Kevin Harvick steps out of his motor coach in the infield of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, baseball cap pulled low, sunglasses covering his eyes. He stops and stands expressionless behind Ryan Berry, his PR rep.
I introduce myself. He nods, pitching his voice to offset the roar of forty NASCAR Xfinity Series cars circling the track. "Kevin Harvick," he says.
"I know," I say.
He smiles faintly. Surely there are many places he would like to be, but right here, right now is unlikely to be one of them.
I ask Ryan if there is somewhere quieter we can talk. He and Kevin exchange a glance.
"Let's go inside," Kevin says, gesturing to his motor coach.
I'm not a beat writer (the interview was granted as a favor by NASCAR) so I get the sense he assumes I'll ask about why he re-signed with Stewart-Haas Racing despite rumors he would leave for another team. His current team switches from Chevy to Ford next year, and Harvick has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with General Motors.
Instead I say, "From the outside looking in, your business ventures outside of racing almost look like accidents -- they're not things you planned but are opportunities you saw and thought, 'Why not?'"
Before I've finished speaking he's smiled and leaned forward. In a second he's gone from professional and courteous to engaged and animated and genuinely "on."
Sure, he's the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Sure, he leads this year's point standings. Sure, he's a good bet to someday be voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But while racing is clearly his passion, seizing business opportunities may just be his favorite subject.
So is your approach just to wait for an opportunity and say, "Why not?"
That's really how we've done business from the start.
When I took over the 3 car in 2001 (after Dale Earnhardt's death, Harvick was chosen to replace him), that gave me the opportunity to build a stronger relationship with General Motors. Then, in 2004 Toyota announced they were coming to the Truck Series. We were running trucks, GM wanted to compete head-on with Toyota, they brought us a major sponsor, GM Goodwrench... and that's what really started our racing business.
Then in 2005 Tony Stewart decided he wanted to run in what is now called the Xfinity Series, so we decided we would build a team, and that started our whole Xfinity program.
That's really how we've done business. We just try to keep a good feel for what's going on in and out of the garage area, network with people, and capitalize on opportunities.
So how how has that led to opportunities outside of racing?
Tapout, the fitness gear company, was going around the country looking for new fighters. They stopped to watch a race and I started talking with Donald ("Cowboy") Cerrone. We became friends, he saw how we worked, and one day he said, "Hey, would you be interested in running my day-to-day stuff like you run your own?"
We weren't looking to start a new business, but we liked the idea of developing a niche that didn't require employing 130 to 140 people like we had in our Truck and Xfinity programs.
That led to relationships with people like Miesha Tate (current UFC Women's Bantamweight champion) Jason Gore (PGA golfer), Rose Namajunas (currently ranked #3 in the UFC's Strawweight division), and Jake Owen (county music singer/songwriter.)
It's really just an extension of what we already do. We work hard on scheduling, planning, finding opportunities for the people we work with... it's all about getting to know the right people and being in the right places and growing our network so that everyone benefits.
That's a eclectic mix of people; doesn't that make your job harder?
Actually, no. The diversity is actually an advantage because we can provide a wide range of opportunities for sponsors and sponsorships.
Let's use E-Z-GO Bad Boy Buggies as an example. They have a deal with Miesha, with Donald, with me, they do things with Jake... there are a variety of ways they can extend their brand and entertain their customers.
Some people love NASCAR. Others love UFC. Others love golf. Others love country music. Put them all together and it's a great way for sponsors to pick and choose from our family of opportunities.
We look at it as a family too, because we're all assets for each other. If we can't quite close a deal for, say, a UFC sponsorship, we can offer a meet-and-greet at a NASCAR race, or a meet-and-greet at a country music concert... all our assets can add up to make a deal work for everyone.
Of course that means we need to work with people who are willing to pitch in and help each other out. Maybe Jake can make a difference for Miesha, or Rose for Jason...
We've become even diverse now that we've added Jeff Burton, Shannon Spake, Matt Stillwell... but we also try to take it slow. We always under-promise and over-deliver. We're in a results business and we have to make sure we always deliver for everyone involved.
That's a counterintuitive approach; a lot of people would focus exclusively on country music, or racing, or UFC. But it's smart because very few people are only interested in one thing. Even the most passionate fan has multiple interests.
When you look at how the sports world is changing, you have to figure out how to become different than everyone else. If you follow the same path as everyone else you're just going to be like everyone else.
We didn't figure all this that out, though, until we got involved with Donald. That's when we started to see broader opportunities, and how a collection of individuals could benefit from the power of a group.
