Five months ago, Richard Petty Motorsports was on course to be just another organization headed for the NASCAR junk heap.
Article continues below ...
Drivers left, sponsors dried up, collectors knocked on the front door and absentee owner George Gillett was tied up across the pond battling to retain the Liverpool Football Club.
It appeared that NASCAR’s most beloved racer, Richard Petty, was destined to watch his final races from the farm in Level Cross, N.C., rather than from atop the No. 43 transporter which has been his perch since hanging up his driver’s helmet in 1992.
Enter Lisa Brown, RPM’s new CEO. For the past two decades, Brown honed her business and leadership skills as president of AOL’s Interactive Marketing, CEO of Maverick Communications Inc., president and CEO of USA Electronic Commerce Solutions, and at USA Networks and Cox Communications.
But it’s a balance of business acumen and Brown’s passion for people that made her the perfect fit for the seven-time champion.
Petty had solicited Brown’s services before, during a previous partnership with Boston Ventures when he was still racing under the Petty Enterprises banner and things became a fiasco, but the request to that private equity firm fell on deaf ears. When the ensuing situation with the Gilletts became dire last fall, Petty, who acknowledges that he’s “never been much on financing,” reached out to Brown again.
“It was a near-death experience here for sure — minutes,” Brown said. “I flew down (to Charlotte) in the first week of October, with a team of people to see if we could work with the bank on a terms-and-assets sale. It was 30 days of 20-hour-a-day work, seven days a week.”
The King, as Petty is known, had already sacrificed the Petty Enterprises brand and Petty Driving Experience through his transaction with Boston Ventures in June 2008. Six months later, after Boston Ventures was unable to secure sponsorship, Petty merged his team with George Gillett’s organization in order to keep stock car’s first family of racing afloat. The company was rebranded Richard Petty Motorsports in January 2009.
But the man whose name was on the door had very little control of the day-to-day operation. Brown has fought hard to restore that control to Petty this season. And when she speaks of him, it’s with great respect and admiration.
“Richard has endured hardship over the last couple of years, but he never let it get to him publicly,” Brown said. “Despite everything that happened to him, he always did his best on the track and with sponsors. He said to me, ‘This is what we do.’ He gives 100 percent despite the disappointment, despite that he was financially damaged in the transactions and despite the fact that these things fell apart not because of him; he made sure that he could control what he could control the best that he could.”
“I think that’s what the sponsors recognized. The Boston Ventures debacle — not Richard. The George Gillett debacle — not Richard. In those things, Richard could have said, ‘See y’all,’ but he didn’t. He didn’t go home because he has a passion for what he does.
“Some of those sponsors were there because of him, and he wasn’t going to let them down. I admire him immensely — from the heart. He’s the kind of guy that has the ethics, that you don’t see a lot. It doesn’t matter if it’s sports, Fortune 50, private equity or whatever, the ethical behavior of Richard and the way he conducts himself is exemplary.”
RPM experienced a tumultuous 2009 first season as Ray Evernham, founder of the Nos. 9 and 19 teams now racing under its banner, was phased out. Gillett was continually distracted by other sports interests, including Liverpool and the sale of the NHL Montreal Canadiens. Midway through the year, the company faced substantial layoffs, then switched manufacturers from Dodge to Ford that September.
The instability from the previous year bled over to 2010. With five races remaining, RPM was week to week. Money earmarked for the race teams “was diverted for this Liverpool fight,” according to Brown. Sufficient cash flow to operate four NASCAR Sprint Cup teams failed to materialize.
“I told Richard to ask for a permission-based asset sale,” Brown said. “We had a conference call with George; he said, ‘This team is my passion. I have a passion to keep this team, and I really want to keep it going, but I know it probably won’t happen. I’m going to do my best because I have an obligation. But if I can’t support it, there’s no one I’d rather see have it than Richard.’”
Petty acknowledged that during the last five races of the 2010 season, the teams did not know until Wednesday whether they would race.
“And those were five races we had to piece together,” Petty said. “We were able to keep the team together at the end of the year to have a team together for the start of this year. The crowd I had working with me, they kept it all together.”
Brown reached out to investors and coordinated with the banks, Roush Fenway Racing and Ford while Petty and his son-in-law Brian Moffitt assuaged the existing sponsors.
From her prior experience with the Boston Ventures deal, Brown gauged the interest of Medallion Financial Group’s Andrew Murstein, who had made inquiries regarding NASCAR in the past. Brown helped close the deal with Murstein and DGB Investments’ Doug Bergeron Thanksgiving weekend.
