you dont know theres a problem, there isnt
In 1967, Malcolm Bricklin made his first trip to Japan. This
was no vacation, mind you, he was riled. Lambretta had pulled
its Italian motorscooters from the U.S. market, and just when
Bricklin had found a replacement in a Japanese scooter called
the Rabbit, he was informed that Fuji Heavy Industries was
about to seize its production. Fuji did, however, make this
little car called Subaru...
Meet Malcolm Bricklin, serial entrepreneur. He turned a bum
contract into Subaru of America, talked the Canadian government
into funding a car named after himself, and brought us the
most joked about car of our generation- the Yugo.
And now Malcolm Bricklin is about to do it again. Soon the
Motor Works) will be rolling out of the very same factory
that gave birth to the Yugo and into dealers' showrooms. What
dealers? Well, no one has the answer to that, but it's a pretty
minor detail for a man who's sold $1 million dollars in Subaru
of America stock though the company's only asset was a slip
Modernist's Jason Mojica talks with the the original international
man of mystery.
The Modernist: For starters, can you tell me a little bit
more about the new venture?
Bricklin: Well, uh
lets see. What is there
to tell that hasnt been said already?
Um... a lot. How did you come to get involved with
Well, back in the beginning- the end of last year they sent
a disc over to my ex-vice chairman, Ira Edelson. They said,
please get it to Mr. Bricklin. He called and I
said, dont send it! (laughter) Shows you
what a visionary, huh? Only because I had thought, what
could they have possibly done better over these years?
I thought things had probably gotten worse. And then I had
seen the factory get bombed on television, and I figured everything
was in shambles and there probably wasnt any hope for
Then my fiancé, Sonia, was out looking for a car. We
were living in the city, New York City, and she said, you
know, I just want a cheap little car to have around the city
to bang around in, to go outside of the city whenever I want.
And she started shopping and shopping and shopping, and she
came back and said, you know, theres nothing under
fifteen thousand dollars you can get out there. I said, no,
you gotta be kidding me. She looked around... and she
ended up going with the Mercedes, but she kept saying things
like why dont you bring the Yugo back? I
said, nah, well, you know
and Im hemmin
and hawin and she said, you know what? A lot of
people were really looking for a car just like I was, and
arent going to find it. So I called up Ira and said
send me the disc.
I looked at it, and I saw they had fixed up the factory, theyd
brought more models out, and then I remembered my warm feeling
that I had for these people when I was doing business with
them so we got on a plane and we went back. What we saw was,
much to our surprise, totally different than we expected:
the factory was rebuilt, the people really, really, really
are in need of doing something economically to bring them
into the 21st century. When we were there, we were dealing
with the dying days of communism, and now were dealing
with the birth of democracy and capitalism.
How did you come to be involved with them in the first
place? You were just vacationing in Yugoslavia and
No, no, no, no. Ive never been to Yugoslavia. We were
in England at the time. The company I was running at the time,
Pininfarina Bertoni, we were bringing in the cars from Italy.
We decided we wanted an inexpensive car to introduce to the
United States. I sent Tony Seminera around the world, I said,
find me one.
Obviously, the Yugo has been mocked quite a bit-
in popular culture-
so why should Americans give the ZMW a chance?
Well first of all, the mocking has come from most everybody
else but the people who owned one. I dont know if you
saw an article in USA Today a couple of months ago
wrote an article about the ZMW and they decided to go onto
the internet and check with people who owned Yugos. I think
according to their report, 83% of Yugo owners would recommend
their car again. Over all of these years, with the embargos
and everything else, theyre still running.
Heres why were bringing it in. First of all, its
not the Yugo anymore
there is no more Yugoslavia, so
its a ZMW: Zastava Motor Works. Second thing thats
interesting is, the last time, we brought in a two door- that
was it. You wanted a different color, you got it. No automatics
oh, except for air-conditioning. Now we have a four-door,
and a pick-up truck, and a convertible with an electric top,
and were talking about automatic transmission added
to the game which is a very, very big deal. Last time we sold
163,000 cars. It was the fastest growing car ever imported
from Europe. The difference now is, were going to be
in charge of the factory.
Well, because were buying the factory.
Oh, I see.
Remember, theyre capitalists, no longer communists,
so they have to sell the factory because its owned by
the state. We will own the factory so we will be in charge
of quality control, no excuses. That will make a huge difference.
Plus, were putting in a different engine, which will
make a huge difference.
Whos making the engine?
