Life in the slow lane

Lance Leonhardt’s life changed when a customer showed him how to fix dents on cars without using paint. Now, as he tells Alicia Buller, he is confident the business can fly in the Gulf.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  February 19, 2006

|~|42-Lance-200.jpg|~|RICH: Leonhardt claims he got bored of having lunch with the likes of Roger Moore, and has gone back into business again.|~|Lance Leonhardt’s life changed when a customer showed him how to fix dents on cars without using paint. Now, as he tells Alicia Buller, he is confident the business can fly in the Gulf. Lance Leonhardt is a man of many colours — and not just in terms of his illustrious business life. As he makes his entrance, the self-made multi-millionaire dazzles the room with his shiny red cufflinks and a luminescent tie. Loud and proud, Leonhardt is filthy rich and he couldn’t give two hoots who knows about it. Just as well though, as he has a cracking story to tell. A bona fide rags to riches tale, no less. Picture the scene: it’s 1993 and Leonhardt is no doubt comfortably off in his job as one of America’s top car salesmen. One sunny morning, however, a visitor turns up at his showroom with a set of tools and offers to ease out the dents on the used cars, without needing to use paint. “Be my guest,” says Leonhardt, “because it’s impossible.” A few minutes later, the dents on the car have miraculously disappeared. And its all done using special tools and skills. Leonhardt is stunned. “Look, we should start a business,” he says. And, in that moment, the lives of two men are changed forever. Leonhardt’s company, Dentmaster, went on to become a world-renowned leader in paintless cosmetic dent removal systems. The firm was inaugurated in August 1993 with operations in London, Surrey and Derby in the UK. By 1996, Dentmaster had 40 British operations and offices in Switzerland, Lyon, Paris and the French Riviera. What’s more, in six prolific years, between 1993 and 1999, the firm saw its profits rocket every year. But, then again, Leonhardt never has been one for moderation. Take his arrival in the States as a fresh-faced, but nervous, 19-year-old. He arrived at JFK airport, New York, from his home in the UK, with US$120, a suitcase and his much cherished album collection. Leonhardt then hitched a lift to Baltimore with a man he met at the airport and munched on a McDonalds as he considered his future. Some years later, Leonhardt became one of the countries top salesmen for MG, Datsun and Jaguar, among others. “I was good looking, then,” he adds, modestly. By 1999, however, Leonhardt’s adrenaline-fuelled life had taken its toll and he decided to sell his pan-European business for the not unhandsome sum of US$40 million, to his American competition, Dentwizard. “They’ve totally messed up the European operations now,” he says. Not that he’s too bothered, after a four-year hiatus, living it up in the restaurants and bars of Monaco, Leonhardt’s back — only, this time, it’s time for a slice of Middle East action. Dentmaster officially unveiled operations in the region, based out of Dubai, in February — entering the UAE market with 55 contracts in hand with major car distributors and dealers. Key to the company’s value proposition in the Middle East is the fact that the system is a ‘craft’ that can retain luxury car owners’ 15% of the vehicle value. In a region where around 4500 luxury used cars are sold every year, the Dentmaster system can save car owners an average of US$10,200 for vehicles worth US$68,000. Some cosmetic dents can reduce a luxury car’s resale value by an average of 15%, especially in a tax-free buyers market as is the case is the UAE. “Having operated in Monaco, Cannes and Nice, cities on the French Riviera that radiated with luxury cars and demanded quality service, choosing to establish our regional operation out of Dubai, the lifestyle capital of the Middle East, made perfect sense,” says Leonhardt. “Our decision to proceed with setting up the office was solidified after meetings, earlier this year, with leading businessmen in the country and research that showed a lucrative, rapidly growing automotive trading and services market.” With regional expansion plans that include franchising the brand across the Middle East, Dentmaster aims to replicate its success in Europe and the United States where the company’s client base consisted of over 4,000 luxury car dealers and franchises, such as Mercedes Benz, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Bentley. Not bad for an initial US$300,000 investment on Leonhardt’s part. At the moment, however, things aren’t looking too good, Leonhardt