Perhaps nobody knows more about resilience than Rick Hendrick.
He’s one of the most successful NASCAR team owners in history, recently celebrating his 200th win. He’s the chairman of the second-largest privately owned auto dealership chain in the nation, Hendrick Automotive Group. He has a private collection of about 300 high-end and one-of-a-kind cars. He’s pals with movie star Tom Cruise, whom he met while racing for fun with another friend, the late Paul Newman.
But he has also weathered more setbacks and tragedy than most. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996. Shortly after that, he was embroiled in a bribery scandal involving American Honda Motor Company, pleading guilty in 1997 to a count of mail fraud (and later receiving a full pardon from President Bill Clinton). In 2004 he lost his son, Ricky Hendrick, along with his brother, two nieces and other close friends in a plane crash that killed 10. In October 2011, he and his wife were injured in another plane crash.
Now, though, he’s recovered, his disease in full remission since 1999, and his business is on the upswing following the 2008 economic downturn – he recently opened Hendrick Luxury Auto Mall at Northlake, a 50-acre, $55 million complex housing BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz dealerships that was 13 years in the making. As he prepared to celebrate his 63rd birthday this month, he recently agreed to sit down for an exclusive conversation with SouthPark and reflect on his lessons learned and his secrets to success.
His first piece of advice to young would-be entrepreneurs: “Pick something you love and enjoy and don’t worry about the money – the money will come,” he says in a soft-spoken, folksy Southern accent. “I just say, follow your dreams in life, and you’ll enjoy it. The money’s not as important as being happy.”
Throwing to the End Zone
Born in 1949 and raised in a small Virginia town, Joseph Riddick “Rick” Hendrick III attributes his earliest lessons about hard work to his father’s farm. “My dad raced on the weekends. Back in those days, it was girls and cars, and that was kind of the only thing around. I played all three sports in high school (football, baseball and basketball), but I always had this love affair with automobiles.”
Henrick’s favorite was the Corvette – he now has about 150 in his collection, many of them one-of-a-kind models – but anything fast would do. By age 14 he was setting speed records at a local drag strip in a self-built 1931 Chevrolet. Though he had an opportunity to pursue pro baseball, he chose a co-op work-study program with North Carolina State University and Westinghouse Electric Company in Raleigh. For his part-time job to make ends meet, he worked in a service station near campus. “A lot of the kids were working at Hardee’s or other burger joints; I was tuning up cars,” he recalls.
But soon, Hendrick realized his heart wasn’t in the path to become an engineer for Westinghouse. “That was going to be getting up going to work every day waiting until 5 p.m. I remember calling my mother and telling her I was going to finish school and go work for a car dealer. She said, ‘You’re going to be a used-car salesman?’”
But Hendrick had his sights set on a lot more than that. He went from co-owning a used car lot to soon becoming the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the U.S., opening a dealership in Bennettsville, S.C., at age 26.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, his love of speed led him to start a drag-boat racing team. It won three consecutive national championships, but he soon transitioned back to auto racing. By 1984, he founded All-Star Racing with five employees and 5,000 square feet of workspace. Now it’s Hendrick Motorsports, based in Concord, with 500 employees and nearly half a million square feet of workspace.
On the car-sales side, Hendrick Automotive Group now has more than 7,000 employees across 12 states, with $4.9 billion in 2011 sales after selling 120,000 vehicles (he says he’s on track to sell 150,000 vehicles this year).
Hendrick pauses when asked to reflect on what he’s learned as a businessman. “When you’re young and you’re full of energy and you’ve had a lot of success, sometimes you think you can tackle anything and you’ll be able to succeed. I call it: I used to throw to the end zone every time I got the ball,” he says.
“In 1986, we had had some unbelievably good years in the car business, and then in 1987 was a stock market crash. Right behind that came the Gulf War. You escape that, and older people try to tell you this, ‘Son, tough days are going to come and you need to have a little put away and you don’t need to bet the farm every day.’ After you go through a couple of those, you become a little bit more conservative, and you try to pick and choose. You don’t just tackle anything, you be more selective. You surround yourself with great people. You want people who are smarter than you are, and that’s not tough for me to do,” he chuckles. “A lot of people are a lot smarter than I am.”
Some might beg to differ with that, looking at Hendrick’s current success. “There are times in your life when it’s brutal, when the economy’s in the ditch, so I’ve lived close to the edge a couple of times almost being broke,” he says. “But I’ve been able to do some phenomenal things.”
