Camping World CEO Takes on New Risk
Marcus Lemonis believes his path to NASCAR can be traced to when he was adopted, at 9 months old, in Beirut.
According to the Miami Herald, a couple from Miami raised him in South Florida and by the time he reached fourth grade, friends told him he would one day become a mayor.
"I always looked like I wanted to be in charge of everything," said Lemonis, CEO and chairman of national dealer network Camping World Inc. "I never knew I would be this lucky, but I always had a pretty good inkling that things would work out well. How many people get picked out of an orphanage in Lebanon and are sitting here 34 years later in this environment?
"It's the American story about opportunity."
And for Lemonis, it's about capitalizing on those opportunities, according to the Herald. He likes to take risks – running for office, delving into the business world, starting his own business. Lemonis' latest move: Agreeing to a multiyear deal for Camping World to sponsor NASCAR's truck series.
Lemonis, 34, wants to increase the visibility of Camping World. Camping World's logo can be seen on the hood of driver Ron Hornaday Jr.'s Chevy in the Craftsman Truck Series and Clint Bowyer's Chevy in the Nationwide series, but Lemonis said his company needed a more permanent platform.
He believes his company will fit well in NASCAR, which has thousands of fans who drive and stay in RVs at the races and use products Camping World sells such as grills, chairs and generators.
"This is not a pastime of mine; I'm not a true racing fan," Lemonis said Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "If I thought it was for the fun of it, I would sponsor the Miami Hurricanes because I'm a Hurricane fan, or the Dolphins. It's not about that. It's about the business."
Despite the economic downturn, Lemonis said, the title sponsorship will help create new business. He said Camping World, which boasts 3,500 employees, will cut its advertising budget by 20 percent for 2009 because of the economy.
"This particular expense is just a reallocation of other dollars," Lemonis said.
The title sponsorship will run at least seven years but both NASCAR chairman Brian France and Lemonis have declined to reveal its worth.
Lemonis stressed that it matters little how he feels about Camping World's ascendance to title sponsor today than its long-term value.
"I've never been a gambler," Lemonis said. "In fact when I go to Vegas, I just like the shows. I would liken my life to one big parlay card. I keep throwing all my chips on the table hoping it works out."
Lemonis, who graduated from Miami Columbus High and still has an apartment in Coconut Grove, lives with his wife, Ila, and their two daughters in Lake Forest, Ill.
He grew up in an entrepreneurial family. His father and grandfather owned Anthony Abraham Chevrolet, the largest Chevy dealership in Miami.
After graduating from Marquette University, Lemonis worked for the family business before deciding to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives. Lemonis, who was 22, lost and took a job at AutoNation in Miami.
During his time at AutoNation, Lemonis had a life-changing conversation with family friend Lee Iacocca, a former auto mogul.
"You can either be an average guy and continue to do what you're doing and plod along or you can take chances," Lemonis recalled. "He said, 'I think the RV industry is something you should get involved in. There's no trailblazer.' He laughed about it and said, 'Maybe one day you can be as famous as me.' He said it in a nice way."
Iacocca's words stuck, and Lemonis decided he would start an RV company. Lemonis has streamlined the RV industry, buying more than 100 RV companies from "mom and pop" businesses to Camping World.
"He was always very aggressive," said Lemonis' father, Leo, a Delray Beach resident. "He's very independent. I encouraged him, and at his age if he stumbled he would have been fine."
Marcus Lemonis' political defeat made him realize that. He said he lost because he spent too much time campaigning to voters who already approved of him. That lesson guides him now.
"In business, I don't need to keep talking to people I already know, I need to talk to people that I don't know," Lemonis said.
Now he is using that attitude to expand his company's role in NASCAR.
"Now you're with Home Depot and Coca-Cola," Lemonis told his employees. "You're not playing in the junior league."