Right now, theyre dealing with Pugeot. Now I wont
swear that that will be the final engine, because once we
take over, were going to look at a lot of people. But
we will have a more up-to-date engine, and we will have an
automatic transmission, and it will have a brand new, up-to-date
interior, and the paint-jobs are going to be gorgeous, and
the quality is going to be superlative.
and a CD player?
and a CD player if you want!
So, I first became familiar with you while reading about
the history of Subaru. Later I read about many of your other
entrepreneurial ventures, which I found amazing. Im
curious about your life before Subaru, can you tell me a little
bit more about it?
I started a building supply company in Orlando, Florida. From
there I started a chain of stores called Handyman, which was
open 9 to 9, seven days a week. Then I moved to Philadelphia
and got involved in Lambretta motorscooters. They had a 25,000
inventory sitting in Long Island and they asked me to get
rid of them. We sold them to all the police forces and got
rid of them in about four months, and that led me to Subaru.
(long, uncomfortable silence) I see. You went to University
University of Florida.
What sort of things did you study there?
I used to say, time and space. I just had a good
time... I took general business.
Im trying to figure out
for instance, what
was your first job? Im trying to understand where your
entrepreneurial roots came from
My first job? Lets see, I think I pushed an ice cream
cart when I was twelve years old in Orlando, Florida. That
lasted for about four days.
Nothing. It just didnt seem like what I wanted to do.
Then I mowed lawns, and that was pretty good for a couple
of weeks. I sold shoes on Saturdays when I was going to junior
high. And lets see what else I did
would lead you to believe anything.
Tell me about your early dealings with Fuji Heavy Industries
and your fist trip to Japan.
I had bought a motorscooter company in Boston. When I bought
this company, they and their bank got Fuji to assign the contract
to me- for the distribution of the motorscooters. And after
I sold all the inventory we had, I sent them a letter of credit
and they asked me who I was, and didnt I know that they
were dismantling their factory and selling it to Israel? So
I went back to the bank and the person I bought it from and
they said, oh yeah, we thought youd work it out.
So in effect, they had defrauded me. So I got on a plane and
I went to Japan to see Fuji Heavy Industries to talk them
into not dismantling their factory and selling it to me. In
any case, that didnt work, but when I was there I saw
the little car. And I decided, well, since I was already doing
business sort of with them, maybe I could get the little car.
One thing lead to another and I got a contract.
Did you find language to be a problem?
Not at all. First of all, its amazing how many people
in countries other than ours speak our language.
What gave you the confidence at that point in time to just
fly over and essentially wrangle a contract out of these Japanese
Lack of knowledge, and perseverance. When you dont know
theres a problem, there isnt one.
How would you say that things are different now as compared
to when you first got involved with autos or the import/export
Well, first of all, I know ten thousand times more than I
knew before. So thats a very big difference. Second
of all, I have a team that Ive worked with before, that
have worked with me. So doing things are smooth and easy,
and comfortable and fun. Im dealing with the A team,
people who really know what theyre doing. Its
really a pleasure.
The world out there though, is extremely competitive. The
quality of everybodys cars is so high, and people expect
so much, and the choices are so many. In order to come into
this market and make any kind of dent at all, you have to
have something very, very, very unique because the advertising
barriers are so high. In this case, we happen to have that.
Our price is what were coming in on. If we can deliver
on dependable quality and an interesting look of the car,
so you can feel good about having that car, we have found
that niche. And its an unusual niche because its
going to be hard to find for other people. One: were
talking about buying a factory thats probably worth,
well, a billion bucks or more and were paying a dollar
Now, that sounds like were getting it for cheap, but
we have to agree to invest $100 million or more into that
factory to bring it more up-to-date. So we are investing in
the factory to make that thing more productive for todays
world, so they can sell cars outside of Serbia. So thats
number one, number two: were talking about a labor force
that is Eastern European, but college educated. A very terrific
labor force that is way underpaid as far as the world is concerned.
Youre talking $150, $200 a month, which is not okay,
but were starting at that rate and even if you double
and triple that, youre still talking about way under
the market. So when you talk about those kinds of factories,
you dont have to advertise, and youre talking
about a car that doesnt have to be re-engineered, and
you dont have to advertise that. Those are the way a
car can come in, at least for the next five or six years at
the kind of prices were talking about.
Whats the distribution plan?
