“It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens
I’ve forgotten more about my life in motorsports than most people have experienced. That said, recently my declining memory was stimulated big time by a news story focusing on NASCAR team owner Gene Haas’ plans to launch a Formula One team in 2016. Simple math brought me to a not- previously contemplated fact that 30 years ago (1985) another Haas—Carl (no relation)—was in the process of putting together the largest, most talked about and best financed American Formula One effort ever. Oh, how the memories—both good and bad—came flooding back…a virtual cornucopia of the best and worst motorsports insider experiences.
The saga started with a phone call from long time client Haas asking me to join him and Beatrice Companies CEO James Dutt for lunch, a meeting I went into cold regarding what to expect, and with minimal expectations. Was I wrong! After a brief introduction, I spent the next half hour mostly listening, and offering comment/guidance only when asked. I found Dutt to be focused, well-informed and experienced in launching major corporate identity initiatives, including multi-brand marketing efforts tied to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Chicago Marathon and the Chicago stop on the PGA Tour. On the other hand, he seemed somewhat naive about the intricacies and scope of motorsports, particularly Formula One. Most important, however, his simple philosophy regarding brand building—“Go bigger and better than the competition can even contemplate”—touched a positive nerve in one who always had to fight the client budget battle trying to execute what we marketing types call “The Big Idea.”
Overall Jim and I seemed to hit it off well. What I wasn’t prepared for was a personal phone call from the chairman of a Fortune 500 company later that afternoon with an unsolicited dream job offer almost impossible to refuse.
Unlike the racing program strategy employed by most firms, Dutt’s vision for Beatrice had the direct opposite focus. Instead of promoting a single product to the trade and ultimate consumer, his idea involved creating a common corporate halo over the myriad of brands it controlled. Beatrice, founded as a Nebraska dairy in the 19th century, was a behemoth consumer products conglomerate with offerings ranging from familiar grocery brands such as Hunts, Tropicana and Butterball to rental cars (Avis) luggage (Samsonite) and women’s undergarments (Playtex). In addition, the firm was a major independent bottler of Coca-Cola, and owned the nation’s largest network of cold storage warehouses serving not only its own needs, but those of competitors as well. Worldwide, Beatrice owned roughly 200 brands with significant distribution on five continents. In short, the company was a major player in many everyday aspects of human life. Yet, few people recognized its scope and prowess.
For Dutt, a 35-year veteran of the company who came up through the ranks to the top job, this represented both a problem and an opportunity. While virtually all of its brands had high consumer acceptance for quality, there was little, if any, overt Beatrice visibility at the division level. If they performed well, the individual company heads were pretty much left to their own devices. Jim’s vision was to capitalize on the combined image of the firm’s products by including more prominent Beatrice corporate identification in the form of a red/white ribbon logo on most of its product offerings. Dutt felt this corporate sub-branding would lead to a worldwide marketing synergy between the individual divisions, benefiting all parties via co-branding partnership promotion efforts, while simultaneously establishing the parent company as an international leader in quality consumer products.
The rollout of this approach started with title sponsorship of the Chicago Marathon and a major corporate/brand tie-in to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. While successful, Dutt kept looking for a marketing approach that would have both worldwide impact and a longer calendar of opportunity than offered by an event such as the quadrennial Olympics. One evening, while dining at his favorite Chicago eatery, Dutt entered into a casual conversation regarding his corporate vision with the restaurant’s owner Joe Marchetti. Marchetti suggested Dutt take a look at Formula One and offered the name of another friend, Carl Haas, as someone who could provide considerably more insight on the subject. A meeting was arranged and, as they say, the rest is history.
In my career, being faced with calendar-sensitive situations was commonplace, but none had the magnitude the Beatrice program spawned. From scratch, Haas was expected to have a European-based Formula One team up and running in less than a year, supported by a dedicated marketing infrastructure involving active participation by as many Beatrice-owned divisions as possible. Additionally, Dutt further complicated the situation by insisting Haas and Indycar team partner Paul Newman opt out of their secure Budweiser sponsorship in favor of Beatrice. This move would eventually help doom the effort (more on that later).
From a business operations viewpoint, Beatrice made the perfect choice in aligning with Haas. Widely respected as a no-nonsense, get it done motorsports entrepreneur, Haas not only operated successful teams in multiple North American championships, but also was the continent’s largest importer of racing cars and components. His Lola and Hewland distributorships, along with sales of other racing-oriented parts, provided the needed connections to the international infrastructure of key suppliers and people needed to undertake such an effort. Going into his first meeting with Dutt, Haas had no intention or raging desire to go Grand Prix racing. His plate was full. However, after listening to the Beatrice Chairman elaborate on his vision and financial commitment, Haas quickly negotiated a multi-year contract that would all-but-guarantee success if undertaken with his usual sense of detail and professionalism.