Does it help that you've been on the other side of this for a long time?
Absolutely. One thing we did really well as a Truck team and an Xfinity team was sell sponsorships, entertain our sponsors, and make them happy with the return on their investment.
That's the same approach we take with everyone we have now, both on the client side and the sponsor side. We're really good at making it work for everyone.
Plus, from the athlete or entertainer standpoint our goal is to empower them to do what they do and not have to worry about what we do. Once they gain that trust in us, it all just flows. It may take some time to get things flowing and functioning really smoothly, but once they have confidence in what we do they can be laser-focused on what time they train... and not on whether their next check will arrive.
Say you're trying to close a deal. What is your biggest strength?
My strength is listening to what's on the table, understanding the opportunity, assessing the value, and figuring out what all parties really want. We don't have to do things a certain way because that's how we've always done it; when we know what people want we can almost always find different ways to provide value.
We're also really competitive. We don't ever want to lose a deal. So we treat a $5,000 sponsor like a $5 million sponsor, both because it's the right thing to do and because we've grown a lot of our sponsors from thousands to millions. It's all comes down to return on investment... but it's also about proving to people that you look out for them.
That's also our strength as a company: to put together unique programs that aren't necessarily "this is what you get, take it or leave it." We're really good at looking what sponsors need and finding ways to make it work for them.
You and your wife Delana have been married for 15 years, and she plays a major role in your businesses. How has your family and business life changed over the years?
It's actually easier now than it was years ago because we have a much better idea of how to balance our time. We've surrounded ourselves with people we really trust. When we bring someone else in, we make sure they plug right in.
I'm much happier at work on the weekends than I was years ago, too. My main job flows better with what we do at KHI Management. The early years helped put all these pieces together: we learned a lot about how to make the right decisions, how to develop the right systems, and how to make all the pieces of our life work.
Early on you had a huge opportunity but also a huge challenge.
My career is totally backwards. Instead of slowing growing up in the sport, I came in and took over for Dale and instantly had all these people, sponsorships, money, appearances... all these responsibilities I had no clue how to handle.
And you had the on-track pressure of stepping into a legend's car.
There were some not so good moments in those first four or five years from a business standpoint, from a personal standpoint, in how I handled things... but those moments helped mold Delana and I. We started the race team and that didn't go so well at the beginning but it was doing very well when we sold it.
Those early struggles made us into what we are today. The biggest thing I learned is to give people enough rope to let them do what they do well, but at the same time to keep a good pulse on what's going on. That's the biggest difference between then and now: we don't try to be in the middle of everything.
Together you and your wife are a business, and that creates an interesting dynamic: If you see an opportunity and say, "Hey, maybe we should get involved..." you're implicitly saying, "I may see less of you because you'll have more to do."
Basically everything has to fit into our puzzle. For the most part everything gets planned around our son Keelan and car pools, dropping him off, picking him up.... In the morning you take care of yourself physically, in the afternoon it's business -- the key is constant communication.
One thing I can't stand is when people -- not our team, but other people -- don't respond. Everybody can email, everybody can text... using an email auto response is not the world we live in.
Making everything revolve around your family life sounds good, but I'm sure there are challenges.
Miesha is a great example of that. She called, and honestly we were not looking to take on anyone or anything new. But it was too good an opportunity to pass up and we decided we would make it happen.
So you get it organized, you work through the initial period, you suffer some personal consequences over the short term... but now it all flows.
After we added Rose, and with everyone else growing, we realized we had to add a person. It took six or eight months to find the person we all felt would fit in. That's another big difference from how we operated early on. We'll jump into things but we're not going to over-staff or over-promise. We see how something new works, we see how it fits into what we already do... and then we decide if we need to expand.
If you look back to where we were when we sold the race teams, even with all we're doing now and all the clients we've added, we're only two people heavier. We work better when it feels like we have too few people than when we have too many.
Are your business ventures intended to set you up for life after racing, or is it more just for fun?
What we do is definitely fun, but it's also really important. We're dealing with people's lives and careers so we want to do it right. We have to do it right.
In the process we've helped everyone that is a part of our system get better, and they've helped us get better too... and if we build it big enough it could grow into something that could sustain itself for a long time, if that's what we choose to do.
If we add a couple of drivers to the mix that would be great because we could stay in this (racing) arena and yet still have that same diverse group of athletes and performers that are appealing to sponsors in a way that is different than anyone in our sport has approached it before.
So yeah, it is fun. But what's most fun is seeing success at the and of the tunnel for all of our folks. That's the best part.