Well, were toying with two different plans. One is,
of course, we bring in the car through ZMW U.S.A. and set
up dealers in the Northeast and then follow down into the
Southeast, and into the Midwest and over to the West. Because
the first year were only planning on bringing in 60,000
cars. And in the market were talking about, the market
is probably five to ten million cars deep
want to buy cars in that kind of price range that just arent
there so theyre buying used cars or theyre not
buying cars, or theyre buying cars that are more expensive
than where they want to be. Or, were contemplating setting
up ten distributors in the United States, and for them to
set up the dealerships, and for us to deal with the ten distributors.
That plan is similar to what I did with Subaru, we had fourteen
distributors. The other plan, going directly, is what I did
with Yugo last time. So were right now contemplating
and we still have four or five months for us to decide which
way to go.
As far as I can tell, the longest involvement youve
had in any one of these ventures has been around four years.
Now, that doesnt seem like its going to instill
a lot of confidence in distributors, or even buyers who dont
want to be left without service-
Well, lets talk about that. First of all with Subaru,
when I left Subaru I left them Harvey Lamm, and Harvey did
an incredible job running that company beautifully until Fuji
bought it back and then even after that for a while. Yugo,
when I left, I left Bill Prior. Unfortunately the country
blew up. That is a problem. That, I cant stop. Whether
I stay or I dont stay, I dont think I could have
single-handedly kept Yugoslavia together. In both cases
in Subaru for instance I had done everything I could as far
as Im concerned. We had distributors, we had dealers,
the cars were good, it was a good time
I wanted to go
build a car. When it came to Yugo, I found that after the
first two or three years they stopped listening. Remember,
it was a communist society and we couldnt give them
any bonuses. So we were stuck with, instead of the quality
better it was getting worse, so when somebody came and said
they wanted to buy me out
In this case Im dealing with
Im going to
own the factory, so Im going to be responsible for what
comes in. I dont have to talk somebody else into it,
or them not be talked into it. So I believe this one is the
It sounds like a very good position to be in.
It is. Its the best position. This time I own the factory,
and I own the distribution. And all the other deals either
I owned the factory or I
I mean now we own them both-
and Im with a team, I work with them, they work with
us. The people Im working with now are the same people
I worked with before. Its a very unusual convergence
of a lot of good things.
Its safe to say that youve been through some
very challenging periods in all of your past ventures. What
would you say is your driving force, I mean, what makes you
able to keep going, and starting anew, and dreaming as big
as you do?
Its called perseverance. Its perseverance and
the fact is, it gets easier. All those adventures before are
stepping stones to make what you do next just
Do you do much traveling internationally?
Well yeah, I go to Serbia a lot!
Whats that like these days?
Its really nice. Its really nice, its totally
I dont know what you expect, I dont know what
I expected. I was told by one of my sons saying, Dad,
you got bodyguards? Its Belgrade as it used to
be, with a nicer, freer, happier feeling. Before when were
there, Ill give you an example of some difficulties:
When we wanted to have computers and fax machines
that for communications, right? We had to have a special
trade zone created in a room in an outside hotel at the convention
center, that we paid for, where we could bring the computer
and fax machine in by special dispensation by the government.
And when somebody wanted to communicate, they had to go to
that room. Because people didnt have computers, there
wasnt any internet- or if there was they werent
allowed to connect to it, and they werent even allowed
to have fax machines. Now theres no more of that. Now
everybodys walking around with a cell phone, and there
are satellite dishes on everybodys apartment everywhere
you see, everywhere you go. People go where they want, do
what they want, say what they want. Its a great atmosphere,
its a great place to be now.
Ive heard legend of this James Bond
office you had at your Subaru headquarters.
We built that whole office. What happened is, you had two
four-foot by eight-foot doors that the secretary could push
a button and they swung open. When they swung open it was
a fairly large office, and you looked through the office into
glass which was on the top roof, and there was a garden with
a waterfall into a pond which had alcoa goldfish Iroquois.
It had a floating fireplace and those round, plastic, bubble
chairs you could sit into. The desk looked like a palette,
a painting palette that looked like it was floating off the
ground, and the top looked like it was slate, but it was Formica.
When you pushed buttons, four round things came out of the
back, and they were television sets. They were of different
parts of the plant and the outside that we were really looking
It was a fun place to work! I worked there fourteen, fifteen
hours a day- I wanted it to be fun. The fun of the whole thing
is, we built everything, we furnished everything, including
buying the land, putting everything in there for $450,000
which was the mortgage we got!
So have you sold the film rights to your life story?
No, no, no. Its not over yet! The good part is yet to
Jason Mojica perpetually
reads books about weird entrepreneurs.
this interview in The Modernist's forums.