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Need for Speed

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:17 a.m. February 15, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Mario Andretti turned his name into an iconic brand through 30 years of championship auto racing, but his new business is pitching.

That is, Andretti, 72, now spends about 20 days a month crisscrossing the country for the variety of companies and brands he represents. The list includes Firestone tires, Hot Wheels toys, Go Daddy Web domain names, Phillips Van Heusen clothes and Honda. He was also cast in the 2006 animated movie Cars, where he played himself.

Andretti, moreover, is a tireless entrepreneur. He oversees Andretti Winery, a 53-acre wine operation in Napa Valley. Andretti launched that business in 1996 with his friend Joe Antonini, former chairman and CEO of Kmart Corp. Andretti also owns an Indy-style race car simulation business and, with his son Michael Andretti, a chain of gas stations in California. His previous list of businesses includes auto dealerships, car washes and go-kart tracks.

The business success, of course, came together after a stellar racing career. Andretti is the only driver to have won the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One World Championship. All told Andretti, a native of World War II-era Italy, had 109 career racing victories.

Andretti, who recently spent a morning at an east Manatee County tire store for Bridgestone Americas and its Firestone brand, says he works hard in business because he's always pursuing excellence.

“I was lucky to be in the sport for so many years,” says Andretti. “I was as a motivated at the very end of my career as I was at the beginning. I really loved what I was doing and I was always searching for something better. That's what drives this train.”

Andretti spoke with the Business Observer about his entrepreneurial career during his Manatee County pit stop. Here's an edited transcript of the interview:

What are some of the keys to the success you've had in business in your post-racing career?
It's no secret, but the only formula that really works is to surround yourself with the best people you can possibly find anywhere for that particular job. It's all about people. Once you recognize that, you will always be successful in whatever endeavor you are in. In any business that is something technically foreign to my knowledge, I don't profess to be an expert. So I surround myself with the best people and I learn every day.

What parallels have you been able to draw from racing to being in business?
Business is competitive. Whether it's in sports or you are selling tires. The objective is to be better than the competition.

What defines a good company culture, the kind that makes you want to represent them publicly?
I think it's when the word “excellent” is a prize in everything that they do. (Firestone) over the years has stayed right at the forefront of technology. Why? By being involved in the motor racing sport, the most demanding sport and the most demanding discipline in the world. In my opinion that helped them gain tremendously over the competition. There's also a fulfillment factor, where you feel that somewhere along the line the company made a difference.

What companies have you worked with where the brand wasn't as established as Firestone or Hot Wheels?
MagnaFlow is a company I joined about 11 years ago. They were just basically getting into the aftermarket business for special exhausts systems. This company is now worth over $1 billion. They are the boss in that industry. I've been part of that growth and part of that resolve they had to become the best.

What business decision do you regret?
I don't know if it's regrets, but sometimes you become a little bit too ambitious as far as stretching yourself. We had an automobile (dealership) business. We had Toyota, we had Ford, we had Chrysler. But I realized at one point in today's world I needed to have 50 stores, not 12. I'd have to take all of my energies in one direction to have 50 stores. So we pulled back and just got out of it. It was something where I felt I didn't really analyze the situation close enough.

What was a particularly good decision you made in business?
You have to find a leader. And the guy who runs the petroleum station business for us, we took him away from Corporate America. He had opportunities elsewhere, and we hired him away. It turned out to be the best decision of our lives. We've grown that business tremendously.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who seek to grow their companies?
You have to stick your neck out. If you are afraid to fail you are never going to get out of the house because you might think a brick will come down and hit you in the head. Somewhere along the line you have to feel confident and have a certain vision. Mediocrity is very convenient, but I despise mediocrity. It's easy to lay back and do things 95% and just ride along. But if you are ambitious and believe in things then it has to be 100%. That's where you get the ultimate satisfaction.


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