I was sitting in a conference room outside Charlotte, North Carolina, with Richie Parker, a Hendrick Motorsports chassis and body designer (and an incredibly inspirational guy featured in an Emmy-winning short by ESPN).

I said, "People who succeed in this business thrive on competition. How do you balance the inherent competitiveness incredibly talented individuals bring to their jobs with the need to be a  cohesive team?"

Richie smiled. "That's why we focus so much on communication and working together. Like Mr. Hendrick always says to us, 'When we work together, no one can tear us apart from the outside. The only way we can fail is if we don't work together."'

"That sounds familiar," I thought, and then I realized: "Wait. Rick Hendrick said that to me, too." 

Every leader tries to inspire his or her employees, but often their words are just platitudes--however wise and well intentioned, they make no impact at all on employees. Occasionally (unfortunately, all too occasionally), a leader's words become more than platitudes.

They become words that truly guide how you run--and grow--a business.

If you aren't familiar, Rick Hendrick heads Hendrick Motorsports, which has won the most Nascar championships and leads all modern owners in series wins. He is also the founder of Hendrick Automotive Group, the largest privately held dealership group in the country, with more than 130 retail franchises and 10,000 employees; in 2015, they sold 200,000 vehicles, serviced more than 2.5 million cars and trucks, and generated $8.4 billion in revenue.

But while the "what" is certainly interesting, like you I wanted to learn a lot more about "how." The following is an exclusive interview with Rick Hendrick.

With businesses this size, there's no way you can know every detail. What tools do you use to keep your finger on the pulse of all your operations?

The business is pretty complicated. Sometimes I think I'm just a fireman and my job is to put out fires.

But overall, I look at key moments during the month so I can monitor what's happening with racing and the dealerships. I get a document every day on my phone so I can look at units sold, service data, where we stand on different projects ... for years I never used a computer. I always used legal pads. Now I have two phones and can work one with each hand. 

On the racing side, I usually try to go to the races on Sundays. On Tuesdays, we have a debriefing and crew chief or driver meetings, and I'm either there in person or I call in. Then I have a master to-do list with things I want to check on and decisions I have to make. 

But you're right. I can't know everything, so I've found ways to keep my finger on the pulse of what's going on in both companies.

Do you try to maintain a certain structure or workflow every day?

I used to, but I finally learned that every day is always different. Sometimes I'm involved in planning new facilities, or acquiring a dealership, or working with car manufacturers ... I get booked up and I do have a schedule, but there are always the "911 calls" that throw my schedule off.

The key for me is to be willing to be super flexible so I can serve our employees. It's not their job to serve me. It's my job to serve them. 

We have some awfully good people at both companies. They're good at what they do, and they know if they need me, they can call and I'll be there, in person or on the phone. So it's my job to be really flexible so I can be there for them. 

How do you decide where to allocate your time?

It's actually pretty easy: If there are two different things I need to be doing, I pick the one that is the most important. It all comes down to what you need to do, not what you might want to do.

Like when we found out that Dale wasn't able to drive. (Dale Earnhardt Jr. has missed the past two races due to concussion-like symptoms.) That was really important. We needed to talk to Jeff (Gordon, who is driving the 88 car in Dale's place), we needed to talk to our sponsors ... we needed to do a lot of things. So we did.

I hope I'm not giving you the impression that I try to micromanage, though. I'm very fortunate that we have such good people and I can stay at a pretty high level. Like with the dealerships: They know that on the first Monday after the end of each month, I'll be on videoconference calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., talking to every general manager, every dealership, going through their month. That lets me see how they're doing and lets them ask me questions. Sometimes I want them to help me with something, and sometimes I need their help. 

I like to do those sessions by video because a personal relationship is really important. Seeing people's faces is a lot more important than just looking at a bunch of numbers. I like body language. I like for people to see me, and for me to see them. I like to congratulate people who had a good month, and show that I want to help the people who had a problem.

I've been on the receiving end of "problem" conference calls, and it wasn't much fun.

