Joe Gibbs likes to win.
He spent a dozen years conquering the NFL as the Washington Redskins' head coach, and racked up three Super Bowl wins along the way. Then he embarked on a second career - NASCAR team owner - and captured the Winston Cup, the sport's top title, in 2000 and 2002. He's hoping for a third this season.
Gibbs may have traded in his coach's playbook for an owner's checkbook, but the basic skills he draws on as CEO of racing teams are those he honed in football. He doesn't study game films or diagram plays, but he does recruit employees, and, more importantly, the sponsors that finance his teams. And he plays to win.
Along the way, he's run smack into trouble many times. Bad investments, bad decisions, bad health - all have afflicted him at one time or another. He learned how to avoid and solve problems so well he wrote a book about it, Racing to Win (Multnomah Publishers), released in paperback last month.
Now presiding over an empire that includes 200 employees, an estimated $30 million annual budget, and four race teams (including those led by Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart), Gibbs spends most of his time wooing sponsors and solving personnel problems. He recently took a short break to talk with American Way about recruiting, managing, and racing after more championships.
American Way: Unlike some coaches who have written about business strategies, you actually run a company as a NASCAR team owner. How much of an adjustment was that?
Joe Gibbs: The difference from coaching was that I was paid a salary, and over here I pay the salaries (laughs).
Everything about racing is exactly like football: It's a people business, you're trying to pick people and get them to accomplish a common goal, sacrifice for the team. That's hard to do because it goes against human nature. The real difference for me is I switched roles, I became the owner. I've got to pay the bills, and that's a tough assignment.
It's unlike a lot of businesses from the standpoint that you don't have any appreciable assets. In other words, you don't own anything in Winston Cup. You don't own the (car) number; you don't own a franchise. You've got to make it operationally. That's hard to do when you're in a sport where you spend a lot of money to go fast.
Having learned a lot of those lessons from mistakes that I've made, I'm very cautious. I not only have accountants and attorneys who meet with us, but I also have outside consultants who come in once a month to make sure everything is sound. I am very cautious. None of this came out of a Harvard study; it's on-the-job training.
American Way: You're very open about making mistakes financially. How did you fall into those traps - and what did you learn?
Gibbs: When I got the Redskins job, I wasn't content. I said, "I've only got a three-year contract, coaches get fired all the time, I've got to get rich." I invested in a real-estate partnership in Oklahoma, and it was set up as a simple partnership - which you should never do, because it allows other partners to sign your name. So I got in that partnership and, bottom line, when it started going under, all those guys started signing [my name] on this, signing on that, trying to balance the books. And, eventually, it filed for bankruptcy and I was the only one left. So it was a long, painful experience, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I learned 15 things that I wrote down from that. Number one on that list is: Listen to your wife, which I now do. Pat makes the final call.
American Way: What mistakes were most valuable in your professional life?
Gibbs: First of all, I was 40 years old before I got a head coaching job. That kind of prepared me. In Washington [as head coach], we started out 0-5. I call it advancing through adversity. In finances, I mentioned the mess in Oklahoma. In relationships there were some things that I did when I was young that helped straighten me out. In team building there are all kinds of mistakes. Certainly moral choices. When I was young, I made some choices that put me on the brink of getting in real trouble.
And then health choices. I pushed myself as a coach. I slept at the office four hours a night, three days a week, and, eventually, self-induced my diabetes.
American Way: Are you a CEO?
Gibbs: I'm an owner of a business in motorsports. As a coach I was the technical person, the guy who constructed a football team and made it work, and who worked for somebody else. Here, I became the owner. I'm not the technical person. My job is to pick the people and to help recruit the sponsors and keep them. The owner pays the bills, and that's a different pressure.
In both jobs, you still are picking people and motivating people. In football you have quarterbacks, over here you have drivers. Football has coaches, racing has crew chiefs. It started small, with 18 people and racing one car. Now we have 200 employees, four cars in two different divisions. It's exploded.
American Way: How involved are you with sponsors?
Gibbs: I like trying to recruit people, and that's what sponsorship-hunting is. There are three of us who work on that. We work on finding sponsors, getting them to invest, and then, keeping them happy. No CEO in America spends this much to ride around on a car. If you can't enhance the image of their product and sell more of it, you're out of business. You develop a relationship - with a Home Depot, an Interstate Batteries - and expand it.
