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Q&A With Bobby Zagame

Sergio Alderuccio

Passion Builds a Great Business

After a three year hiatus due to Covid restrictions, it was a pleasure to host this year’s annual Smart Business Insights event in the Zagame Ferrari showroom in Richmond. 

I enjoyed interviewing Bobby Zagame, the inspirational Founder and Managing Director of Zagame Automotive. We were doubly privileged to be surrounded by a host of luxury Ferraris.

The focus of the event was learning about Bobby’s incredible business journey, beginning in hospitality and later diversifying into the business of retailing luxury European cars. Zagame Automotive has grown into a major force in the luxury car retail market.

In this edition of Business Insights, I would like to share with you some of Bobby Zagame’s story and the key take-a-ways from the night. 

Where the journey started

Bobby Zagame grew up in his family’s hotel business. He was just six years old when he learnt to pull his first beer. It was in those very early days that Bobby’s exposure and interest in hospitality began. With little interest in schooling, Bobby went straight into the family business after initially failing to pass his VCE. It was his father’s wish to have Bobby join the family hotel business as soon as possible; it was his mother’s desire that he complete his education. His father won.

Bobby’s working life began in the family’s network of hotels. He took over the licence and running of the Matthew Flinders Hotel in 1985, making Bobby the youngest licensee in Victoria. At the young age of twenty-five, Bobby became the Manager Director of the Zagame Group, which represented an extensive property portfolio consisting of hospitality and commercial investments throughout Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.

Leadership Lessons

Bobby’s grandfather, father and uncle were the founders of the family’s first hotels, and they successfully grew their hospitality operations into a large portfolio.

When asked about the challenges of working with family members and older staff, Bobby’s response was: “Work twice as hard, for twice as long in order to earn the respect of those around you”. In his early working days, Bobby developed a strong work ethic – a quality that has firmly remained with him ever since.

Another invaluable skill that Bobby learnt in the hotel industry was understanding people. Patrons represent a wide cross section of personalities and behaviours. Understanding people and being able to relate to them has been the cornerstone of building a winning culture amongst his workforce of almost 500.

The Zagame Group is known for its enviable reputation with both its customers and team members. Several team members have expressed to me personally that Zagames is the best organisation they have worked for. I was very impressed to meet a long-term team member who told me he has been working with  the family business for over 40 years and still loves going to work.

New Challenges

At thirty-five years of age, Bobby was feeling run down by the relentless hours required to run an extensive hospitality business. Though happily married and the father of five young children, Bobby was rarely home to be with his family. An avid Carlton fan, with no time to take his children to the football matches, all five children became keen Collingwood fans, following in their mother’s footsteps… A hard lesson for Bobby to learn!

In 2000, Bobby’s lifelong passion for cars kicked in and the diversification into automotive retailing began. Bobby was invited to set up a restaurant within a car dealership in St Kilda, and because of his lifelong love of cars, his heart beat out his head and he took up the opportunity. The car side of the business was operated by his three business partners who sold the Lotus and Ducati brands, and Bobby ran the hospitality side of the business. The partnership lasted only eleven months and cost Bobby a few million dollars after paying out all the creditors. 

Automotive Diversification

Despite the failure of his first automotive venture, Bobby retained the rights to the Lotus and Ducati brands and also opened a new showroom in Church St, Richmond. The MG Rover brand was added to Bobby’s offering, as well as a service centre. At this stage, cars were a sideline business for Bobby while he still maintained his involvement in various hotels run by the Zagame Group.

After MG Rover failed in Europe, Bobby sold all of his stock at heavily discounted prices and came to the realisation that “I needed to fully commit to the car industry or leave it”. He decided to persevere, and purchased the franchise for Citroen Australia, along with the freehold of another showroom and service centre. The Citroen brand did very well, and the car business began to gain traction and become a viable operation.

The Ferrari and Maserati franchises was offered to Bobby on the strength of his success with Citroen. Initially, Bobby declined the opportunity, because he doubted how he could sell enough cars to make it viable, and it was his wife who encouraged him to put in a submission to acquire the franchise. In the following 20 years, through Bobby’s drive, passion and meticulous attention to detail, Zagame Automotive expanded to have fifteen award winning showrooms and service centres in Victoria and South Australia, employing a team of around five hundred people. The group represents many European premium brands, including Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, McLaren, Audi, Alfa Romeo, Bentley and Fiat.

Passion

A reoccurring theme in my Q&A with Bobby was passion, and to quote him, “Like anything, if you’re passionate about something, it comes naturally”. As a young boy, Bobby collected a vast number of motoring magazines and publications, all of which he has kept in his head office. His love of cars was always present, and these days, Bobby’s main business passion is undoubtedly cars. Bobby says that passion is the prerequisite for maintaining your drive, commitment and work ethic; “When l no longer feel passion about being involved in cars, l will get out”.

People and Culture

Bobby is a firm believer that his time in hotels gave him the grounding for understanding people and handling challenging interactions. Everything is about building relationships with people and developing a level of trust. As Bobby said, “Creating a certain warmth and nice experience is vital to being successful when dealing with people”.

Bobby stressed that surrounding himself with like-minded people has been integral to building a strong work and service culture for his business; “Building a trustworthy team is essential to running a successful business, these basic skills are as essential in running hotels, as they are in dealing with the customers who purchase the expensive cars. I surround myself with good people”. Undoubtedly, Bobby’s start in hospitality played a huge role in shaping the successful businessman he is today.

His respect for people and strong value of passion extends also to his own family. There is no expectation for Bobby’s own children to join him in the business; “If my children wish to join the business in their late twenties, then that will be possible, but my wife and I will never force, or expect them to do so”.

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