No, but there is a right way to approach it. I really do believe in servant leadership. I believe you turn the pyramid upside down.

That's why I feel like my job is just to help people. When you surround yourself with great folks, all you have to do is plug in and pitch in.

We're a lot stronger as a group than we are as individuals. When you're in two very competitive businesses like we are, that means people are always trying to beat you. But when we work together, no one can tear us apart from the outside. The only way we can fail is if we don't work together. Together we sometimes win, together we sometimes lose ... but we always do it together.

The destination is important, but the journey is too. How did you go from working on your family's farm to becoming the youngest Chevy dealer in the U.S. to where you are now?

I did grow up on a farm. My dad raced on the weekends. I was a gearhead and didn't want to work on the farm, but he taught me how to work on cars and tractors and I took mechanics in high school ... I love cars and love racing, and when you're able to make a living doing the things you enjoy the most outside of your family, you're a blessed person.

I was working in a service station and met a car dealer named Mike Leith. I went to work with him, and then when I was 26 I got recruited by GM and sold everything I owned and moved to Bennettsville, South Carolina. It was a big risk. I was running a store with 30 salespeople and we were selling 200 to 300 cars a month ... and I went to a store with five employees that was lucky to sell 200 cars a year. It was a big risk, but I just figured if I worked as hard as I could we wouldn't fail.

I had the choice to sink or swim, and I decided to swim really, really hard. 

I also have to give Chevrolet a lot of credit. They said if I could turn the Bennettsville dealership around they would see that I got a better opportunity. I had no idea that 18 months, three days, and 36 minutes later I would get a call offering me one of the biggest dealerships in the Carolinas.

So I definitely was in the right place at the right time, and I was willing to take a chance, but I worked hard because I enjoyed it. 

I tell people all the time: Don't go into a profession because someone else wants you to do it. If there's something you love to do, do it. Don't be miserable all day. Being happy is more important than money.

You don't grow a business to the level of yours without looking ahead. Where do you see the car business going?

Electric cars, hydrogen cars ... we need to keep increasing fuel mileage, and the manufacturers are working really hard on that. I'm really confident we'll see some amazing things in the future.

I'm not as confident about self-driving cars. For one thing, I don't know how you get them insured.

I am all in favor of mass transportation, but I think there will always be cars. Cars get you to work. Cars get you to the places you enjoy. Cars are freedom.

As for the business of selling cars, some of the structure has changed, but the secret sauce is still parts and service. If you take care of people, you can build a big customer base and they will come back.

During the financial system meltdown, there was never a month we lost money. We came out the other side and grew. When you take care of people, you can survive a downturn and you'll have the resources to take advantage of opportunities to build an even better business.

He's absolutely right. I have really been blessed and I believe giving back is not just something we want to do but something we need to do.

I had leukemia 20 years ago and recovered, and for the past 20 years I've been raising money for people that need transplants. My daughter opened my eyes to the problem we have with so many hungry and homeless children right here in Charlotte. We've adopted 11 schools, we donated thousands of jackets and sweatshirts and T-shirts to kids that need them.... in some of our local schools a big percentage of the kids are homeless and living in shelters.  

If you see a child who's hungry and struggling, or parents who can't afford to pay for their child's medical needs ... if we can help them, then it's the right thing to do.

Plus, it just feels good to do good.

And I just love to see people get opportunities. I love to watch people who believe in our company grow and take over a dealership and become a leader. I'm proud of them.

Say I run into you at an airport and I ask you for quick advice about building a business. What would you say?

You can't get very far just on your own. Find great people and do things together, because together you are all stronger than you are apart. And you'll have a lot more fun.

Then, never forget that when you take care of your people they will take care of you. And if your employees don't think the company cares about them, they will not care about your company. Why should they? Caring always starts with you.

I say those things all the time because I truly believe them. You asked about my journey, and that's what got me to where we are together.

No matter what business you think you're in, the bottom line is you're in the people business. You have to show people you care about them.

You have to treat people right.  

 

Published on: Aug 2, 2016
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