SAN ANTONIO -- After he dropped out of the University of Texas law school in 1950, Billy Joe "Red" McCombs had six weeks to kill before starting a corporate job in Mississippi. He decided to earn a little cash roughnecking in the Texas oil fields.
But a friend suggested a different plan: "He said, "You ought to come down and sell cars with us. Hell, you don't have to work, and they give you a new car to drive. You don't have to live out with those rattlesnakes out on the drilling rig,'" says McCombs, now 83.
The young McCombs, already a wheeler-dealer, didn't need to be told twice. George Jones Ford was in Corpus Christi, Texas, also the home of Charline Hamblin, whom he was courting. The corporate job soon vanished in his rearview mirror. Red McCombs was all in.
So began the epic journey of one of America's legendary car dealers, entrepreneurs and philanthropists.
"I built a business empire working out of an office at a car dealership," says McCombs in his booming John Wayne drawl. The instincts he honed in those swashbuckling early days -- going with his gut feeling, making lightning-quick decisions, trusting his lieutenants and rolling the dice on a hunch even if he risked losing a fortune -- helped him forge a far-reaching network of businesses. That empire would include three pro sports franchises, Clear Channel Communications, cattle ranching, oil exploration, real estate and what was once the nation's sixth-largest dealership group with sales of $1.3 billion in 1997.
McCombs still has his trademark red hair and hulking frame, 6 feet 3 inches and 250 pounds. He's healthy but needs a walker to get around. He downsized the dealership group to six stores in the late 1990s with the rise of the public groups, but now McCombs Enterprises is in acquisition mode again under the leadership of his daughter, Marsha Shields. Together, they have also been investing recently in dealership information technology companies. And he spearheaded the campaign to bring Formula One auto racing back to the United States with the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin next year.