Red McCombs, Used Car Salesman Turned Media Mogul, Dies at 95
Red McCombs, a former Texas used car dealer who became a billionaire entrepreneur by venturing into an array of successful businesses, including the media giant Clear Channel Communications and several professional sports teams, died on Sunday at his home in San Antonio. He was 95.
His family announced his death but did not state the cause.
Mr. McCombs was a flamboyant wheeler-dealer who created more than 400 businesses across an array of industries, including oil, real estate, cattle, insurance, movies and racehorses, often selling them at a substantial profit. At various times he owned a pro football team, the Minnesota Vikings, and two pro basketball teams, the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets.
But his heart was in the automobile business, where he began as a standout car salesman in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1950. He went on to start his own dealership, and then expanded it into a network that at its peak in 1998 included more than 100 outlets, making it the largest car dealership in Texas and sixth largest in the United States.
“I was an entrepreneur before I knew what the word was and certainly before I could spell it,” Mr. McCombs said in a 2006 radio interview. “New deals, new opportunities, new ventures are always a part of my life.”
A University of Texas alumnus and a passionate Longhorns football fan, Mr. McCombs parlayed his love of sports into ownership of a minor-league baseball team in Corpus Christi in the 1950s.
Then he bought the Dallas Chaparrals of the old American Basketball Association in 1973, relocated the team to San Antonio for the 1973-74 season and changed its name to the Spurs.
When the A.B.A. and N.B.A. merged in 1976, he played a key role in having the Spurs included in the merger. He sold the team in 1982 and acquired the Nuggets, only to sell that franchise in 1985 for $19 million, nearly twice what he’d paid for it. He then repurchased the Spurs for $47 million before selling it in 1993 for $75 million (about $157 million in today’s money).
In a statement on Monday, the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, called Mr. McCombs “a driving force in creating the modern N.B.A.”
In 1998, Mr. McCombs purchased the N.F.L.’s Minnesota Vikings for $246 million, but grew impatient with futile 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 the Circuit of the Americas, the Austin track where the annual U.S. Grand Prix race has been held since 2012.
In a statement on Monday, the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, called Mr. McCombs “a true Texas titan across sports, media, business and philanthropy” who had “followed his dreams.”
Mr. McCombs’s most lucrative venture was Clear Channel, which he co-founded with Lowry Mays in 1972, when they purchased a local radio station in San Antonio, KEEZ-FM, for $125,000. (Mr. Mays died in September at 87.)
The two men continued to acquire radio stations, then television stations and billboards around the country. Aided by the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act, which allowed media conglomerates to own an unlimited number of stations, they built the company into the world’s largest owner of radio stations; by 2000, Clear Channel owned more than 1,200.
The company eventually expanded into event promotion, live music and sports management. Mr. Lowry oversaw the business, but Mr. McCombs was instrumental in seizing opportunities to expand, according to John Hogan, the company’s former chairman and chief executive.
“He was steadfast in support of the notion that when the telecommunications regulations changed in 1996, we had to move quickly and aggressively, and that those who were slow and hesitant would get left behind,” Mr. Hogan said in an interview for this obituary.
Though the company was often criticized for homogenizing radio programming in a way that eliminated much of the local flavor of independent radio stations, the formula was extremely profitable. When Mr. Lowry began to see signs that the internet would disrupt its well-oiled strategy, he and Mr. McCombs sold the company in 2006 for $17.9 billion to a private equity group led by Bain Capital Partners and Thomas H. Lee Partners. As part of the deal, the group agreed to take on more than $8 billion in the company’s debt.
The timing was perfect for selling. Clear Channel’s fortunes plunged almost immediately. In 2014, the company split into Clear Channel Outdoor, for the billboard business, and iHeartMedia, for the radio stations and other media properties.
Billy Joe McCombs was born in the tiny West Texas town of Spur on Oct. 19, 1927. His father, Willie Nathan McCombs, was a sharecropper and later an auto mechanic. His mother, Gladys McCombs, came from a family of farmers.
Billy, whose shock of red hair earned him the lifelong nickname “Red,” showed an entrepreneurial bent as early as age 9, when he began selling bags of peanuts to migrant cotton pickers. He was 15 when his family moved to Corpus Christi, where he became a standout high school football player, eventually winning a scholarship to Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. He left college to serve in the Army for two years before returning and enrolling at the University of Texas in 1948 on the G.I. Bill.
But he dropped out to start a business career. He landed a job at the local Ford dealership in Corpus Christi and realized that he had found his calling. Just 22, he set a goal of selling a car a day and, by his account, managed to accomplish that feat for three years straight.
In 1950, he married Charline Hamblin, who died in 2019 at 91. He is survived by their three daughters, Lynda McCombs, Marsha Shields and Connie McNab; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
After selling new cars for several years, Mr. McCombs realized that he could make more money selling used cars, he wrote in his autobiography, “Big Red: Memoirs of a Texas Entrepreneur and Philanthropist” (2010). New cars, he thought, were all alike, but “every used car is unique” and had a story to tell.
“People like stories about the things they might be interested in buying,” he wrote.
In 1957, at 29, he opened his first new car dealership, in Corpus Christi. But it sold Edsels, a Ford brand that would become synonymous with automotive failure. Though he sold many cars, he said, he knew that the brand would not survive. (The Edsel was discontinued in 1959.)
“I was selling it myself and I could see the resistance,” he said. “We had to shoehorn everyone into it, and after I’d 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 there befriended Mr. Mays. The two soon began buying up radio stations, ultimately turning Clear Channel Communications into a behemoth. Mr. McCombs knew the power of radio and outdoor advertising from his experience with auto dealerships.
He did his own radio and television commercials for 25 years, becoming a Texas celebrity along the way. He struggled for years with alcoholism and nearly died at age 48 after a serious case of hepatitis. He gave up alcohol then, and often spoke candidly about his addiction.
In 2000, Mr. McCombs and his wife gave a gift of $50 million to the University of Texas business school — the single 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 major donor to Republican politicians, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and President Donald J. Trump.
Of all of his business achievements, Clear Channel was his most significant, Mr. McCombs declared in his autobiography. “I would never have thought I could ever have had a chance to do something like Clear Channel,” he wrote. “That’s why I don’t really believe in long-term plans. There was no way I could have ever planned Clear Channel.”