You want fast ’n’ flash, he’s your man

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

IN MARCH this year, a cus­tomer took de­liv­ery of a blue, $5.5m Pa­gani Huayra Road­ster, the first of­fi­cial Pa­gani to be sold in Aus­tralia. The one per­son more ex­cited than the cus­tomer was Bobby Zagame – be­cause, as the Aus­tralian im­porter of Pa­gani, he gets to order another one, and another one…

Zagame, 52, has never lost his child­hood pas­sion for cars. It still takes him longer to leave the of­fice than it should; with his Rich­mond em­po­rium be­ing the Vic­to­rian dealer for Fer­rari, Lam­borgh­ini, Aston Martin, Mclaren, Roll­sroyce, Maserati and Lo­tus, there are too many dis­trac­tions.

“I do turn back and look,” he says. “So noth­ing’s changed! Even though I sit in an en­vi­ron­ment of su­per­cars, ev­ery one of them I just love look­ing at.”

Qui­etly spo­ken Zagame, the old­est of five kids, didn’t grow up in a car fam­ily. “But I just found a pas­sion for cars at a very young age. I was just fas­ci­nated by, I think, the evo­lu­tion of cars – they don’t ever stop with tech­nol­ogy.”

He went from the HSC into the fam­ily’s ho­tel and restau­rant busi­ness, which took off in the ’80s with land­marks like the Matthew Flin­ders Ho­tel in Chad­stone.

“I was the youngest li­censee in Vic­to­ria, if not Aus­tralia – I think I was 19,” he says. “I could pour a beer at six, used to hand it to the bar­man, he’d put it on top of the bar be­cause I couldn’t reach … I was al­ways go­ing to work with my Dad, I just loved ev­ery­thing about hos­pi­tal­ity.”

Oddly, given his back­ground, Fer­rari wasn’t cen­tral on his radar. “My ul­ti­mate was al­ways a Porsche 911 Turbo, but I had a Toy­ota Supra 2.8; I stayed with Supras for years, up to my late-20s when I started on BMWS – I loved my E36 M3.”

In 1999, a BMW sales con­tact men­tioned that a group was look­ing to open a car deal­er­ship with a restau­rant in­side; at the time, a pi­o­neer­ing con­cept.

“They had the brands Lam­borgh­ini, Aston Martin and Lo­tus – so I said, ‘Where do I sign?’” Auto Cavalli opened in trendy Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. “The restau­rant went fan­tas­tic – but the car side of it fell to shit within 11 months. In that time, I’d bought the prop­erty, so we did a deal: I ended up run­ning the restau­rant and I kept the Lo­tus brand and the Du­cati brand.

“Lo­tus is not an easy prod­uct to sell, but I found that my hos­pi­tal­ity back­ground was an as­set. I’d al­ways had good re­la­tion­ships with sup­pli­ers like CUB and Coca-cola. I just tried to build good re­la­tion­ships with the man­u­fac­tur­ers and dis­trib­u­tors.”

Zagame soon added MG Rover and, af­ter the brand’s 2005 clo­sure, Citroen. His vol­ume suc­cesses would bring an of­fer from Citroen im­porter Neville Crich­ton, who by then had Fer­rari in his sta­ble.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘Well, how many Fer­raris are you go­ing to sell in a year – 10, 15?’ And [Crich­ton] wanted me to build this Taj Ma­hal … I just couldn’t un­der­stand how I could make it work. So I knocked it back.

“Then my wife, who is not a car per­son, said to me, ‘You’re mad. The last bloke’s had it for 28 years. This is a chance of a life­time, you’ll get one crack at this.’ A cou­ple of weeks later, I hit my­self in the head and said, ‘Yeah, she’s bloody right.’ So by the end of 2005, I was a Fer­rari dealer.

“That was prob­a­bly the turn­ing point for us in the car busi­ness. Do­ing a re­ally good job of that be­came a linch­pin for other brands be­ing keen to get on board with us as well.”

So what’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween sell­ing an $18,000 Fiat 500 and a $5.5m Pa­gani? “The same prin­ci­ples ap­ply. It’s all rel­a­tive – to the per­son buy­ing a Fiat, it’s a big deal to them, and the same ap­plies to the per­son buy­ing a Rolls-royce. I think that’s the hos­pi­tal­ity as­pect still with me; you treat every­one equally.”

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