The Name of the Game: Forrest Lucas

Born into poverty in Southern Indiana, Forrest Lucas knows the value of a dollar. But since he dropped $122 million of his own hard-earned cash to have his name on the Colts’ new stadium, the self-made millionaire and oil-additives titan is reaping benefits even he could not imagine.

January 2007Add a comment

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the January 2007 issue, after the Indianapolis Colts announced Lucas Oil had secured the naming rights to the team’s new stadium. According to recent reports, Forrest Lucas is on President-elect Donald Trump’s shortlist for U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

If ever the Colts needed their full cheerleading squad on the field, it’s now. This afternoon’s game has unfurled as one of the closest of the year, and the visiting Bills are shredding the Indy defense, bullying their way into field-goal range. Nevertheless, at this crucial moment, three beaming young women in sequined bikini tops and fringed white chaps burst into one of the luxury suites at the RCA Dome, flaunting immaculate white teeth and taut abdomens. Soon enough, the trio gravitates toward an affable 64-year-old man who’s been floating about the room, smiling and glad-handing his visitors.

Forrest Lucas excuses himself from his guests—among them, steady corporate clients and a few bright new sales prospects for his seemingly bottomless line of heavy-duty oil stabilizers, fuel additives, stop-leak solutions, semi-synthetic automatic-transmission treatments, chain lubricants, and high-performance motor oils. “Sorry,” he says, grinning as the young women surround him. “I have more important things to deal with here.”

Lucas drapes his long arms around the cheerleaders’ shoulders. The crow’s feet deepen at the borders of his brown eyes, his smile a perfect distillation of humility and pride as he readies himself for the photo op. If the women were dressed differently, you might mistake him for their proud father. Lucas himself wears a short-sleeved, button-up shirt bearing the logo of Lucas Oil Stadium—his company trademark intertwined with the Colts’ horseshoe. In a few years, his name and that logo will reign supreme over the Colts’ new home—gracing everything from 63,000 cup holders to the scoreboard to the retractable roof.

Since Lucas bought the stadium naming rights from the Colts at a cost of $122 million over 22 years—the fifth-most-expensive such deal in the NFL—he has garnered perhaps more attention in his home state than if he’d bought the entire team. For three straight days last March, The Indianapolis Star ran photos of Lucas and his wife, Charlotte, on its front page. The local TV news devoted more airtime to the Corona, California–based Lucas Oil Products than any paid advertiser could ever hope for.

The Colts won’t play their inaugural game at Lucas Oil Stadium for nearly two years, but Lucas has already seen a return on his investment nearly as disproportionate as the media coverage. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson have reached out to him, and the city’s bus system and the state’s transportation garage have begun field-testing his products. Local civic leaders are courting him to return and bring his corporate headquarters with him—a notion not that remote, since Lucas Oil’s plant in Corydon now accounts for 70 percent of the company’s manufacturing output, and most of Lucas’s six children and 11 grandchildren reside in Indiana.

The attention is already generating new business. Lonnie Hinkle, suite guest and district manager for 47 Indiana Jiffy Lube locations, requests—and is granted—his own snapshot alongside Lucas. “As soon as the stadium deal was announced,” Hinkle says, “the public started asking about Lucas Oil, So we thought we should start carrying the stuff.” Other Indiana businesses, from auto-parts stores to trash-hauling companies, have become new Lucas Oil customers.

As the self-made, Southern Indiana–born owner of the fastest-growing oil-additives company in the world, Lucas has enjoyed his share of attention, particularly as the major sponsor of the National Hot Rod Association drag-racing circuit these last four years. Lucas’s transformation is the perfect raw material for a glowing business profile: from dirt-poor Midwestern farm kid to long-distance trucker to master salesman and self-taught oil innovator to sole owner of a global enterprise with more than $100 million in annual sales. But Southern California has no shortage of improbable successes, and Lucas’s purchase of the Colts’ stadium has brought him acclaim of an entirely different magnitude.

