The car dealer network that Ray Brandt started with a single Gretna showroom and built into an empire over 40 years dissolved last week with the completion of a sale of the dealership group.

Brandt's widow, Jessica Brandt, called it a "bittersweet" occasion after signing the last documents Friday in the complicated deal, more than four years after her husband's death.

Jessica Brandt

Jessica Brandt

At its peak, the auto group was one of the region's largest sellers, with 20 dealerships and collision centers in New Orleans and south Mississippi. But?a rancorous family succession fight?followed Brandt's death in 2019 from pancreatic cancer at 72.?

The legal brawl left the fate of the dealerships in limbo for more than three years before a settlement last year paved the way for the $280 million sale of the group's 13 locations.

"It is my great honor, although bittersweet, to announce today that those dealerships have been transferred to other automobile professionals," Jessica Brandt, who became CEO of the auto group after her husband's death, said in an emailed statement.

The sale ends a complicated five-month process that involved its own legal quarrels, including a challenge filed by Saints owner Gayle Benson with the state's car industry regulator when she lost out on some Brandt dealerships to other buyers. Benson has since dropped her case, enabling the deal to close last week.

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New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson, pictured here on Aug. 26, 2023.?

The dispute over the estate pitted Jessica Brandt against her grandchildren, Alexis and Zachary Hartline, whom Ray Brandt adopted a few months before his death and named as his heirs.?

In the 2019 will confected shortly before his death, Ray Brandt replaced Jessica Brandt as trustee over his estate, instead naming Marc Milano, principal of Archbishop Rummel High School, to assume legal control over its assets through a trust. Under the will, Jessica Brandt receives the income from the estate for the rest of her life, but the Hartlines will inherit its assets in 2030.

The succession devolved into a legal fight that tore apart the family. Milano accused Jessica Brandt of misappropriating estate funds and refusing to place estate assets, including the dealerships, into the trust. Jessica Brandt sued Milano for defamation, and at one point she sought to evict her family from their Old Metairie compound. In the meantime, she bankrolled the legal challenge to Ray Brandt's will, which contained a "no contest" clause.

Battle for control

At the core of the dispute was control over the car dealership empire. But ultimately that decision was not only for Jessica Brandt, her grandchildren, or Milano to decide. Car manufacturers have a big say when transfer of ownership is at issue through their controversial "right of first refusal," which allows them to bring in their preferred owner.

As they tried to resolve the ownership issue, it became clear that the auto group — which includes a lucrative Toyota dealership in Kenner, a Mercedes-Benz in south Mississippi, and a Porsche outlet in Metairie — would have to be broken up in any case.

"We were having to deal with the car manufacturers and they were looking for professional people like Ray to run the dealerships," said one official who had been involved in negotiations but didn't want to be quoted by name because of confidentiality agreements.

"Jessica qualified for some but not for others and Milano didn't qualify for any of them," he said.

Some of the car manufacturers had raised concerns over documents filed by Jessica Brandt shortly after her husband's death, substituting herself as "member" in dealer operating agreements.

Gulf States Toyota, for one, sent several letters to Jessica Brandt, raising concerns and flagging what a Toyota executive described as a failure to provide "critical information and documents" including about the succession. More recently, the Hartlines complained about how the dealerships were being run.?

"Given the current state of the dealerships, we thought it was best to sell," Alexis Hartline said by phone on Monday.

The decision by all the parties last spring to sell the assets came at an opportune time, as the COVID pandemic had boosted car sales and sent the value of dealerships soaring.

Seller's market

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Premiere Automotive founder and owner Troy Duhon sits in a 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Seville that he keeps on display inside his dealership in New Orleans East on Monday, March 25, 2024. (Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

By November, the Brandt estate had struck a deal with Gayle Benson and Troy Duhon's Premier Automotive Group to split the dealerships. Benson would get seven outlets, including the most desirable and expensive ones like Toyota and Mercedes-Benz. Duhon mainly wanted the cluster of shops on the West Bank, some of which held sentimental value for him.

That deal proved to be complicated, however, as five of the carmakers involved chose to exercise their right to bring in their own buyers.

The reasons carmakers choose to do that can vary, from diversifying the ownership of dealerships, to encouraging new investment in their outlets, to rewarding favored owners.

Damian Mills, founder and CEO of Mills Automotive Group

Damian Mills, founder and CEO of Mills Automotive Group. He has edged out Gayle Benson and Troy Duhon from dealerships they planned to buy as part of settlement of Ray Brandt's estate.

Benson lost out on the Toyota dealership to Damian Mills, a Louisiana native who has built the largest Black-owned car dealership network in the country. She threatened to sue when she lost Brandt's Nissan and Infiniti dealerships to rival car mogul Matt Bowers. However, Benson last week withdrew her complaint — the only such complaint Louisiana Motor Vehicle Commission staff can recall ever being lodged.

In a statement on Friday, Benson said she welcomed the new dealerships, which include Volkswagen and Infiniti outlets in south Mississippi and three standalone collision centers. She noted that the additions significantly expand her dealership network from the current three New Orleans outlets — Mercedes-Benz, Chevrolet and Cadillac?— and may be followed by more regional expansion.

The four new dealerships Duhon acquired bring his total network to 40 stores in eight states, making him by far the largest Louisiana-based car dealer.

With the deal behind them and the legal dispute at an end, Jessica Brandt, now 73 and battling cancer herself, said she hopes the sale will mean that she and her grandkids will be able to move on and reconcile.

"My two grandchildren, Zach and Lexie, and I plan to continue to work together on the several philanthropic projects that our family is so passionate about," she said in an emailed statement.

The Hartlines did not comment on future plans.

Email Anthony McAuley tmcauley@theadvocate.com.

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