American Way: What about recruiting people for your company's staff?
Gibbs: I tell any company that I talk to, make sure you spend the most time and money picking your employees. You need to make sure you test those people for what you want them to do. Many times, we're giving the same [aptitude] test to the accountant that we're giving to the salesperson.
I learned that a long time ago in football. We were using SAT scores to try and pick football-intelligent people. A lot of guys had low SAT scores, but they were football brilliant. What we did was, we backed out of that. I picked our five smartest football players, went to a learning specialist at George Washington University, and said, "Develop a test." He did that, and that test had nothing to do with reading or writing. It was taking orders, moving blocks, and it took about 15 minutes to take. It was our best way of predicting football intelligence.
American Way: Much is made of your religious faith, to the point that you're characterized as a goody-two-shoes. You have had colorful players and drivers - from John Riggins with the Redskins to Tony Stewart today - and made it work. How?
Gibbs: If I'm picking a 22-year-old to play football or work at my business, I look at their background. The best way to predict a person's future is by his past. If there are character flaws or real moral problems, I do my best to stay away from them.
But once you pick somebody, that person is in the family. Everybody has flaws. You have to ask, do the pluses outweigh the minuses? It's a delicate balance. Some of the best producers you have may cross the boundaries. You have to constantly weigh that in management. It's tough.
American Way: You've been a champion in football and racing. What motivates you?
Gibbs: Trying to build the best team. And my motivation is trying to win championships. We've won two in 12 years [in NASCAR]. I'm looking for more.
American Way: Do you see rivalries in NASCAR as you do in football? For instance, does Home Depot want Tony Stewart to outperform the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse team?
Gibbs: That's part of the competitive world. We've found most sponsors have somebody out there they really want to beat. That's what makes the world tick. You find that across the board.
American Way: How do you control the costs of running a race team when you're always racing to gain incremental speed and engine advantages?
Gibbs: It's always a concern. NASCAR tries to do the best they can to keep costs in line. We try to keep the technology [costs] down so we don't have unlimited expenses. And obviously our racing [cost] is probably a tenth of what you see in Formula One. It is a concern because every time you take a step up in the millions, you're ruling out some company in America that can't afford the cost of supporting you.
American Way: You mentioned the respon-sibilities of owning race teams and managing employees. Why did you leave coaching?
Gibbs: When you do something for 30 years, you're probably ready to do something new. That was my case. I loved coaching, it was very exciting, I wasn't burned out. My family situation changed where my kids had gone off to college. When I took this up, the new challenges, building a new business, it showed me that I was ready for that new challenge. It's still competitive - I always want to do something where I'm trying to beat somebody. It was the right time.
American Way: Was that a difficult decision?
Gibbs: It's scary. What keeps most people from changing is that they're afraid to leave something they've done for so long. When you make big decisions like that, you need to consult at least three people, you need to pray, you need to study your Bible. When you stop and get that counsel, things tend to work out. Changing jobs is a difficult thing.
American Way: Any plans for retirement?
Gibbs: Not until they carry me out of here (laughs).
lee blankenship emmert's portraits have appeared in time, fast company, and red herring, and he photographed american way's road warrior winners for the march 15 issue.
the nascar biz
joe gibbs' racing company is part of nascar, the second most popular spectator sport among american television viewers after the nfl. the winston cup, the top tier of nascar racing, includes drivers such as dale earnhardt jr., dale jarrett, and jeff gordon.
the teams compete in 3,400-pound cars modeled after street models manufactured by chevrolet, pontiac, ford, and dodge. drivers routinely exceed 180 mph. nascar originated in the southeast with moonshining pioneers, most notably junior johnson. in recent years, it's become a national phenomenon, with tracks in las vegas, chicago, miami, dallas, and los angeles, among others. fox, nbc, and tnt televise the races across the country.
the nascar season runs from february through november. primary sponsors - whose logos are seen on the hoods of the race cars - pay $8 million to $20 million a year for that right. teams generate all of their funding from sponsorships in return for ads on the race cars, race purse earnings, driver appearances, and other promotional tie-ins. the close relationship between corporations and competitors makes nascar the most blatantly commercial - or most business-friendly, depending on perspective - big-league sport in the nation.