“The Colts saw better than we did what would ensue from all this,” Lucas says. “It’s the story of the homeboy who comes back and makes good.” In the luxury box now, he’s all folksiness and soft-spoken drawl, more trucker than tycoon. When the pastry cart rolls in, Lucas declines, saying he prefers the pies they serve in the diners and roadside stands of rural Missouri, where he and his wife have a sprawling cattle ranch.

Keeping an eye on the game, Lucas is more focused on charming the Colts brass and potential customers milling about the luxury box. It’s an open question whether he even registers what fans will later vote the official Lucas Oil High Octane Play of the Game. If his purchase of NFL stadium rights is perhaps the most audacious gamble he has made in his career, Lucas is going to bring all his intensity, charm, and drive toward tipping the odds in his favor. “When I moved out to L.A.,” he says to his guests, “I met a lot of ex-millionaires. They were the ones who had never been poor. But the ones who’ve been down low—we tend to hold on to it.”

 

Lucas launched his business career during the waning months of the Truman administration on the dirt and gravel roads of Southern Indiana. At the end of a day spent scratching out subsistence from the Brown County soil, a farmer’s wife would hear a knock at the door, and if she looked straight ahead, she might miss him at first—a 9-year-old boy, bare-chested and barefooted but with hair neatly combed, launching into his genial pitch for Cloverine Salve. Chapped lips, aching limbs, minor cuts—Lucas was prepared to sell them the miracle ointment for all that ailed them.

On an Elkinsville farm, the Lucas family—Raymond and Marie, Forrest and his three younger sisters—led an existence of rural deprivation not so far removed from that of Abraham Lincoln’s youth. Lucas would rise early to take care of the livestock, then return to the cows and pigs after school until evening. “We didn’t have electricity; we lived pretty much like people lived back in the 1800s,” he recalls. “Most people now could only read about that, but I got to see the tail end of it. Most people think it’s kind of bucolic, but it’s actually a pretty hard way to go.” The Elkinsville of Lucas’s boyhood was not only the tail end of a way of life. In little more than a decade, with the damming of Salt Creek, all the farms in the area would be leveled to make way for Monroe Reservoir and Bloomington’s water supply.

Although the Lucas family came from farming stock, Raymond was an itinerant bricklayer and mason. “He made his living doing this, that, and the other,” Lucas recalls. “He worked in concrete a lot, poured a lot of concrete floors. It was all rough stuff. He never had an easy day in his life.” Raymond would not win his war with the bottle until his early 40s, and his alcoholism only contributed to his children’s marginal existence. Marie Lucas, Forrest’s mother, worked full-time as a seamstress and took restaurant jobs in the evening or whatever other work was available.

The children’s labors were not limited to work in the fields, the dishes, and the garbage. One of their more monotonous chores was to shake a half-gallon jar of cream until it became butter. Once, the task fell to Lucas right after he’d bought a new comic book. He had told his sister Connie about his dilemma, and she decided to take a peek and see how he’d resolved it. Opening the door to the front porch, she bore witness to one of his earliest inventions. “He was in the rocking chair,” Connie Schooler remembers, “and he had tied a rag to the runner and looped it around the jar, and was rocking like crazy, and he was reading the comic book and churning the butter.”

When he was 12, Lucas started showing prize cows at the Indiana and Kentucky state fairs, missing the first couple of weeks of school in the process. At 15, he left home and took a job on a cattle ranch in Harrison County. By age 18, he had married, and his first son was born. Over the next few years, he bought a ’48 Ford dump truck and hauled dirt and gravel or did construction during the day, and worked a muffler assembly line at night. He also sold Fuller brushes and Singer sewing machines.

By 1963, he had scraped together enough to buy his first semi, “I’d see these guys going down the road,” he recalls, “and maybe they were going somewhere. I wanted to get into the truck and go somewhere.” He signed a contract with Mayflower Transit Company. On December 30, 1963, the hard soil of his Southern Indiana youth receding into the rearview, Lucas began moving customers, and himself and his young family, hopefully, to better places.