Family Keeps Him Going
After losing his son, Hendrick thought about how he wanted to honor Ricky, who had enjoyed success as a race car driver. He became inspired when looking at his son’s former racing trailer, which his team had refurbished to present to him.
It became the beginning of a facility he calls the Heritage Center on the grounds of Hendrick’s racing headquarters in Concord. It’s not open to the public, but he holds special events and charity fundraisers inside (and musician Brad Paisley shot a music video there). “(It’s) telling my life story around cars,” he says with a smile. “I’m doing this to pay tribute to my family.”
Inside are miniature versions of most of the significant places in Hendrick’s life: “The service station I met my wife in 39 years ago, I’ve got City Chevrolet which is my first dealership here in Charlotte, and I’ve got the drag strip I used to race on. I’ve got my granddad’s general store where I built my first car,” he says.
And some of his car collection is there, but visitors can also see a few choice selections in the showrooms at the new Northlake auto mall, with placards inside their windshields explaining their significance. (He also has a conference table at his motorsports complex made out of the engine and drive shaft of a Corvette.)
Hendrick has made his mark outside the walls of his racing headquarters and car dealerships. His philanthropy has been felt throughout the Charlotte community. In 1997 he started the Hendrick Marrow Program, a nonprofit that partners with the Be The Match Foundation to support the National Marrow Donor Program. He supports the Hendrick Foundation for Children, started by his late brother, which put $3 million toward the Levine Children’s Hospital. He gave $1 million toward the construction of the Joe Hendrick Center for Automotive Technology at Central Piedmont Community College. And when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools threatened to cancel middle-school sports due to a budget shortfall, Hendrick inked a sponsorship deal, writing a $250,000 check that kept the program alive.
“I grew up in a real small area, in a rural town, and everybody helped everybody. If you lost your crop with a hailstorm or whatever, your neighbors will come help you,” he says. “I saw that work in my life growing up, and I believe you should give back, and doing it in the market and the town you’re in sure makes a lot of sense.”
These days, Hendrick is so busy that he sometimes needs to travel by helicopter to make it to all of his appointments. In between those, he makes time for his family (his late son’s former fiancée, Emily Maynard, and his granddaughter Ricki are currently being featured on the hit ABC show “The Bachelorette.”)
“I started both of these companies, and they both have grown together, and now that I’m getting older, it’s harder, they’re bigger, and I’m older,” he says. “Saturday I had three soccer games with three grandchildren, 8:30, 9:30 and 11:30. And then (a carnival) at (Charlotte Country Day) in the afternoon. And then I got on a plane Sunday morning and went to Kansas for a race. And then this morning I got up at 6:30 a.m. to take my granddaughter to school before I had a video shoot for motorsports. It’s not as easy. I have a lot of energy drinks in the morning these days,” he says with a laugh.
A lot of people would understand if he had given up by now – stepped down to take it easy after weathering all he has endured. But he says it’s the people he works with who have kept him going.
“After the crash, I didn’t know if I could go back to motorsports. Two weeks after the accident, my daughter and wife, we all went, and I walked into that room and there were these 500 people that count on me and they were family too,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going. The key is, we look out for each other. It’s like day to day these people have become our family and extended family and you get back up and go again.
“I never doubt that, and wouldn’t walk away from it.”
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Favorite hangouts: Steak & Shake, Park Road Café (“they have great vegetables”) and Dairy Queen (“My favorite deal there is they make a Peanut Butter Bash, vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and liquid peanut butter, and we get them to put a little bit of banana in it. Gotta be 2,000 calories.”)
Last movie enjoyed: “I thought the last ‘Mission: Impossible’ was the best one.”
Thoughts on Charlotte’s growth: “I feel really good about the market. Charlotte has diversified. I see these new companies coming in all the time. I love the area, I like warm weather. If there’s anything I’ve been disappointed in in Charlotte, it’s the road system. I just think we’re way behind. ... If the state couldn’t do it, we should have put in toll roads a while back.”
Favorite quote: “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.” - Winston Churchill. (“He just had tremendous strength, and a sense of duty and love of country. He was so clever in things he said. Some of his off-the-cuff statements were hilarious. I would have loved to have met him.”)
Favorite hobby: “I like to fish. When I’m on the ocean or the water, that’s a peace I really enjoy.” (Biggest catch: a 600-pound blue marlin.)