BY DOM MILIANO
HudsonMOD recently spent a fascinating hour talking collectible cars with Tom Maoli, New Jersey entrepreneur and lifelong classic car fan. We met at his new Maserati dealership in Whippany, NJ. His expert insights into the car hobby and its business connections will be instructional to anyone thinking about making a foray into this exciting and exotic world.
We wanted to find out what the person considering a classic car purchase, possibly as an investment, should know. We asked for pitfalls and cautions and Maoli eagerly offered expert advice. “As in everything in investing, art, stocks, real-estate, [you should] always buy the best.” His reasons are simple and based on decades-long experience. “The best always holds its value and increases [in value] the fastest.”
Maoli has what he calls his “antennas” to find potential cars to add to his growing collection. Unlike some in the car hobby, he doesn’t use a third party to unearth cars for his garage. “I do not use a broker,” he says. Instead, Maoli researches cars on the market, occasionally through auction catalogs, and plans his purchases from there. “My antenna is always up for good, top-notch collector cars that will continue to rise in value.” Pausing for effect, he adds, “It is like GOOD ART [emphasis his]. It continues to go up in value.”
It would be difficult for a new collector to acquire Maoli’s encyclopedic knowledge of the car market so we asked for clues that might affect a car’s potential collector value. “Winning [car] shows definitely affects values. Cars that win [concours d’elegance] shows hold their value and increase in value.” As an insider in the rarefied air of the world’s top collectors, he adds that cars with a winning pedigree are “highly sought after by the world’s prominent collectors.”
Maoli was quick to say that not all car shows are created equal. The local Sunday morning car and coffee gatherings may be fun, but they do not provide any indication of a car’s collectability. Certain shows are recognized as the best in the world and that’s where Tom focuses. The most prestigious in the United States is held annually in California at Pebble Beach.
Tom explains, “In order to win shows such as Pebble Beach, you need to have a perfectly restored car with all original equipment.”
In addition to the quality of the restoration, things like rarity and celebrity play a part in singling out a car for a concours d’elegance award. “All of these matter,” he says, referring to a car in his collection that proves the point. “I have a 1941 Cadillac Town Car. It has a production [number] of one! It was built for and owned by [the actress] Bette Davis. It is a perfectly restored car. ”
In addition to Bette’s Cadillac, Maoli has also bought other cars that have important show trophies. “I had a 1932 Packard Duel Cowl Sports Phaeton that took first place at Pebble Beach,” he says. Tom also had a 1953 Mercedes-Benz owned by Errol Flynn.
Unlike other collectibles, classic cars require maintenance and, in some instances, repair. These are not vehicles that can be serviced by just anyone so we asked if he had advice on how to keep these cars in tip-top shape. “The best is to find old timers who understand these cars and have worked on them when they were on the road.” That’s an increasingly difficult task considering the age of some of his cars.
Because Maoli’s collection spans decades and continents, it’s clear that diverse cars such as his require different craftspeople to keep them running and in top shape. Maoli says that he uses different shops based on the job at hand. “I go all over the place.”
The world of car collecting spans more than one hundred years, so finding your personal collection sweet spot is exactly that: very personal. Maoli is open about what does it best for him.
“I always loved Mercedes-Benz styling and also, as an investment, they produce the best ROI as they increase in value the fastest.”
Naturally, we wanted to know if he has a favorite. He was quick to say, “My 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300SL [a convertible] and my 1955 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing [the iconic car with the swing-up doors that resemble a seagull in flight].
Since he owns several large auto dealerships, we wondered how often Tom has a chance to drive his collectible cars. We asked because he came to the interview in a chauffer-driven Lexus from his dealership Lexus of Route 10 in Whippany. Smiling, he says, “I drive my cars, just for fun.”
As our hour with Maoli grew short, we asked how he became a dyed-in-the-wool car guy. His roots go back to a 1959 Cadillac (the one with the huge fins and iconic bullet taillights) that he bought as a teenager for $700. After a year, he had fixed it up to the point where he was able to sell it for ten times the purchase price. That hooked him and set him on the “cool car” path for the rest of his life. Currently, he has a garage full of classic cars. The list reads like a who’s who of the best cars ever built: Duesenberg, Packard, one-of-a-kind concept cars, several Mercedes-Benz cars, including a 1957 300S once owned by Errol Flynn and Reggie Jackson (yes, Tom’s a Yankee fan), one of Evil Knievel’s original motorcycles, and, of course, a very special 1959 Cadillac.
Maoli’s serious collecting started with his 1924 Duesenberg, an iconic American luxury vehicle. As mentioned before, he added a 1932 Packard Dual Cowl Sports Phaeton that won first place at the legendary Pebble Beach concours to the collection. Our research places this car’s value well into seven figures.
Sticking with Packard, he says he also had a 1938 model and a 1940 four-door convertible. His love for classic American cars was evident when he mentioned his 1941 Cadillac convertible, a historically important car since American manufacturers had to make war materials after Pearl Harbor and as a result new car production came to a screeching halt.
