When Gene Haas sets his sights on a goal, he’s one heck of a determined guy.
The Oxnard entrepreneur has built Haas Automation into a global powerhouse. He sells more machine tools than anyone on the planet. And his real estate investments include some of the most desirable properties in the Highway 101 corridor.
Hass doesn’t typically give interviews, he doesn’t often surface in public and he definitely guards his finances and his image closely.
His staff tried hard to talk me out of listing him in our “Regon’s Richest” special report earlier this year. We pegged his net worth at something like $740 million.
But there is one thing about Gene Haas that makes it impossible for him to totally hide in plain sight. The exception would be motor sports. For you see, the normally publicity-shy Haas has an affinity for NASCAR racing that goes way back.
And this year, when his Stewart-Haas racing team took the Sprint Cup series, he could hardly dodge the limelight. In fact, he was even willing to sit down with a reporter for the Charlotte Observer. And I happened to catch the interview in hard copy while visiting my grandkids in the Raleigh area over the Thanksgiving weekend. That interview — and the new Muppet movie — made the visit special.
Reading between the lines of what happened over the past decade to Haas and his racing fortunes, you get a rare insight into what makes a successful entrepreneur tick.
So here is my takeaway:
• Never give up. Like every successful entrepreneur, when Haas sets his mind on a goal, he doesn’t expect to walk away empty handed. His Haas CNC Racing venture is nearly a decade old, which means that he’s poured millions of dollars into cars, drivers and gear. For the first seven years of the venture his team didn’t score a single victory. Running with the big dogs in auto racing is “harder than you think,” Haas told the Observer.
• Find the right partners. Entrepreneurs are famously lone wolves, but common sense suggests that in a specialized field like auto racing, some partnerships would be necessary. First, Haas turned to Hendrick Motorsports for cars and technical advice. More recently it found a partner in driver Tony Steward, the more famous name in their racing team. In order to win, you need what Haas called “a wheel man.”
• Break the mold. For racing teams, the idea of a driver and backer sharing ownership is really rare. The last time a driver-owner took the Sprint Cup series was in 1992 and that was driver Alan Kulwicki who owned the whole show. The Stewart-Haas partnership is an almost-unheard-of 50-50 venture. Haas said a big part of their focus in 2011 was to take the day-to-day part of the operation off of Stewart’s shoulders and let him concentrate on racing and working with sponsors.
Haas is a guy for whom success in business has become a given. His machines are re-powering Detroit and paving the way for a new generation of more efficient, less costly machines of all sorts all around the globe.
But entering the racing scene at the NASCAR level was going to take more than just throwing money at a problem and hoping to take the checkered flag.
Not until 2009, after seven years at the racing game and finally after agreeing to partner with Steward, did team Haas even win a race. Final vindication for his strategy and vision came shortly before Thanksgiving after the final race of the season, the Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Haas has had his share of problems, including a couple of fight with the Feds over how much he owed in taxes. You might say he fought the law and the law won.
But I’ve always admired Haas for his ability to bring a tremendous amount of focus to a problem and find a way to solve it. He’s single-handedly rebuilt America’s fortunes as a global center for machine-tool making and now he’s carved out a piece of NASCAR history. I have a feeling this isn’t the last time we’ll see Gene Haas in the winner’s circle.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at firstname.lastname@example.org