 

The summer of 2005, when Lucas Oil was still just the official motor oil of the Indianapolis Colts, Forrest Lucas and his wife dropped by for a visit at the RCA Dome with Tom Zupancic, the team’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. The Colts’ former strength-and-conditioning coach, Zupancic is also an Indiana Hall of Fame football player and a finalist for the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team, and once managed to bench-press 600 pounds. His entire body resembles an enormous flexed bicep, and he had directed all that power to arranging a welcome for the Lucases all out of proportion to their current involvement with the team. He purchased the company’s entire line of oil products, then started strategically deploying them throughout the stadium. “I started walking Forrest and Charlotte around,” Zupancic recalls, “and we looked into the training room, and our head trainer, Hunter Smith, yelled out, ‘Hey, do you have any more of this Lucas Oil? It’s the only thing that’s working on this guy’s knee.’ And he looked like he was putting it on this player’s leg.” They went on to find Lucas lubricant in all the players’ lockers. In the equipment room, the equipment men poured themselves cups of it and pretended to drink it like it was cola. Stopping by the Colts’ in-house bank, a sales associate smiled at the couple and asked, “Would you like to open an account? If you do you get a case of this,” and presented them a quart of Lucas Oil stabilizer. Zupancic concluded the tour with a visit to the radio announcer’s booth, where he played a recording of Colts announcer Chris Owens saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Lucas Oil Stadium!” “We were just having fun with the sponsors,” Zupancic says, “showing them we care about them.”

Lucas read more into it. “I took it serious,” Lucas says, “and I think they were serious too.”

When winter came, and Zupancic started looking for a buyer in earnest, Lucas Oil still wasn’t necessarily at the top of his list. “Indiana’s not full of major headquarters,” Zupancic says. “We assumed we were going to do a lot of travel, more than likely out on the road, overseas—an out-of-the-suitcase presentation.” In early December 2005, he nevertheless approached Lucas through one of the company’s employees in Indianapolis. “Taken aback? Those are small, small words for what I felt,” says Lucas. “My first reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding—there’s no way we can do something like that.’ And then I said, ‘Wait, let’s look at it.’“ He brought it up with his team in California, and they also thought it was crazy, but Lucas advised them to at least sit and talk about it. The Colts threw a dollar figure at them, and they talked some more. “I said, ‘They obviously want a lot of money,’“ Lucas recalls. “So others have tried to beat them down, you know, and I said, ‘You know, this could make us. We’re ready for the next level of growth.’“

Lucas Oil’s line of engine and fuel additives had caught on at truck stops, as long-distance haulers with aging rigs sought a way to stay on the road. But its most effective advertising in the past few years had been as the dominant sponsor of the NHRA, backing not only the national circuit, but also Top Fuel drivers—Lucas’s son Morgan among them. Exposure on local Colts broadcasts, as well as in New England, New York, Houston, and all the other markets where the team’s competitors play—to say nothing of Monday Night Football—would give Lucas Oil far greater penetration than drag racing. Lucas was also intrigued by the prestige of having his company enter the same playing field as naming-rights sponsors like FedEx and AT&T. “This is about marketing,” Lucas says. “People like to buy from successful companies. I learned a long time ago, and this is something that Fortune 500 companies do. We’re obviously the smallest company that’s ever done this.”

In December 2005, Lucas and the Colts held their pivotal meeting. Zupancic still viewed the whole thing largely as an exercise to hone his presentation to mega-corporations in the weeks ahead, but he pulled out all the stops. He picked up the couple in Colts owner Jim Irsay’s helicopter. As they hovered over the massive hole that would become the Colts’ new home, a huge banner unfurled over the job site, heralding “Lucas Oil Stadium.” Two Colts cheerleaders greeted them as they touched down. The conference room was again festooned with Lucas lubricants and performance enhancers. Zupancic found himself presenting his case to a rapt audience. “In my mind, again, I thought it was a run-through,” Zupancic remembers, “but as I got into it and I saw Forrest, the look in his eye, I knew he was listening more intently than someone just going into an exercise.” At the end of the five-hour meeting, Lucas looked at his executives and his wife, said it was “a heck of an investment opportunity,” closed the book, and told Zupancic he had a deal. “I jumped up, I got very emotional,” Zupancic says, “I actually picked him up off the ground.” And no matter how remote the eventuality, the Colts VP had been entirely prepared. “I’m always pretty confident,” Zupancic says, “so I had two bottles of Champagne on ice.”

