Dart Group embroiled in family feud Herbert Haft seeks to oust his son

June 08, 1993|By New York Times News Service

The feud among members of the Haft family over the control of their holdings in the Dart Group could well be a plot for the kinds of books Robert M. Haft promotes in television and newspapers advertisements for Crown Books, one of Dart's companies.

Mr. Haft, 40, founded the Crown Books chain in 1977 and made it the nation's third-largest bookseller after Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble, with reported sales of about $241 million. He was expected soon to succeed his 72-year-old father, Herbert H. Haft, as chairman and chief executive of the Dart Group.

Now, that may not happen. Upset by comments the younger Mr. Haft made in a recent newspaper article, the elder Mr. Haft no longer appears ready to turn over the company to his son.

In fact, Robert Haft could be ousted from his position as chairman of Crown Books if his father gets his way. In addition, Robert Haft could also be forced out as a director of the Dart Group and another of its holdings, Trak Auto, which he co-founded with his father in 1979.

The feud turned public yesterday when Dart, based in Landover, announced steps to change the composition of its board as well as that of Crown Books. Separately, Trak Auto, a $315 million discount retailer of auto parts and accessories in the do-it-yourself market, yesterday filed proxy material concerning a board shake-up.

In each case, the boardroom make over leaves Herbert Haft as chairman. His wife, Gloria, Robert Haft and directors thought to be loyal to the son would be removed. Replacing them would be friends and business associates with close ties to the elder Mr. Haft.

Officials of the Dart Group and its subsidiaries would not comment.

The dispute centers on the direction of the Dart Group, which fell on hard times because of the recession and competition for its two big discount operations -- books and auto parts. The feud began to fester after an article in the Wall Street Journal in April said Robert Haft was the Dart Group's "de facto chief executive for the last two years."

The article also said that Herbert Haft, a native of Ukraine, spends much of his time in the former Soviet Union and advises Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on ways to distribute food. The article said that the elder Mr. Haft runs the company with a tight rein and shuns publicity.

Robert Haft is more flamboyant, even serving as the pitchman for Crown Books in advertisements. In another striking difference, he said in the newspaper article that he was willing to "let people make mistakes" while he began plans to double the Dart Group's earnings to about $15 million over the next four years. Now those who side with the younger Mr. Haft wonder if his mistake was that he had spoken too soon.

Among the other directors, Claudine M. Malone, an incumbent outside director of Crown Books and Dart Group, Charles M. Farkas, a director of Dart, and James G. Leonard, a director of Crown, have opted not to seek re-election, Dart said.

The company said the outside directors decided not to stand for re-election because of "a lack of agreement between them and the majority stockholders over the future direction and management of Dart Group and Crown Books."

At Trak Auto, Ms. Malone and Mr. Leonard opted not to seek re-election, according to the proxy material. The directors not seeking re-election all favor Robert Haft, a person with knowledge of the company said.

Unless the Hafts make up, Herbert Haft is likely to get his way.

"He controls 57 percent of the voting stock of Dart Group," the source said. "Much of the rest is owned by the family, but there's nothing they can do."

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