha Hecker says her ex-husband “just got overwhelmed by it all. I think at some point he had a hard time separating the public persona and who he really was. Things just got larger than life.”