Man of the world

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Roger Penske shows no sign of slowing down as he strides towards his 80th birthday. He spoke to Motor Sport about his preferred methods for controlling an empire writer Gordon Kirby

Half a century ago Roger Penske retired from driving racing cars to begin his business career as a Chevrolet dealer in Philadelphia. The following year he started Penske Racing, which has established itself as America’s definitive team with a record of more than 400 wins and 450 pole positions across many categories, including 16 Indy 500 victories and a dozen Indycar titles. Meanwhile, the Penske Corporation has grown into a global transportation industry that employs 53,000 people, leases almost 250,000 trucks and sells more than 400,000 cars each year.

At this year’s Daytona 500, on the eve of his 79th birthday, I talked to Roger about his life as one of the world’s most successful independent entrepreneurs. “As the business has grown we’ve really consolidated it into two primary areas,” Penske said. “One is our truck rental leasing and logistics business, which we’ve grown from 300 to 238,000 vehicles at more than a thousand locations in the United States and worldwide. The other is our retail auto business, which sold 430,000 vehicles in 2015. 

“It’s a worldwide business. We’re in Italy, Spain, Germany, the UK, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and of course the USA. These businesses are all related to transportation and to partnerships we’ve built, in many cases, through racing.

“Our biggest concern is to continue to drive the DNA we’ve built for integrity and execution in partnerships through the organisation. We now have 53,000 people in the company and, with that kind of growth, it takes a lot of commitment from everybody to be sure that we continue to operate as a very flat organisation in which people have access to me or anyone else they want. 

“Probably one of my biggest concerns is that we need to hear from the little guys with some ideas – they might be the future leaders of the company. We need to have diversity within the management and to give young people a chance. 

 “I also think giving back is very important. I’ve been very active in the city of Detroit as it went through bankruptcy. We gave 100 police cars to the city. These things are far more important to me today than maybe just the almighty buck. It’s how much you give back – and also being able to see the smiles on people’s faces as they succeed on the racetrack and in life.”

Penske runs his business empire and race teams with the help of a fleet of seven corporate jets located in Detroit, Charlotte and Delaware. “The company has ’planes associated with different parts of the business,” he said. “I have one smaller ’plane that I use in the United States and then we have a Gulfstream 550 that we use for international business. I do somewhere between 900 and 1000 hours in the air each year.

“The plane is a great place to be because we’ve got wi-fi and the phone connection is like sitting at your desk. You’ve got Bloomberg and other business news on the TV and internet. 

“It gives you some time to talk to people without interruption, about their future in the business and how we can do better. 

 “It’s about time utilisation. With what’s happened with the use of the internet and the ability to communicate, you can make better use of your time. Guys that process their time better seem to get further ahead. With more information, in most cases you can make a better decision.”

Late in 2015 Penske had trips to Australia and Europe before spending time at his US racing workshops. “We run the racing just like we do any other of our businesses. We’ve got a budget and an income and we review expectations with the sponsors. 

“I also spend quite a bit of time looking at all the graphics. I make sure cars look right down to the final one-inch decal. That kind of commitment to detail is key.

Penske says he took particular pleasure from his team’s 50th anniversary party in January. “We had almost 1200 people there, including 42 drivers representing more than 300 wins and 16 Indianapolis 500 victories. It really showcased what’s gone on over the past 50 years.

“I don’t normally look back, but it was a great event and it was pretty special to receive an accolade from President George W Bush.

“Now we’re at Daytona for the start of the NASCAR season, which is always exciting. It’s great to get in the pits and talk to the guys who work so hard on the cars in the off-season. We’re also starting to test our Indycars [Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya subsequently won the first round of this year’s series on the streets of St Petersburg]. 

“To see Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano making themselves a force in NASCAR and our four IndyCar drivers achieving success is a great thing. And we’ve had a test in Australia with our V8 Supercars and it looks like we should be competitive down there next season.”

***

Penske reflected on how he runs his worldwide business operations. “I’m committed,” he said. “I take my business home and bring it back to the office the next day. I’m fortunate to have some ’planes so I can move around very efficiently and, with the telecommunications that are available today through the internet, I am able to look at our numbers on a daily or hourly basis. 

“I’m very interested in getting information quickly and efficiently and think the internet has provided me with the ability to build my business and have insight into areas that I probably took for granted in the past. You’re getting real-time feedback and you can ask questions and contact people, you can Skype and communicate freely and openly around the world in a matter of seconds. It’s amazing when you think about it.

“You need corporate headquarters, but today you have so much access to information and the big focus to me is to continue to hire people who want to work for our company. I’ve always said, ‘I don’t want it to be easy to get into our company and, once you’re there, I don’t want you to leave’.”

In closing, I asked Roger if he could select his most memorable wins from the last 50 years. “There are so many, we could talk for hours,” he said. “It’s very difficult to choose one or two. More than the key wins, among the biggest blasts in my mind are the two biggest disappointments. 

“One would be not qualifying for the 1995 Indy 500, after when we had won the race and led every lap but two the previous season. And the other was in NASCAR last year, when Matt Kenseth knocked Joey Logano off the track at Martinsville. That was probably one of the roughest days I’ve had. I had a hard time believing that it happened.”

Just as much as he did 50 years ago, Penske expects success from his drivers, teams and business partners. On the rare occasions when it doesn’t happen, the experience leaves a mark and provides further impetus to keep peering through the windshield and pushing forward.

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