A car collection isn’t much without some celebrated European cars, and he owns a 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300SL and a car he called the “sister” to it: a 1955 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing sports car. However, as his investing philosophy demands, he has other German machines. He ticked off a 1936 540K Mercedes-Benz. This was a car built for the new Autobahn and one of the fastest of its era. In addition to the Flynn/Reggie 1953 Mercedes Cabriolet, Tom has two more Mercedes-Benz beauties in his garage. One is a simple but elegantly gorgeous 1958 two-door convertible and the other a 1955 Mercedes concept car. Tom surprises me when he says, “It was actually never built. It’s all apart, in a ‘basket,’ bits and pieces. I have to find someone to put it together.”
Listening to the list and, since we were sitting in a Maserati dealership, we wondered where the Italian classics were. Smiling, Maoli says, “I am currently purchasing a classic Maserati 3500GT for my collection.”
Incidentally, surrounded by photographs of vintage and classic Maseratis, Maoli says that despite the brief time the dealership has been open, they are already the number one Maserati sales leader in the Northeast.
Maoli’s love for cars caused this entrepreneur to sell his successful worldwide courier business and jump with both driving shoes into the automobile business. Whether it was courage or confidence (possibly both), Maoli set his sights on acquiring a Lexus dealership. Although his lack of history in car sales worked against him, his passion, business knowledge and commitment to quality service won him the coveted luxury car franchise. I guessed that his sales pitch to the decision makers at Lexus must have been very persuasive.
Maoli explains, “I observed experts in the hospitality industry and how they treated celebrities as they walked the red carpet.” Convinced that the Lexus buyer was a person drawn to quality and luxury, Maoli made sure that Lexus Corporate understood how he planned to treat the people who came through the door. As part of his master plan for success, he uses the term clients instead of customers, a subtle but important distinction. Several times in our conversation he emphasized that his dealership would be known for red carpet treatment.
“You want to give a celebrity an experience, have their needs fulfilled, let them know that they have someone to call and you want to make them feel important. You want them to feel the vibe of our organization.”
This approach is known as celebrity hospitality and he likens it to how you are treated at your favorite restaurant. “When you arrive, they know what you enjoy, where you like to sit and, before you even sit down, they have your table just the way you always have it.” If he could bring his clients that kind of consistent service, they wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. I interpreted that to mean price, while important, becomes secondary to the overall experience. Of course, I wanted to know how this car collector, now an automotive executive, was doing.
In a boxing match, experts say all of your planning goes out the window the first time your opponent hits you in the face. So it is in business. You may think you have the best business model, but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. I pressed Maoli about how a car collector’s refreshing ideas on running a luxury dealership were succeeding in a very competitive market. Could he share some of his sales numbers with HudsonMOD ’s readers? When I probe if things are going well, he smiles and says, “Extremely!” His sales and growth figures made my eyes pop open.
“Before I bought the dealership [he acquired his Lexus store from the Warnock Group in 2011], they sold 1,357 new cars and approximately 300 used vehicles. Now, we’re on a path to sell 4,500 new cars and over 2,000 used vehicles.” Their website proudly proclaims that they are the number one “L/Certified” Lexus dealer in the eastern region.
His company, Celebrity Motor Cars, recently added BMW and Maserati dealerships and their numbers are equally exciting.
Maoli approaches his businesses the same way he approaches car collecting. He seeks quality first and then looks for long-term growth. Nowhere is that more evident than in his approach to hiring staff. He explains, “Every person [on our team] has value.” Each team member gets the tools and training he or she needs to be successful in the assigned job. “I wouldn’t ask someone to dig a ditch with a spoon!” he says with a laugh. “It’s expensive [meaning the extensive training he funds], but in the end it’s all worth it.” Pausing and leaning forward, he adds, “The person must feel comfortable and valued to be successful. We work every day with our people to do that.”
How does he find people like that to staff three dealerships? “They’re finding us,” he proudly states. Maoli’s reputation within the close-knit local automobile industry has become well known and is causing folks with the right skills and talents to knock on the door.
The way a company performs, how its employees feel working for and with an organization, and how clients are served is called corporate culture. The organization’s leadership has to teach and then live the culture and, of course, work every day to drive that culture through to every team member. “You have to lead by example,” Maoli explains. But you also have to hire the right kind of people – people who not only “get it” but live it personally as well. Maoli quips, “You can’t teach height! You either have it or you don’t.” The members of his team are handpicked for skills, talents and attitude. “Ninety percent of the job is mental. It’s just 10 percent physical.” Engaging the best people who exemplify their red carpet culture is the key to his company’s success.
Tom Maoli subscribes to the belief that if you love your job, you will never work a day in your life. His enthusiasm for his car collection, his clients and his team members tells me he is living a dream. Thanks to Tom Maoli for an interesting and educational hour at the top of the collector car world.
Watch Tom Maoli’s Life & Living Segment below:
Look at more photos from Tom Maoli’s collection below!