 

The person playing the role of Santa Claus at the Lucas Oil Christmas party must be prepared to weather a seemingly endless parade of rear ends—of all different ages and sizes. For hours, St. Nick doles out crystal vases, flatware, sweaters, jewelry cases, and cosmetics not only to the spouses of his 254 workers, but to anyone else in their extended family who happens to live under the same roof. The kids, of course, get toys. “Forrest buys presents for everybody in the company,” says Bob Patison, Lucas Oil’s executive vice president and general counsel. “My wife has to start shopping for them in November. Most of our employees are Hispanic, and they have uncles, aunts, and grandmas living with them. Part of the fun is seeing a 60- or 70-year-old grandma sitting on Santa’s lap.”

In Southern California, the exploitation of cheap, temporary Mexican and Central American labor accounts for much of what’s left of the manufacturing base’s work forces. Immigrants make up about half of Lucas Oil’s workforce, too, but the company pays full dental and medical benefits for all salaried employees and their families, as well as sick pay, vacation pay, and contributions to a retirement plan. “That’s how strong Forrest feels about families and employees, and his sense of responsibility for taking care of them,” says Patison. “The guy running the filling machine gets the same benefits I get.”

Lucas has helped workers with a down payment on an entry-level home, or an upgrade to a minivan, while Patison has provided them with free legal work, on citizenship and other matters. Many employees have come to Lucas Oil to escape the rural poverty of their home countries—a journey Lucas can viscerally relate to. “They are living just like I lived when I was young,” he says, “when everyone knew the value of a dollar, and you didn’t get anything you wanted or everything you wanted. You really got a few things you wanted, and you had to want them pretty bad. Families worked together to get by. That’s the way Americans used to do it, and these families still live like that.”

When Lucas pulled out of Indiana for his first cross-country haul in 1964, he had a plan to help his family get what it wanted. He would work hard for a few years, save up a bunch of money, buy some kind of small business, and sell the truck. For six years, he got by as cheaply as he could, drove his rig mostly along the local roads that would soon be wiped out by the interstate highway system, and, in the process, compromised his back. He pulled together enough to buy a second truck and eventually open a convenience store, but otherwise didn’t make much progress toward financial independence. “The problem I had was my wife at that time couldn’t stand to save money,” he says. “She’d spend it as fast as I made it.” In 1969, he divorced. He established an office in the small town of Marengo, Indiana, and began buying additional trucks. He converted the convenience store into the Rodeo Bar and Grill, which hosted music on Friday nights. “I learned a lot about people there in a hurry, I’ll tell you what,” Lucas says. “Everything you do, you learn something about marketing—what people are like, what turns them on, or what turns them off.”

By the late ’70s, Lucas was wearing his dark brown hair shaggy, over the collar and halfway down his ears—the kind of cut many Southern Indiana barbers at the time didn’t know what to do with. A girl he was dating took him to Charlotte’s Beauty Salon in a little town called Seven Acres. The salon was actually the enclosed front porch of a house that had belonged to Charlotte’s grandparents. She had one cutting station and three hair dryers, and a television always switched to the soaps in the living room just beyond. He ambled up, tall and lean in his cowboy boots and jeans and a tapered Western shirt, and asked for a styling. “I got a good haircut, but I wasn’t thinking about the haircut at the time. I thought she was the prettiest girl I ever met, and she liked me, too.”