Bergeron acknowledged that Brown is “doing a great job.”
“We’ve got her focused on the commercial side of the business,” Bergeron said. “She’s a good front face. She’s helping develop new sponsorship relationships — and it’s all about sponsorship. Hopefully, we can start winning some races, put together some top-10 finishes, and that will help her out.”
Brown is acclimating quickly to the NASCAR culture. A typical week for Brown can be a manager’s meeting with the Ford partners at Roush Fenway Racing, presentations with potential sponsors, listening to pitches from driver agents followed by a full weekend at the racetrack.
Last Saturday, while out at Auto Club Speedway in California, Brown’s Saturday started at the track with the teams followed by a Ford/Best Buy appearance with driver AJ Allmendinger at Irwindale Speedway, a quick shower at her hotel and dinner with media. For Brown, it was a normal 18-hour day.
Kyle Lewis, AARP vice president of business development, who oversees the Drive to End Hunger program, worked with Brown during her tenure at AOL. Lewis not only admired Brown’s business savvy, he appreciated a manager that “would take a bullet for you.”
Lewis credits Brown with "bringing the swagger back to AOL."
“She brings passion and realizes where value is and pulling that value to the forefront rather than focusing on what happened yesterday,” Lewis said. “She will take that foundation and grow it into something that is magical and special. She can get people moving in the right direction, get them focused on the good that’s there rather than on what was broken before.
“It’s a build process. It doesn’t happen overnight. She has a great opportunity again with Richard Petty and a lot of great assets, and I have no doubt she’s going to bring it forward.”
Although Brown is the first female to run a multicar operation at the Sprint Cup level, she’s quick to point out that Petty selected “the right person for the job.” She believes that Petty is gender neutral and her appointment was not about “a woman CEO as a novelty.”
“It was a question as to whether this person could lead,” Brown said. “Is this the right person at the right time for the right needs? Can we make the business we want out of it — and we want to make this a big business quickly.
“We want to get up to a third team next year, there’s no doubt about it. For us, we know we can do very well with a two-car team, but we know we can be a whole lot better as a four-car team.”
Brown is thrilled with the leadership from her existing drivers AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, whom she believes “have displayed great valor and support." She’s humbled by the loyalty of her current sponsors Best Buy and Stanley/Dewalt, which stood by the organization while other teams attempted to entice them away.
But the next step is to match a sponsor with a potential driver “who has the skills to win.” Brown adds she is looking for a driver/sponsor that complements the existing team.
Brown is well aware of the short “trade window” for drivers and has already placed feelers, as was the case during a recent lunch meeting with Jeff Dickerson of Spire Sports and Entertainment.
“Instantly, I felt comfortable with Lisa,” Dickerson said. “And instantly I knew she gets it. She’s no-frills. Completely business.”
For now, sponsorship tops that list. Brown uses the phrase “Racing Is Our DNA,” which applies to Petty, the second-generational drivers and much of the staff at RPM, to describe her mission.
“Of course we know that Richard is the most iconic individual in the sport,” Brown said. “We know he is a trusted brand. What people don’t realize is he’s still a relevant brand today. That’s very, very important for sponsors to know. Fans know it, because if you look at the most recent results from the Q scores, Richard is the most recognizable person in NASCAR. He has a higher Q score than Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick, and he’s not driving any more.
“This is a very powerful brand that’s still a relevant brand that not only traverses the generations that you might expect, but also young people as well. But bringing Richard Petty to bear is a very important piece not only from the sponsor side, but from the mentoring side with our drivers.”
Brown will not rest on her past accomplishments. Paramount among her responsibilities is to manage the Petty brand, but she also has an obligation to the employees of RPM. Brown credits Petty’s determination to resurrect RPM with saving the livelihoods of many workers who otherwise might have been displaced. Brown also feels the difficult times have made the remaining RPM employees stronger.
“What is happily surprising to me is that we’re off to as good of a start as possible,” Brown said. “This is a restart of a company of people coming together after being shocked and (going) through the trauma that they went through with the Gilletts.
“Coming out of the gate as well as we have is a testament to the spirit of the drivers, the crew chiefs and the collective leadership with Richard at the top, Robbie Loomis, Sammy Johns, me and Brian Moffitt. We’re in a very good place very quickly as a team because it’s only a 15-week-old team and it goes to everybody who pulled together to make this work. There’s this feeling of a near-death experience.
"So everybody is 150 percent of making this work. The esprit de corps and the morale here is amazing. Now, we just have to keep the morale going in the right direction.”