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June 2010
Dual Passions
By Ellison Clary

     With 60 stores and 80 franchises, he’s chairman of Hendrick Automotive Group, the nation’s second largest string of privately held car dealerships which sold almost 100,000 vehicles and serviced 1.5 million in 2009, generating more than $3.5 billion in revenue.

     His racing team is the only one to win four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, and it’s turned the trick twice. Since 1984, Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won 191 races, and it’s pointing to 200 this season.

     “I’m the luckiest person around,” Rick Hendrick is quick to admit.

     “I get to make a living doing the two things in life I enjoy the most outside of my family,” he explains.   “That’s racing and the car business. I love them both equally.”

     For singular success in dual fields, Hendrick credits people.

     “The key is people and the commitment to work together,” says the 60-year-old leader. He’s in a conference room at his flagship dealer, City Chevrolet, on Independence Boulevard. “It’s all about having folks who are talented, who believe in the same things and are willing to work together.”

     Those who’ve known and admired Hendrick validate that thought.

     “He is the ultimate people person,” says Humpy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway and now chair of the Wheeler Company headquartered on East Morehead Street.

     “He knows how to get people together with a common goal. He’s a wonderful leader,” adds the author of the new book, Growing Up NASCAR.

     Sports marketing pioneer Max Muhleman agrees. After creating Muhleman Marketing, he was instrumental in getting Hendrick into NASCAR.

     “Rick’s a real golden-ruler,” observes Muhleman, principal of Charlotte-based Private Sports Consulting.  “He practices treating other people like he’d want to be treated.

     “He’s always treated his employees like family,” Muhleman adds. “They take out billboards on his birthday and call him things like ‘greatest boss in the world.’”

     That touches on another reason for Hendrick’s success.

     “A lot of people say the number one thing in business is customer satisfaction, and I think it’s number two,” Hendrick explains. “To us, it’s employee satisfaction. Unless you’ve got happy employees, they’re not going to treat people right. They’re going to treat people like you treat them.”

 

Getting in Gear

     In life, in business and in racing, Hendrick rose from humble beginnings.

     Born in the northeastern North Carolina town of Warrenton, he grew up on a tobacco farm near South Hill, Va. His dad, “Papa Joe,” taught him to fix farm equipment while instilling the value of hard work as well as a pure passion for the automobile.

     At 14, Hendrick set local drag strip records with a 1931 Chevrolet he’d nursed into racing shape. He had a chance at professional baseball, but chose a Westinghouse vocational program at North Carolina State University.

     “I finished up a Class B tool and die maker,” Hendrick says, but he entered the automobile business with well-known Raleigh dealer Mike Leith. Pretty soon, he was selling enough used cars to attract the attention of General Motors’ Chevrolet Division. The brass wanted him to take over a struggling dealership in Bennettsville,  S.C.

     That was 1976, but Hendrick still shakes his head. “It didn’t even have a showroom,” he remembers. “They were selling 200 cars a year. At Leith, we were selling 300 cars a month. I sold 1,000 cars my first year down there.”

     Early on, a Bennettsville businessman visited with a proposition: Put a new clutch in his delivery truck overnight and he’d buy his fleet vehicles from Hendrick.

     Hendrick drove to Laurinburg to pick up the proper parts, and then installed it himself. “I sold the guy trucks the rest of the time,” he smiles.

     If Hendrick did well in Bennettsville, the Chevrolet people promised, they’d find him better opportunities. So when Charlotte’s coveted City Chevrolet came up for sale in 1977, Hendrick bought it and it became his second dealership.

     Currently, Hendrick owns five of the top Chevy stores in the southeast, with leader City Chevrolet celebrating 75 years.

     “We’re going to have a big luncheon and a lot of factory people are going to come in,” Hendrick says.  “We’re going to tie the anniversary into our advertising. For any kind of business, 75 years is phenomenal.”

     Overall, Hendrick’s chain is split almost evenly between domestics and imports. Though he sells lots of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Honda products, he likes the future for General Motors and Chrysler.

     A key to Hendrick’s steady growth has been an emphasis on service. While the industry benchmark for expenses covered by parts and service is 52 percent, in the Hendrick chain it’s 83 percent.

     “We don’t care where you bought the car, we want to work on it,” he says. “If we do our job right, you will end up being our customer.”

     Though the recession has wrought as rough a business climate as he’s seen, Hendrick hasn’t closed any dealerships. Helping significantly was Hendrick’s $40 million investment in 5,000 used vehicles which sold like wildfire in early 2009.

 

Entering the Race

     Meanwhile, he’s almost completed a heritage center at Hendrick Motorsports near Charlotte Motor Speedway. It includes many of the 180 cars he and his dad accumulated before Papa Joe’s death in 2004. But it also has a replica of his granddad’s general store where he built his first racer. And there’s a miniature City Chevrolet and a scale model speed shop and tractor company like the one his dad worked in.