He became a regular customer. One Saturday, he came in looking a little more wound up than usual. “He walked into the living room,” Charlotte recalls, “and when the last customer left, he was still walking around. I asked if he wanted a haircut, and he said, ‘I don’t really need one.’ I think he kind of just gave me a kiss, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute here.’ Then we sat down and talked some more.”

After they married in 1982, Charlotte relocated her salon next to Lucas’s home in Marengo; then she left the business to work as the office manager of Lucas Lines, with her husband doing the maintenance, repairs, and dispatching on a fleet that grew to 14 moving trucks. Often the rigs broke down so far away from headquarters Lucas would have to pay a premium to have them fixed locally. In 1986, the couple took a trip to Southern California, the final destination of so many of the company’s long-distance hauls. Charlotte fell in love. “We came over on Fourth of July weekend,” she says. “I told him to get the furniture, and then I went house-hunting.” Back in Marengo, Lucas crammed all their possessions into a Lucas Lines van.

 

With the deregulation of the trucking industry in 1979, Lucas Lines’ margins had dwindled, and the company’s aging trucks were prone to more break-downs. It was to compensate for his deteriorating rolling stock that Lucas says he first began dabbling in oil additives in the early 1980s. The industry, historically, has a less-than-stellar reputation. The Federal Trade Commission has at various times cited STP, Dura Lube, Valvoline, Slick 50, and other leading brands for deceptive advertising. “For the most part, oil additives have been a lot of scam stuff out there,” Lucas says. “It always had, and still has, lots of products that don’t work. Some are marginal.” He began experimenting with oil additives himself, reading up on the subject, collaborating with a chemist. “Since I knew how the engines, transmissions, and hydraulic systems worked,” Lucas says, “I knew how the oil should work, so by virtue of mixing together different additives, I was able to fix a lot of problems. Our trucks were the guinea pigs.” By 1989, Lucas Lines would be dissolved, and Lucas Oil would be his sole enterprise.

Lucas says he hit the nail pretty much on the head at the beginning. “I went looking for ways to make it better, and I came across something that really is our secret formula. Our main additive now is something that nobody else was using, and to my knowledge, nobody else is still using. It’s expensive and hard to work with, but it was obvious that it should make the oil great, and I tried it, and it did.”

Lucas Oil doesn’t disclose any of its ingredients. In a March 2002 profile of Lucas, a Southern California newspaper claimed that his breakthrough additive had been developed by Exxon, originally for cars, but at the time was only being used for non-automotive purposes. Lucas rejects that assertion, which the reporter attributed to him. “I don’t believe I said that,” he says today. “I would not have said anything using their company name. Nothing there that I would have said.”

Charlotte Lucas acts as her husband’s business manager and has implemented a computer system to handle accounts as Lucas Oil expands. Lucas takes care of the inventing, sales, and marketing. How long Lucas Oil itself can run as essentially a mom-and-pop operation, however, remains a question. While most American manufacturers are moving production overseas, Lucas opened a sprawling plant in Corydon just two years ago, first because he didn’t want to ship jobs abroad, and second, because most of his children and grandkids live in Southern Indiana, and the surest way to get them to join the company was to move operations closer to them. While most companies with annual sales in excess of $100 million hire mid-level management, Lucas Oil’s executive team is all of four people: Forrest and Charlotte Lucas, Bob Patison, and Tom Frederickson, the CFO.

Modern Wall Street analysts would cringe at such retrograde company policies. But Lucas Oil has never courted outside investors. A privately held company, it is beholden to none of the dominant forces of American corporate life, only the nostalgic Southern Indiana contours of Forrest Lucas’s personality. The company sells to major auto-parts chains like Pep Boys and AutoZone but steers clear of the brutal cost-cutting that big-box retailers demand of their suppliers.

