RED MCCOMBS OFFERS ADVICE FROM A CAREER SPANNING DECADES AND INDUSTRIES
By Dacia Rivers
Photography by Jonathan Garza
B.J. “Red” McCombs will never retire. At 89 years old, he still wakes up early every morning and heads to work before many of us have even rolled out of bed. His San Antonio office is a museum. Antique artifacts dating back centuries line the hallways in the building, and they’re just the beginning. In his upstairs suite, the legendary Texas businessman handles his day-to-day affairs surrounded by physical representations of his many business memories. Signed game balls. Trophies. Handmade silver saddles. Longhorn statues.
On one wall hangs a picture of a 25-year-old McCombs, standing next to the first Ford Edsel sold in Corpus Christi. The photo was taken in 1957 at his own dealership, which was one of the few profitable Edsel dealerships in the country, outselling those in much bigger cities such as Dallas and Houston.
Since then, McCombs has operated dozens of companies. From his humble beginnings in the West Texas town of Spur to his present daily operations in a San Antonio high rise with a perfect view of the city, McCombs is a genuine Texas business success story. Along the way, he’s gained a wealth of business wisdom, and he is more than happy to share that wisdom with students, entrepreneurs and experienced C-suiters hoping to follow in his footsteps.
The automotive industry brought McCombs into the business world, and he’s had a hand there ever since. He attributes our natural love of freedom to the industry’s success.
“The desire to own a car is probably the strongest desire a teenager has when he gets to the age he can get a license,” McCombs says. “Many of us, as we go through our daily activities, the most independence we have in anything in the world is inside of a car.”
He believes that the car business is and always will be a lucrative industry, continuing to grow as people upgrade regularly to new models. It’s also an area with a lot of competition, which McCombs feels is good in the long run.
“Competition gets manufacturers serious about building better and longer-lasting products,” McCombs says. “And it makes a person who owns a car aware that he needs to take good care of it, because it’s a valued asset.”
McCombs’ success in car sales is no accident. From his first day as a salesperson, he took a clear view of the economics of his schedule. Since car sales is a commission business, sales people only get paid when they sell a car. So McCombs made it his aim to sell a car every single day.
“I always came early and stayed late,” he says. “I would think, ‘If I’m gonna be here eight, ten, twelve hours, I’ve got to get something sold today.’”
When McCombs got started, average sales for a new car sales person in the U.S. was eight units per month. That number hasn’t changed much, but McCombs has never shied away from a challenge.
He doesn’t see the automotive sales industry changing much in the future. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He does hope to see more women join the historically male-dominated industry, though.
“That will broaden the base we have for talent in the industry,” McCombs says. “And that’s delightful, really.”
The San Antonio Spurs are an NBA juggernaut, and McCombs brought them to the city himself. He’s also owned the Minnesota Vikings, the Denver Nuggets and a minor league baseball team. McCombs has owned sports teams for a combined 32 years of his adult life, an impressive career all on its own. His love of sports drew him to the industry, along with his desire to bring attention to the city he calls home.
In 1968, the World’s Fair came to San Antonio. It was called the HemisFair and, as McCombs networked during the event, he realized that most of the visiting Fortune 500 CEOs knew nothing about the city. Sure, they had a sense of the area’s size and demographics, but they didn’t have a feel for what made San Antonio great.
“Forty years ago, if you mentioned you were from San Antonio, the first thing that would generally come to people’s minds was the Alamo,” McCombs says. “But now if you mention San Antonio, almost everyone identifies it as the home of the Spurs, even people who don’t necessarily care about sports but are interested in what a sports team does for a city.”
Sports team ownership is a growing industry, which McCombs attributes to the public’s extreme, ever-growing interest in sports.
“I think we owe television for that growth,” McCombs says. “It allows people to witness sporting events from all over the world in the comfort of their homes, and I think we’ll continue to see it grow.”
His suggestion for anyone interested in team ownership is to work in the athletic industry first. It requires a lot of weekend and evening work, so passion for the game is a must. He also urges owners to not only look for a return on their investments, but also to consider the benefits of bringing attention to their local markets through a successful sports team, as he’s done with the Spurs.
McCombs is thrilled that many universities now offer courses in sports team management and sales, bringing a new crop of potential owners and managers into the field.
At the tail end of WWII, McCombs spent 18 months serving in the U.S. Army, and the experience shaped the way he views and conducts business.
“In the Army, you learn in the first day that there will be no question about what will be expected of you,” McCombs says. “Many people take jobs thinking they know what’s expected of them and then find out that they really didn’t know.”
In the workplace, like in the military, McCombs feels it’s crucial for employees to know exactly what duties their job entails, so they can rely on each other and work as a group to keep things running smoothly. He never wants his employees to be left wondering what they’re supposed to do or how they’re supposed to do it, so he follows the military’s example by providing strong leadership and keeping his employees working to improve their knowledge and move up the ranks.
“What we say is, the best way to get promoted is to train someone to do your job and if you train someone to do it better than you, well then you’re almost certain to get promoted, because you have someone who can take your place,” McCombs says. “It’s a great system.”
McCombs has a strong affinity for anyone who has served in the armed forces; he sees service as a personal recommendation and outstanding commendation for a potential hire.
“All my long business career, we hire as many former military people as we can,” McCombs says. “It’s a wonderful thing for our communities.”
Fascinated with the broadcasting industry, McCombs purchased San Antonio’s WOAI AM 1975, eventually co-founding Clear Channel, which is no small operator in the radio world.
McCombs credits communications with advancing the business world immensely, expanding each individual’s access to information outside his or her own environments.
“If you look at mankind increasing his lifestyle, the most important thing it’s tied to is information,” McCombs says. “If you have the benefit of communication, then you’re virtually free to get involved all over the world.”