     Between the Hendrick Automotive Group headquarters on Monroe Road and the motor sports complex, Hendrick wheels a shiny black Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.

     “It’s got a lot of room,” he says. “I never know what I’ve got to carry with me. It’s smooth. It’s a comfortable car on the road.”

     Hendrick Motorsports is on more than 100 acres. “We’ve grown from 5,000 square feet to 600,000 square feet and from five people to 550 people,” Hendrick says proudly. He doesn’t disclose revenue, but says about 70 percent comes from sponsors, the rest from driver winnings.

     Hendrick, his dad and some others raced speedboats early on and the Hendrick team won three national championships and set a world speed record with a craft called “Nitro Fever.”

     But the lure of auto racing was strong and, in 1983, Hendrick partnered with Robert Gee on a car that Gee’s son-in-law Dale Earnhardt drove to victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

     Soon after, Muhleman got Hendrick interested in partnering with country music star Kenny Rogers and NASCAR king Richard Petty in a stock car venture. The deal fell apart, leaving Hendrick and crew chief Harry  Hyde with a fast Chevy and a team called “All Star Racing.”

     After seven races in 1984, they were not only winless but sponsorless. They were thinking of packing it in. Then, with driver Geoff Bodine, they won in Martinsville, found financial support and ended the season with three victories.

     Now Hendrick Motorsports has four superstar drivers in Jimmie Johnson, among the fastest to reach 50 wins; Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who long have split avid NASCAR fans as favorites; and Mark  Martin, who continues to win in his 50s.

     Though NASCAR remains hugely popular, the recession has cut into revenues. Still, Hendrick thinks those who run the sport and others on the periphery are doing what it takes to survive and thrive.

     “Everybody has had to tighten their belt,” he says. “Speedways have gotten cheap tickets now and hotels have said, ‘Okay, we’ve got rooms. We’ll deal.’”

     Female driver Danica Patrick has fueled more interest and NASCAR czar Brian France has presided over fan-friendly rules changes, such as making it less likely a race ends under a caution flag.

     “From the standpoint of owners, drivers and NASCAR communicating and trying to work together for the good of the sport, it’s the best it’s ever been,” Hendrick says.

     He gushes about financial prospects for the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in center city Charlotte. “This Hall of Fame is giving us a chance to host events and showcase the city,” he says. “Huge events will be happening there.”

 

Building a Legacy

     As his mentors, Hendrick cites “Papa Joe” and his mother Mary. His dad taught him to take care of people and how to work on cars. His mother, a long-time bank teller, showed him the value of borrowing money.

     Long ago, Hendrick passed on a chance to own a race track. “You can only do so many things right,” he says as he points to the empire that friend and fellow Charlottean Bruton Smith built with Speedway Motorsports and its multiple tracks.

     Hendrick does own the Mercedes dealership next door to City Chevrolet, a jewel that Smith also tried to buy when the late Skipper Beck put it up for sale. Smith’s auto dealership chain is a public corporation and much larger than Hendrick’s.

     “We compete,” Hendrick says of Smith, “but it’s a friendly competition. I have a lot of respect for Bruton. We’re good friends.”

     Beck died in a plane crash. An earlier crash took the lives of Hendrick’s son Ricky, brother John, nieces Jennifer and Kimberly and six others during a 2004 flight to a race in Martinsville.

     It’s not the only major adversity Hendrick has faced. In 1996, he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. In 1997, he pleaded guilty to charges involving gifts to American Honda Motor Company executives.

     The leukemia has been in full remission since December 1999. Hendrick served a mail fraud sentence, then received a full pardon from President Bill Clinton. Later, Gov. Jim Hunt recognized him with The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.

     But the pain of losing loved ones continues. To this day, Hendrick team members swivel their caps backward when they win a race, in honor of Ricky Hendrick and the other crash victims.

     Further, Hendrick champions the Hendrick Foundation for Children established by brother John. That entity committed $3 million to help build the Levine Children’s Hospital.

     After his father died, the Hendrick Automotive Group donated $1 million toward construction of the Joe Hendrick Center for Automotive Technology at Central Piedmont Community College.

     Wheeler marvels at Hendrick’s reaction to his challenges. “So many people retreat and withdraw into a shell when things like that happen,” Wheeler observes. “He reaches out and goes to people. I think that’s what gets him through it.”

     That seems to describe Hendrick’s personal formula.

     “There’s got to be a reason to go forward,” Hendrick says. “For me, it’s your faith, your family and your friends.

     “I battled leukemia and didn’t think I’d be here,” he muses. “You just get up every day and brush yourself off.”

     He gestures to the City Chevrolet showroom. “It’s all about these people,” he says. “I walked in here this morning and people were coming up and hugging, and you’re like family.

     “So it’s the people. We’ve done this together. We’ve built these two companies together.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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