While making few short-term concessions, Lucas Oil has made some amazing short-term gains. The company won’t release sales figures, but Patison estimates gross sales increases of 30 to 40 percent per year. NPD Group, a company that reports sales volume of oil additives from the 10 largest auto-parts companies (but not from independents or truck stops), values this fraction of the overall market at $118 million for the 12 months ending September 2006—of which Lucas claims about 40 percent. “Lucas Oil is the leading brand in the oil-additives segment,” says David Portalatin, an NPD industry analyst who estimates that the company accounts for nearly all of the segment’s recent growth. “In the last three years, they’ve certainly had the dominant position.”

Globally, the company has expanded operations to Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America. Lucas chose to launch his line of performance motor oils abroad before introducing them to the domestic market. “We opened an office in England, and the additives weren’t doing real good over there; people weren’t used to additives. So we started bottling our own oils over there because here you can buy a quart for a couple of bucks or less, and there it’s maybe 10 bucks, and in Italy it’s like $30 for a quart of good oil. So people try to make it last a long time.”

With strong business growth, the company’s product spreading to every continent, and Lucas Oil poised to become a player in the motor-oil business, can the folksy command structure be maintained? “It’s scary how fast it is growing,” Charlotte admits. “I still think of myself as primarily a country girl, and I can’t change as fast as I might need to.”

 

As Lucas was signing the papers for his historic pact with the Colts, a reporter asked him whether he’d consider relocating his company to Indiana—bringing the Indiana homeboy back home. “I kind of facetiously said that if the city and state buy enough product from us, we might consider it. I said, ‘Let us prove to you that even though our products cost more, in the long run they’re a whole lot cheaper. We can save this state a fortune.’”

Governor Mitch Daniels and Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson both responded to the sales pitch, and in recent months, state vehicles and the city bus system have been field-testing Lucas oils and additives.

And the Lucases have other powerful inducements for returning. His extended family is overwhelmingly based in Indiana. He recently finished a 220,000-foot expansion of his Corydon plant, which has far eclipsed his Southern California facility in manufacturing output. He spends a good chunk of his time tending to the 3,000 cattle grazing at his 13,000-acre Circle-L Ranch in Missouri. As 2006 was winding down, Lucas spent almost all his waking hours in the Midwest, finally flying back to California to preside over the company Christmas party. And both he and his wife have recently reinstated their Indiana driver’s licenses.

Among the most powerful lures is the prospect of living closer to the Colts’ new home. Since last March, Indianapolis has bathed Lucas in the kind of mass adulation that California never has and never will. “Forrest would be a big fish in this pond,” says Mayor Bart Peterson. “He would be somebody who would be noticed, because of his roots, and the fact that he’s proud of those roots. He’d have a real place at the top of the business community of Indianapolis and the whole state of Indiana.” If Lucas ever needs a reminder of his remarkable ascent from dirt-poor beginnings in Elkinsville, he’d need only take a short drive to the greatest sports palace the city ever built, and see his name at its summit.

Nevertheless, the farm boy’s name didn’t get to the top of that arena by ego-gratification alone. “I know how important it would be for Indiana for us to move back there,” says Lucas. “We’re not trying to keep away from Indiana, and hold out for a ransom or anything like that, but it’s just a big deal to make that move.” Bottom line if the state wants Lucas back, it’s probably going to have to commit to buying an awful lot of Lucas oil. “If someone were to do a lot for us,” Lucas says, “we might reciprocate. And certainly, I’m not saying anything, but fair is fair.”

And, it might be argued, just as the decision to move West was made at home, the decision to come back might be made there as well. The West Coast doesn’t have the hold on the couple it did a decade ago. “California has gotten really crowded,” Lucas says. “So it’s not quite as nice a place as it used to be, even though we love being out there and seeing all the employees.” Charlotte, who instructed her husband to fill up the van and drive all their belongings to California two decades ago, is far from resistant to the move. “Indiana,” she says, “is what we think of as home.” Readjusting to the small-town Southern Indiana lifestyle after 23 years away would take some doing, but the state capital is a different story. “I keep telling Forrest, if he wants to move to Indianapolis, let me know,” Charlotte says. “I’ll be house-hunting.”

 

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