McCombs, Billy Joe
McCombs, Billy Joe
Clear Channel Communications, Inc.
Billionaire Billy "Red" McCombs has often been referred to as a "one–man conglomerate," having acquired an unusual portfolio consisting of, among other things, car dealerships, radio stations, a movie financing company, cattle, oil interests, banking, insurance, and real estate. In the business world, he is primarily known for co–founding Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio station owner in the United States and one of the leading outdoor advertising companies in the world. But his name became known in considerably more households after his July 1998 purchase of the Minnesota Vikings professional football franchise for $206 million. He turned the team around with his winning management style, leading them to remain the National Football Conference's only undefeated team for two years, and propelling them toward their first good chance at playing in the Super Bowl. McCombs was honored as the 2001 Gold Medal Recipient of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
Billy Joe "Red" McCombs was born in 1927 in the small western Texas town of Spur, about 75 miles east of Lubbock. His father was an auto mechanic, but the younger McCombs, the eldest of four children, expressed little initial interest in automobiles. Ironically, that market eventually facilitated his entrance to the world of big business, fame, and fortune.
In 1943 Red and his family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas. An entrepreneur at an early age, 10–year–old McCombs began selling peanuts, but quickly discovered that he was taking in no more money than he was spending on peanuts. He soon figured out what was necessary to clear a profit, and the lesson learned stayed with him throughout his life. At the age of 17, his love of sports took him on a hitchhiking tour of schools in the old Southwest Conference, searching for a college that would grant him a football scholarship. He started playing ball at Corpus Christi Junior College but later realized his dream of playing true college football by moving on to Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he played lineman and receiver for the university's team.
McCombs's college career was interrupted by a call to military service, and he spent 1946 and 1947 in the U.S. Army. After completing his military obligations, McCombs enrolled at the University of Texas, attending the business school and law school. Academia was again detoured when a Corpus Christi friend persuaded him to try selling cars. He was immediately successful, and acquired his first dealership at the age of 25. That same year he spent $10,000 to purchase his first professional sports team, a minor league baseball team called the Corpus Christi Clippers. Four years later, in 1957, McCombs became the youngest Edsel automobile dealer in the United States, and his franchise was one of only a few to show a profit from the ill–fated Ford model. After an impressed Ford Motor Company invited him to fly to Los Angeles to teach a sales seminar for California dealers, McCombs began buying into distressed dealerships and turning them into profitable centers. By 1960 he had made his first million and had begun to diversify into cattle breeding, oil exploration, and real estate. During the next several decades, McCombs ventured into more than 300 business undertakings, including Clear Channel Communications, making him a billionaire along the way. In the 2000 issue of Forbes, McCombs was ranked among the top 400 wealthiest people in the nation.
McCombs earned and spent his money wisely, mostly by returning it to the community. In May 2000 Red and his wife Charlene donated $50 million to the University of Texas School of Business, which was renamed the Red McCombs School of Business. Thanks to this endowment, some expect that the school will become one of the top five in the nation. At the May 2000 press conference announcing the gift, an emotional McCombs stated that, aside from his family, anything he had ever been involved with "paled" in comparison to his ability to make the donation. "This is truly the defining moment of my life," he told his audience.
Other charities and interests have included his roles in bringing the World's Fair to San Antonio in 1968; helping to create Sea World of Texas; co–founding the Texas Research Park in San Antonio; contributing to the construction of the Alamodome, the renovation of historic buildings, and the building of new roads; and increasing the popularity of basketball. In 1997 he and his wife donated the largest gift ever, $3 million, to the University of Texas women's athletics to fund a new softball complex. Southwestern University has also been the recipient of McCombs's gifts, and he is a member of its board of trustees as well. The McCombs Foundation contributes up to $8 million annually to more than 400 charities, colleges, and universities across the state of Texas. It has also made major donations to special aid programs for elementary and high school students, and a prison halfway house assisting released inmates. Outside of the academic world, McCombs has supported Kosovar refugees by paying for medical teams to travel to the war–torn areas of Albania and Macedonia.
Among his many honors, McCombs is a Distinguished Alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin, a recipient of the Automotive Hall of Fame's Distinguished Service Citation and the Colonel W. T. Bondurant Distinguished Humanitarian Award, and an inductee of the Texas Business Hall of Fame. He is a member of the University of Texas's Austin Capital Campaign Executive Council; chairman of the university's M. D. Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors; and a member of both the university's San Antonio Board and the San Antonio Health Science Center Development Board. McCombs is also an alumnus of one of the university's fraternities, Alpha Tau Omega. Since leaving college he has avidly supported the fraternity's local Austin chapter and currently serves as a member of the chapter's housing corporation.
At six feet three inches tall and 215 pounds, with a thunderous baritone voice and small–town Texas charm, McCombs commands respect and attention with both his appearance and demeanor. According to his wife, he has never accepted mediocrity in anything he has attempted, with the possible exception of fly fishing. After nearly losing his life to hepatitis in 1977, McCombs stopped drinking and shifted focus to improving his health. In later years, he regularly worked out on a treadmill, where, according to him, he did his toughest thinking and decision–making because he hated the treadmill. Notwithstanding, his management style transferred well from running a car dealership to rallying his Vikings through their best back–to–back winning seasons in the franchise's 39–year history. The National Football League labeled him as one of the top five most influential owners, and he and his entire family, including his three daughters and eight grandchildren, tried to attend every game, even if it involved flying to Minneapolis from their suburban home in San Antonio.
Chronology: Billy Joe McCombs
1950: Began career at a used car dealership.
1954: Bought his first professional team, the Corpus Christi Clippers.
1960: Made his first million in car sales.