freely admits. “I expected a bad year last year,” he says. “Dentmaster made a 40% loss on turnover in its first twelve months.” But, as ever, Leonhardt likes to rise to a challenge, “Usually I don’t just meet my targets, I exceed them,” he says in his characteristically modest manner. In 2006 the founder of Dentmaster Middle East will pull in just under US$1 million in the UAE alone, he claims. That said, Leonhardt has a very personal reason for wanting the Middle East operations to be a success. Originally the Middle East plan was dreamed up so that his only son could take over the operations and follow proudly in his father’s footsteps, but, tragically, Leonhardt’s young son died eighteen months ago. This has only strengthened Leonhardt’s resolve to make the Middle East operation a success. “He would’ve have wanted me to carry on,” he says solemnly. But there are also other, much less grave, reasons that the Dentmaster founder chose to move to Dubai from Monaco, with his wife in tow. “I didn’t want to get on the same alcoholic trail that people in Monaco so often end up on. It got to the stage where our most pressing decision of the day would be ‘where are we going for lunch?’ I needed to put some interest back into my life,” he says. “I used to sit down for a meal, you know, and I’d have Roger Moore to my left and Jack Nicholson to my right — but I’m not like them, I’m different. I don’t feel the need to prove anything,” he claims. That said, some of the tycoon’s penchants for the high life still linger. He is now on his “fourth yacht,” he boasts. He owns “the biggest speedboat you can buy that you can captain yourself,” he says. Admirably, he and his wife are now certified captains and they spend a lot of time at sea. You get the feeling that Leonhardt is finally coming to some resigned peace with himself. The itching ambition that drove him to jump on a plane to the US three decades ago is still there — only now it is quieter, wiser. “Power is dangerous, you have to be careful with it. You have to share it around — because at the end of the day we’re all fighting for the same pie and it pays to work together.” You get the feeling Dentmaster is such a success, owing to the real belief Leonhardt has in his product. “The benefits of the Dentmaster system are real. Speed, cost effectiveness and the fact that it is environmentally friendly,” he says. ‘Dents are like fingerprints. There are no two alike. Therefore our technicians are trained to repair dents under every conceivable condition in every conceivable area of the vehicle. No matter if it takes ten minutes or two hours.” One thing that Leonhardt is very precious about is quality. When pressed about whether he takes advantage of cheap labour in the region, there is a small but perceptible rise in his voice. “No. I still hire all my guys from Britain and bring them over [here]. People forget that it’s not just a highly skilled technical job - it’s also a commercial job, where the craftsman has to promote and sell the service,” he says. Adding “I don’t hire monkeys. It costs US$ 23,000 to train just one man, so I’m not going to hire idiots!” Leonhardt says that the UAE will serve as a model for how things will be run eventually throughout the entire Middle East — Dentmaster will build relationships with local partners, rather than fully owning its outlets. This is a historic company first, but Leonhardt says it is a must in a region where owning outlets will mean semi-owning branches with local business people. And, while Leonhardt says that he has found one dream partner to start his venture with locally, he reckons it would be pushing his luck to be able to find someone again that he clearly trusts so much. So, for the time being, Dentmaster will operate as a franchise operation in the region with “the next sights on Oman,” he adds. It’s hard to believe that Dentmaster would fail in the region, even if it has got off to a relatively bumpy start. With steely resolve like Leonhardt’s, what goes down must come up. And one thing’s for sure, if Leonhardt’s hadn’t come across the Dentmaster system that fateful day around a decade ago, he’d have been dreaming more weird and wonderful plans to make himself a success. He even tried launching new bands at one point, but admits that the dent business has proved to be more his bag. What’s nice is that moving to Dubai has blessed Leonhardt with more family. “My staff here are my family. I brought them here, along with their wives and kids. They’re my new British dependents and I enjoy looking after them.” As he says himself: “I’m just some bloke from Shrovesbury.”||**||

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