Car salesman-turned-media mogul Red McCombs dies at 95
A Texas-based entrepreneur, he co-founded media giant Clear Channel, owned by Pro Sports teams and built more than 400 businesses across industries.
Former Texas car dealer Reid McCombs, who stepped into several successful businesses, including media company Clear Channel Communications and several professional sports teams, died sunday at his home in San Antonio to become a billionaire businessman. He was 95 years old.
His family announced his death but did not give the reason.
Mr. McCombs was a high-speed wheeler dealer who set up more than 400 businesses in a variety of industries, including oil, real estate, livestock, insurance, films, and race horses, often selling them at considerable profits. At different times he owned a pro football team, the Minnesota Vikings, and two pro basketball teams, the San Antonio Spurs and the Denver Nuggets.
But his heart lay in the automobile business, where he started out as a prominent car salesman in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1950. They started their own dealership, and then expanded it into a network that included more than 1998 outlets at its peak in 100, making it the largest car dealership in Texas and the sixth largest car dealership in the United States.
”Before I knew what the word was and certainly before I could pronounce it, I was a businessman,” Mr. McCombs said in a radio interview in 2006. New deals, new opportunities, new projects are always a part of my life.
An alumnus of the University of Texas and an ardent fan of Longhorns football, Mr. McCombs expressed his love for sports in the 1950s owned by a small league burball team at Corpus Christi.
He then bought the old American Basketball Association’s Dallas Chaperles in 1973, moved the team to San Antonio for the 1973–74 season and renamed it Spurs.
When the ABA and NBA merged in 1976, they were instrumental in incorporating The Spurs into the merger. He sold the team in 1982 and acquired Nuggets, only to sell the franchise in 1985 for $19 million, which was almost double the amount paid for it. He then repurchased Spurs for $47 million and sold it in 1993 for $75 million (about $157 million in today’s amount).
In a statement On Monday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver described Mr. McCombs as “a driving force in the creation of a modern NBA.”
In 1998, Mr. McCombs bought the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings for $246 million, but became unnerved by failed attempts to build a new stadium for the team in the Minneapolis area. He sold the Vikings for $600 million in 2005.
He also played a key role in bringing Formula One racing to Austin by investing in Circuit of the Americas, the Austin track where the annual U.S. Grand Prix race has been held since 2012.
In a statement Monday, Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones described Mr McCombs as “a true Titan of Texas in sports, media, business and philanthropy” who “followed his dreams.”
Mr. McCombs’ most profitable project was The Clear Channel, which he founded in 1972 in collaboration with Laurie Maes, when he purchased a local radio station in San Antonio, KEEZ-FM, for $125,000. (Mr. Mays died in September at the age of 87.)
The two men continued to acquire radio stations, then television stations and billboards across the country. With the help of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed media groups to own an unlimited number of stations, they built the company as the world’s largest owner of radio stations. By 2000, The Clear Channel owned more than 1,200.
The company eventually expanded into event promotion, live music and sports management. According to John Hogan, the company’s former chairman and chief executive, Mr. Lowry oversaw the business, but Mr. McCombs played a key role in taking advantage of expansion opportunities.
Mr Hogan said in an interview that he was steadfast in supporting the idea that when the rules of telecommunications changed in 1996, we had to move fast and aggressively and those who were slow and hesitant would be left behind.
Although the company was often criticized for synchronizing radio programming in a way that eroded much of the local flavor of independent radio stations, the formula was highly profitable. When Mr. Lowry began to see signs that the Internet would disrupt his good strategy, he and Mr. McCombs sold the company in 2006 for $17.9 billion to a private equity group led by Ben Capital Partners and Thomas H. Lee Partners. As part of the deal, the group agreed to take more than $8 billion in the company’s debt.
The time was perfect for sale. Clear Chanel’s fortunes fell almost instantly. In 2014, the company split into Clear Channel Outdoor for the Billboard business, and iHeart Media for radio stations and other media properties.
Billy Joe McCombs was born on October 19, 1927, in the small town of Spur in West Texas. His father, Wally Nathan McCombs, was a sharecropper and later an auto mechanic. His mother, Gladys McCombs, was from a farming family.
Billy, whose red hair stroke earned him the nickname “red” all his life, showed a business inclination at the age of 9, when he started selling peanut bags to migrant cotton pickers. He was 15 when his family moved to Corpus Christi, where he became a prominent high school football player, eventually earning a scholarship to Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. He left college to serve in the military for two years and returned and enrolled at the University of Texas on the GI Bill in 1948.
But he dropped out of school to start a business career. He got a job at a local Ford dealership in Corpus Christi and realized he had received his call. At the age of just 22, he set a target of selling one car a day and, according to himself, managed to achieve this feat for three consecutive years.
In 1950, he married Charlene Hamblin, who died in 2019 at the age of 91. He is survived by his three daughters Linda McCombs, Marsha Shields and Connie McNab. Eight grandchildren. and 11 grandchildren.
After selling new cars for many years, Mr. McCombs realized he could make more money by selling used cars, he wrote in his biography, “Big Red: Memoirs of a Texas Entrepreneur and Philanthropist” (2010). He thought new cars were all the same, but “every used car is unique” and had a story to tell.
He wrote that people love stories about things they are interested in buying.
In 1957, at the age of 29, he opened his first new car dealership at Corpus Christie. But it sold the Ford brand adsells which would become synonymous with automotive failure. He said that although he sold many vehicles, he knew that the brand would not survive. (Edsel was closed in 1959.)
”I was selling it myself and I could see resistance,” he said. “We all had to get into it, and when I sold them to all my friends, I had nowhere to go. It was time to move on. “
He moved to San Antonio in 1958 and befriended Mr. Mays there. The two soon began buying radio stations, eventually turning Clear Channel Communications into a larger entity. Mr. McCombs was aware of the power of radio and outdoor advertising from his experience with auto dealerships.
He did his radio and television commercials for 25 years, becoming a Texas celebrity along the way. He struggled with alcoholism for many years and died at the age of about 48 after a serious case of hepatitis. At that time, he had given up drinking, and often spoke openly about his addiction.
In 2000, Mr. McCombs and his wife donated $50 million to the University of Texas Business School, the largest donation in the school’s history at the time. It was renamed the McCombs School of Business. He and his wife also donated $30 million to the University’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Mr. McCombs was a key donor to Republican politicians, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz and President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. McCombs declared in his biography that of all his business achievements, the Clear Channel was his most important. He wrote, ‘I never thought that I could ever get a chance to do something like Clear Channel. That’s why I don’t believe in long-term plans. There was no way I could plan a Clear Channel.