Compared to car dealership, a radio station has low start-up costs. Sure, there’s the cost of acquiring a government license, but no inventory stock, and much lower overhead. On the other hand, there’s guaranteed competition from other stations, but McCombs has always faced a challenge with the utmost confidence. When speaking to university students, he suggests they go into each business deal expecting to win. It’s advice that’s worked for McCombs in many areas — Clear Channel is just one of his many success stories.
McCombs still co-owns a television station on channel two, licensed to Fredericksburg, with signal coverage in both San Antonio and Austin. He feels that businesses don’t take full advantage of local stations for advertising, so he hasn’t pushed to grow the station yet, though he sees continued potential in the broadcasting field.
For McCombs, broadcasting has personal uses as well. After sunset, folks all over the world can pick up WOAI, so once while traveling in Puerto Vallarta, McCombs had an announcer use the airwaves to invite another friend — who was also vacationing in Mexico and who could be counted on to be listening to the Spurs game — to join him for dinner. He did.
Asked about his experience as a cattle rancher, McCombs chuckles, ready with a warning.
“I do not recommend the cattle business to anyone,” he says.
McCombs was born in a cow town, but not to a ranching family. His father was an auto mechanic, labeling him as a “town kid,” but he had plenty of friends who came from the country. He never had any interest in agriculture, considering ranching as a labor-intensive job with little profit.
When he was in high school, a young teacher coaxed into taking vocational agriculture by promising him that joining would afford him the opportunity to travel to Amarillo, Fort Worth and maybe even Kansas City. The farthest McCombs had traveled outside of Spur at that point was 75 miles down the road to Lubbock, so he signed up right away.
Through the vocational agriculture program, McCombs learned how to run meetings, participate in debates and speak in public, essential business skills. But he still didn’t feel the itch to join the cattle business.
However, his wife, Charline, had an intense love of rural activities, including ranching. When the couple began earning extra cash, she wanted to purchase a ranch in the Hill Country but, at first, McCombs was adamant that would never happen. He wasn’t interested in working from sunup to sundown, and he didn’t see the point in hiring someone else to do the work for them.
But, because marriage is all about give and take, he eventually agreed to buy a ranch, where the couple decided to raise Longhorn cattle. But McCombs didn’t approach the business the way anyone else had. He flew across the country, paying top dollar for the best Longhorns he could find, even when his financial consultant told him he was crazy for doing so. McCombs figured there were other small-time ranchers like him who were looking for top-rate Longhorn cattle, but who were unable to travel great lengths to amass a herd. It turned out he was right.
“We put together a herd and about 10 months later I sold about 70 head for two and three times what I paid for them, even though I paid high prices,” McCombs said. “I said, ok, I can make an industry out of this, and now we have a nationwide industry from it and there are Texas Longhorn cattle being bred all over the United States.”
McCombs wasn’t ever a fan of Formula One racing, but when he encountered the opportunity to open a racetrack in Texas, he saw the potential for something big.
“You realize how many people we introduce football to with the Superbowl, well, there are five times as many people worldwide who watch F1 racing,” McCombs says.
Always looking to boost worldwide recognition of San Antonio, McCombs realized an F1 track would be a boon for his own city as well as Austin, and the Circuit of the Americas has proved to be a huge draw for the area.
McCombs recalls hearing from the FAA that, at the inaugural race four years ago, the San Antonio/Austin area had more helicopters in the air at once than any other area in the U.S. had ever seen.
“It’s like a who’s who of the capitalists of the world,” McCombs says. “We’ve done really well with it and so I’m beginning to like it more all the time.”
The spirit of giving runs deep in McComb’s heart, and it’s something that was bred in him from the start. Though they struggled at times, his parents gave their 10 percent to the church every Sunday, and often took in other people’s children if their parents were unable to care for them at any time.
“I was raised in that atmosphere that sharing was what you’re supposed to do,” McCombs says. “I witnessed it as a lifestyle.”
The McCombs Foundation gives as much as $8 million to charities every year, and McCombs hopes the importance of charitable giving isn’t lost on future generations.
“We haven’t even scratched the number of people we can feed on this Earth,” McCombs says. “There is no reason for anybody to be hungry, so shame on us if they are.”
McCombs himself feels he has been given a second chance at life, since he fell into an alcohol-induced coma as he approached 50 years old. Though doctors initially thought he’d succumb to alcoholism, regained consciousness after four days and hasn’t had a drink since. He now speaks to clinics across the country, opening up about his alcoholism and working to raise awareness of the often overlooked, stigmatized disease.
“There is nothing so damning than to be so depressed you really don’t care what happens,” McCombs says. “I work in that area now, I know I’ve helped people and I’m happy to do it.”
“You’d think it’s all about the money, but it’s not,” McCombs says of his long and successful career. For him, it’s all about the challenge. The deal.
“I’m a deal junkie,” he says. “And I’ve no fear of losing. I’ve lost a lot of times.”
The McCombs family now runs about 23 different companies, with daughter Marsha taking the reigns on the family business umbrella. The family is constantly buying and selling businesses, and always in the market to do both.
Looking forward, he sees only success for the family’s companies, hoping that in 2053, his bloodline will be celebrating 100 years of McCombs family businesses.
“We may be peddling a different kind of pencil, but we will probably be peddling something,” McCombs says.
In general, he only sees good things for the future of business in the U.S., which he sees as a continuing great power in the global economy, with the potential to do much good across the world. However, he believes voter apathy and government regulations are damaging to the success of small businesses, and urges everyone to go out and vote in their best interests.
As for himself personally, McCombs has no plans of ever slowing down.
“Marsha asks me please, no more deals, but I’ll be signing business loan papers on my last day on Earth.”