1972: Co–founded Clear Channel Communications.
1973: Purchased the San Antonio Spurs.
1982: Purchased the Denver Nuggets.
1988: Repurchased the San Antonio Spurs.
1998: Purchased the Minnesota Vikings.
Billy Joe McCombs's strong business acumen, coupled with honesty, integrity, and salesman–like charm, would likely have ensured success no matter what he had pursued. As it was, he succeeded in more unrelated and diverse concerns than even the most savvy of businessmen would have attempted. Starting in 1958 when he and his wife moved to San Antonio, he partnered with Austin Hemphill in a Ford dealership from which McCombs would build an empire of more than 50 dealerships nationwide, the sixth largest automobile conglomerate in the country.
McComb ventured into broadcasting in 1972, when he and investment banker L. Lowry Mays purchased a San Antonio radio station. The partners' success prompted them to purchase three additional stations the following year, and another soon after that. In 1975 the burgeoning radio ownership company adopted the name Clear Channel Communications. In 1984, with approximately one dozen stations under ownership, the company went public. It ventured into television ownership, acquiring seven stations by 1992. Under the leadership of McCombs and Mays, Clear Channel expanded its portfolio to 175 radio stations and 18 television stations by 1997.
Also in 1997 the company made its foray into outdoor advertising through its first acquisition in that industry. As a direct result of this and several other similar purchases, Clear Channel enjoyed a 93 percent jump in revenue. Continuing its strategy of growth via acquisition, the company became the nation's second–largest radio station owner in 1999 by spending $4 billion for Jacor Communications. The following year it assumed the number–one position by purchasing AMFM Inc. for $23.8 billion.
As of 2001 Clear Channel Communications held stakes in 1,200 stations in the United States and abroad. Its outdoor advertising empire reached 700,000 displays worldwide and investments in companies spanning 43 countries. McCombs remains a director on Clear Channel's board, while Mays guides the company as its chairman and chief executive officer.
McCombs's business interests are not limited to automobiles, broadcasting, and advertising. Expanding into Texas Longhorn cattle, he acquired a 50 percent interest in Brink's Brangus, one of the world's largest and most respected Brangus bull operations. McCombs is the sole owner of McCombs Oil Corp. in Houston, and through McCombs Enterprises is involved in numerous other business interests. His portfolio has included a Colorado ski resort, a stake in San Francisco's Stanford Court Hotel, 44,000 acres of ranchland and a Brangus breeding operation, a Coors beer distributorship, a weekly newspaper, contract drilling and oil exploration companies, a partnership interest in an insurance company, ownership of 114 "Mr. M." food shops, an interest in a Texas savings and loan operation, and an office building in San Antonio. He also financially backed a movie company involved in two Hollywood hits, Poltergeist and The Verdict.
McCombs's personal and professional interests coincide in professional sports. He was twice the owner of the National Basketball Association's San Antonio Spurs, most recently from 1988 through 1993. Following his second purchase, he orchestrated a team turn–around that doubled per–game attendance and produced two conference championships. He also became majority owner of another professional basketball team, the Denver Nuggets, which he sold for a $16 million profit in 1985. McCombs purchased the National Football League's Minnesota Vikings in 1998 and has been credited with restoring "Purple Pride" to the Minneapolis community. The team finished 15–1 in McCombs's first year as owner and had its highest attendance in team history, averaging over 63,000 fans per game.
Social and Economic Impact
When Red McCombs does something, he does it "Texas style"—big time. His commitment and involvement with each of his investments has made him an admired businessman and leader. From Clear Channel Communications to the Minnesota Vikings, he remains determined until his mission proves successful.
In under three decades, McCombs turned a single radio station into a global broadcasting and advertising empire. Yet Clear Channel Communications is not content to hold the leading positions in these industries. In 2000 the company ventured into entertainment promotion, followed the next year by an announcement of its intention to offer online music subscriptions through its radio stations.
In 1999 the Vikings attracted a record of over 500,000 fans to their games, and the Metrodome has become the NFL's noisiest stadium, with Texas–style bear–hugs and "yee–haws" overtaking the crowds. McCombs's personal touch, respect for, and interest in his team have played significant roles in the Vikings' successes. In part, his purchase of the team trimmed its ownership from ten people to a single owner, allowing for more focused involvement and input. He is credited with teaching fans the importance of expressing their support for the Vikings. McCombs himself has mingled with the fans, attended pre–season games, and sent flowers to the coaches' wives. When wide–out Cris Carter hurt his right ankle, McCombs personally telephoned him at home to see how he was faring. Carter, a 12–year veteran, stated that it was the first time anyone from the "front office" had ever called to see how he was doing.
According to the National Football Foundation, McCombs once figured he spent about 35 percent of his time working on opportunities, about 35 percent on existing operations, and 30 percent on community interests. He summed up his secret of success by stating, "Make decisions, take chances!"
Sources of Information
Contact at: Clear Channel Communications, Inc.
200 E. Base
San Antonio, TX 78209
Business Phone: (210)822–2828
"Billy Joe 'Red' McCombs." National Football Federation, November 2001. Available at http://footballfoundation.fansonly.com.
"Billy Joe 'Red' McCombs." University of Texas at Austin Business School. Available at http://www.bus.utexas.edu.
"Clear Channel Communications, Inc." Hoover's Online, Inc., December 2001. Available at http://www.hoovers.com.
Losefsky, Pam. "Red McCombs: The Man, the Money and the Mission." McCombs School of Business Magazine, Fall/Winter 2000. Available at http://www.bus.utexas.edu.
"The Purple Tide Has Turned." Sports Illustrated, 26 October 1998, 62.
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