Racing Ahead at Hendrick Motorsports

August 12, 2011 By unc kenan-flagler

As president and chief operating officer of Hendrick Motorsports, Marshall Carlson’s (BSBA ’96) business education from UNC Kenan-Flagler has served him well. Carlson oversees day-to-day operations of the organization, which employs more than 500 people and manages the stock car teams of drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin.

Carlson began his Hendrick Motorsports career at the ground level, sweeping floors in the chassis department as part of a summer internship in college, then started fulltime as a team engineer after graduating from UNC in 1996. In 2005, he was named general manager, and in 2010 he was promoted to his current role.

As Carlson progressed in his career, the skills and competencies necessary for success changed as well. “When you graduate, it is so important to have applicable skills that you can put to use right away because people’s perspectives about you are formed very quickly in the business environment,” explains Carlson. “If you come in and can immediately help solve problems and move the ball, that provides a lot of opportunities for you within the organization.”

“In the beginning, those general hard skills – like finance, accounting and legal knowledge – are a necessity, but over time the need for those hard skills is replaced with true functional learning from the business you are in,” he adds. “Soft skills are always important, but they become more so over time.”

As the leader of a team known as one the best in the industry, Carlson says Hendrick Motorsports differentiates itself by putting employees first.

“Our founder, Rick Hendrick, has always believed that employees come first. We spend a tremendous amount of time and energy taking care of our people and giving them the resources they need to be successful. That sounds simple, but it’s often glossed over. When you get below the surface, there are some real indicators of whether that’s happening or not.”

“For example,” explains Carlson, “our incentive system is set up so that when any team wins, all of the folks here benefit from that, regardless of which team they’re on. So if I’m on Jeff Gordon’s team and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins, I’m going to get the same benefit that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team gets. In addition, we talk about the importance of sharing knowledge and how that can help us succeed as a team.”

Teamwork is always crucial in the racing industry, and a pit crew is the perfect example of that. “These storm troopers have a very specific function and purpose, but at the same time they’re trained to be very aware of what’s going on around them,” says Carlson.

“If there’s a problem on one end of the car during a pit stop, that’s going to affect the entire team. They are literally conditioned to adapt to a changing environment and pitch in to help if needed. Situational awareness allows them to fall back and help others recover when something doesn’t go according to plan.”

This experience applies in a business setting as well. Earlier this year, Carlson hosted UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Class of 2011 MBA Leadership Immersion class in Hendrick Motorsports’ corporate office and offered his tips for the first 90 days on a job.

“I encouraged the students to think of their role in multiple layers. Obviously you have to have competence and capability in your specific area, but to really grow in that organization, that willingness to pitch in, learn and support other functions around them is so important, especially in the first 90 days. It’s similar to pit crew members being able to shift their frame of reference from immediate tasks to more generally what’s going on around them. And in the business setting, those are the people who show aptitude for higher management and a successful career.”

What does Carlson enjoy most about his own successful career? Winning. “I think the most rewarding part is winning with my teammates. It’s just so gratifying when we’ve all put effort into doing our best. When that can stand up to the competition and we’re fortunate to come out on top, that’s an incredible feeling.”

Marshall Carlson (far right) hosted the Leadership Immersion group earlier this year.