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, Rolls-Royce, 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.”