Business

Lessons in leadership from NASCAR’s winningest team owner

(L-R) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., Linda Hendrick, Rick Hendrick and driver Chase Elliott laugh together prior to the first can-am duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18, 2016. Earnhardt Jr. would win the race ahead of Joey Logano.
(L-R) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., Linda Hendrick, Rick Hendrick and driver Chase Elliott laugh together prior to the first can-am duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18, 2016. Earnhardt Jr. would win the race ahead of Joey Logano. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Rick Hendrick was enrolled in a work-study program at N.C. State University in the late 1960s when he realized that selling cars was what he should be doing for the rest of his life.

As part of a work-study program, Hendrick spent much of his time at an automobile service station, honing the skills he’d acquired as a kid while building, then drag-racing, his own cars.

One day, a man came in with an Opel he wanted to sell, and he wanted $300 for it. Hendrick bought the car even though it needed work.

A professor later came to the station, wanting to buy the car.

“I probably would have taken $500, but he offered me $1,200 for it,” Hendrick said. “So after putting a $50 clutch in it, I thought ‘Well I need to quit working on ’em and start selling ’em.”

The rest is history, Hendrick, 67, told me this week at the Charlotte Chamber’s annual meeting, where he was awarded the group’s highest honor, the Citizen of the Carolinas.

The recognition puts Hendrick into the ranks of Erskine Bowles, Harvey Gantt, Dean Smith, Hugh McColl and Jerry Richardson, among others – all heavy-hitters who have helped shape the Carolinas in some way.

Growing up on the farm, we didn’t know what we didn’t have. But my mom and dad taught us that you had to share, you had to depend on each other in order to survive.

Rick Hendrick, head of the Hendrick Auto Group and Hendrick Motorsports, who received the 2016 Citizen of the Carolinas award from the Charlotte Chamber.

In fact, when he was telling me that story about the Opel Tuesday night, Hendrick was interrupted by Gantt, who made history as Charlotte’s first black mayor. Gantt embraced Hendrick, congratulating him for the award. “You’re the man. Love you, buddy,” Hendrick said.

It was when Gantt was in office that Hendrick was busy building his company, the Hendrick Automotive Group, now the largest privately held dealership in the country.

Hendrick said he remembers being 28 years old and walking into a Charlotte bank in a pin-stripped suit, lying about his age before asking for a loan to buy City Chevrolet in Charlotte, which would become the auto group’s flagship location. “I had to prove myself,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick Automotive Group now employs nearly 11,000 people, about half of whom are in the Carolinas. And in November, Hendrick’s NASCAR team won its 12th championship in Homestead, making him the winningest team owner in history.

Hendrick was raised on a farm outside a small Virginia town, and he cites lessons learned from his parents as the most important he knows in growing a business.

“Growing up on the farm, we didn’t know what we didn’t have. But my mom and dad taught us that you had to share, you had to depend on each other in order to survive,” Hendrick said.

“If your barn burned, you had to get them to help you, or you help them. If you broke a tractor, you borrow a neighbor’s or they borrow yours. We had to depend on each other.”

That ethos has found its way into Hendrick’s charitable work, too, though he credits his daughter, Lynn, for exposing him to some of Charlotte’s neediest communities – such as through the Together We Feed effort for children.

Hendrick also said he’s proud of work-training initiatives his team has started, for example working with area schools to bring kids to dealerships to show them the careers they can explore. Hendrick named the Joe Hendrick Automotive Technology School at CPCC, which trains technicians, after his father.

“I’m so proud of the things Charlotte has accomplished. We’ve got a lot to do, but we’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Hendrick said.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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