A Day at the Office with Red: 90th Birthday Update
Red McCombs is still going full steam ahead as he celebrates his 90th birthday. As we celebrate this milestone, here is a look back at a visit to Red’s office originally published in 2015.
By Jeremy Simon
No one would fault Red McCombs for opting to retire. At age 88, McCombs is a Texas entrepreneurial icon whose legendary knack for deal-making has made him the 324th richest person in the United States, according to Forbes. As a young man, his first auto business venture was a Ford dealership in Corpus Christi. From there he formed an empire of auto dealerships before moving into energy, real estate and broad- casting. He co-founded Clear Channel Communications. He’s bought sports teams including the Corpus Christi Clippers, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs. Most recently, his investments have expanded to include Austin’s Circuit of the Americas racetrack, the private security firm Academi, and Texas resort developments in Austin, Canyon Lake, Rockport, and Port Aransas.
He is also widely known for his philanthropy. In 2000, the billionaire and his family donated $50 million to the business school at The University of Texas at Austin, which now bears his name. His family foundation makes more than 300 gifts yearly.
With his daughter, Marsha Shields, groomed to step in as his successor, McCombs could certainly choose to rest. But at the start of a workweek this past summer at McCombs Enterprises in San Antonio, McCombs is at his office as usual, with no plans for slowing down.
Six days a week, he still works full-time, surrounded by trusted employees, some of whom have been with him for decades. He continues to make deals, mentor protégés, and keep a surprisingly hectic yet largely unstructured daily calendar.
“The routine is that we don’t have a routine. It’s better to leave lots of room for the unexpected. Generally, 80 percent of my day is unscheduled, but I always have lots to do. It works out really well.” — Red McCombs
His office at the McCombs Plaza building just north of downtown San Antonio is packed with vintage Western paintings, walking sticks, saddles, and antique firearms. His full collection of Old West artifacts (not all of which are on display) numbers more than 7,000 items and is considered one of the most extensive in the United States.
McCombs’ longtime personal assistant, Suzy Thomas, works just outside his office. Across from her desk, dozens of framed photos sit waiting to be hung. “There’s not enough room to display all of them at the same time, so we rotate them every six months or so,” she says.
McCombs sits at a massive desk next to a TV tuned to CNBC, surrounded by photos of family members and famous friends and other mementos from a lifetime of building businesses and nurturing relationships. Sunlight streams in through his sixth-floor windows that overlook a golf course and, beyond that, a view of the city.
It’s certainly hard to imagine him ever retiring to a hammock with a view of the beach. For one, such a move would mean stepping back from his position as an influential decision- maker. “I’ve always wanted to be in a place where I can have a say about what’s happening and what’s going to happen,” he says. “If I didn’t come to work, what would I do?”
Maybe part of the reason McCombs enjoys working so much is that he fully leaves the office behind at the end of the day. He doesn’t take his work home with him. He doesn’t own a cell phone or use a computer.
“I center on what I’m doing at the moment,” McCombs says. “I’ve never done business at home, and I’ve always been a six-day-a- week worker. When I leave the office to go home at the end of the day, I’m 100 percent committed to enjoying my family. And in the morning when I leave the house and start toward the office, I’m 100 percent excited about what I’m going to do when I get here.”
SUZY THOMAS, PERSONAL ASSISTANT
When Red McCombs hired Suzy Thomas 43 years ago, he gave her half an hour on a Saturday morning to get to the office. “I told him I’d be right there, but it took me more like 35 minutes because I had to dry my hair.” She was in the shower when he called to say the job he had interviewed her for was hers, but only if she could start right away. That was in June 1972. She’s kept his office humming ever since, organizing his appointments, correspondence, and travel, and taking on an array of unorthodox assignments as well.
“I’d only had a couple of other jobs before this one,” she says. “I got bored with each of them within a year. But when I started working for Red, I quickly learned that any day I might end up doing just about anything.”
She remembers McCombs asking her to inventory the hundreds of animals on his ranch, from tagging their ears to taking their pictures. “Red sent me to livestock photography school in Colorado to learn how to take photos of longhorn steers and other farm animals.” She even learned to photograph pigs. “You’re literally down on the ground, on your elbows, getting the shot,” she recalls.
JOE SHIELDS, GRANDSON, ANALYST
Joe Shields, BBA Honors ’13, is both an employee and grandson of Red McCombs — with the hair color to prove it.
“I guess I’ve been part of the team my whole life,” he notes. “From birth, I was hired and haven’t been fired yet, which is nice.”
After graduation from the McCombs School of Business with a bachelor’s degree in finance, Shields went to work at Circuit of the Americas for a year before returning to San Antonio to work for his grandfather.
Although both Shields and McCombs put in similar hours, there are distinct differences in their use of technology in the office: You won’t find McCombs communicating via email or text, Shields says, “but I’d argue that he gets a whole lot more done without a computer or a cell phone than I do with technology.”
RAD WEAVER, CEO, McCOMBS PARTNERS
McCombs learned about Rad Weaver, BBA ’98, through a Ford scholarship essay in which the young man described how his father’s recent death had affected his family. Weaver applied for the scholarship to cobble together the funds to pay for college while also helping to support his family. Even though Weaver had earned a UT baseball scholarship as well as the Ford scholarship, it wasn’t enough, so McCombs took the young athlete under his wing and offered him an hourly job washing cars and picking up mail.
Weaver continued that job throughout college during his summer and winter breaks. After Weaver graduated from UT, McCombs gave him greater responsibility within the organization. One of those early roles required Weaver to trim business opportunity proposals down to a single page and present them to McCombs. “I often found myself trying to hone a 500-page business plan into that one page. If I couldn’t clearly articulate the value proposition, then we passed. Either I didn’t understand it well enough or it was too complicated,” Weaver says. “Red gets to the heart of the matter quickly. He has an amazing talent for doing that in any business, social, or family situation.”
TIM CLIVER, COO, AUTOMOTIVE BUSINESS
Tim Cliver has seen how McCombs inspires loyalty through his interactions with employees. “From the porter sweeping floors to the president of the United States, he treats everyone the same way and speaks to them genuinely,” Cliver says.
In the late 1990s, when McCombs bought the Minnesota Vikings, Cliver accompanied him to a pre-season football game. “The driver picked us up early and we got to the stadium at 2 p.m., even though the game wasn’t until 7 p.m., because Red was so excited,” Cliver says. McCombs invited the driver to join them in the owner’s box, where they met the team’s general manager. “The general manager says, ‘This guy can’t come into the owner’s box.’ And Red said, ‘Yes, he can.’ He made the general manager stand up and the driver sat in his seat.”
HARRY ADAMS, EVP, REAL ESTATE, DEVELOPMENT
A gradudate of West Point, Harry Adams served in the Army for six years after college, then spent several years in the homebuilding industry before going to work for McCombs. In the Army, he worked under some highly distinguished officers who went on to become three- and four-star generals, but he says it wasn’t until he began working for McCombs that he saw the quality of leadership he experienced in the military.
“If you judge an entrepreneur not on the size of one company or one great accomplishment, but instead on literally hundreds of companies that have been successfully run, not 10 or 20 years of success but 50 years of success, and then you look at what any single individual from Texas has done for their people and their employees and the local institutions — schools, universities, cities, or state — I think history will tell that the scope of Red McCombs’ leadership is unparalleled.” — Harry Adams
Photographs by Sarah Wilson
This article was originally published on McCombs Today.