In the Driving Seat

Zak Brown founded JMI in 1995, selling the motor sport agency to Chime Communications in October 2013. This March he was made Group CEO of Chime’s sports marketing division, CSM Sport & Entertainment.

I was a real Hot Wheels kid. My dad was a motor sport fan, and we would go to any race that came to town. I was at the [IndyCar] 1987 Grand Prix of Long Beach where Mario Andretti won when I said ‘I want to do this’.

I was wheeling and dealing at an early age. I went on [TV game show] Wheel of Fortune and ended up winning a bunch of Cartier watches. I sold them at a pawn shop for around $3,000 to buy a go-kart. I wish I had the watches now, but I may never have had a racing career without selling them.

I was always underfunded and always the underdog. The whole of my racing career was stressful because I never had enough money and wasn’t getting the results that I wanted. The pinnacle of my career was racing in the 24 Hours of Daytona and winning the 2009 Montreal grand prix in the Ferrari Challenge series.

I felt I was good enough to compete in Formula One. That was the ultimate dream, but I’ve now acquired a collection of cars that I would’ve liked to have raced in. I raced against people that I was better or as good as who did manage to enter Formula One, though I don’t think I would have won a World Championship.

When I formed JMI, I wanted to do deals with anyone just to fund my racing. It didn’t necessarily have to be a sponsor for me, because I could get a sponsor for a bigger name racer, and my cut from doing the deal would’ve still been more than if they sponsored me. Soon my racing wasn’t getting any better, but JMI was growing.

I’m most proud of making [spirits brand] Crown Royal a NASCAR sponsor. The [2004] deal was ground-breaking in the United States because there was a longstanding ban on spirits being able to advertise in the sport. NASCAR is seen as the commercial leader for sports properties, so a lot of other sports took note. We worked for about a year to demonstrate that spirits sponsoring NASCAR, and also promoting responsible drinking, would be a positive for everyone.

I want to double the size of JMI. We’re currently on that path, which translates to 10 to 20-per-cent annual growth over four-to-five years. To bring in that much new business is going to require 25 to 50-per-cent staff increase, and we will be hiring both from within CSM and externally.

I had no idea I’d become CEO of CSM. There was no long discussions about me taking the role. I was very flattered when they offered it to me, because CSM is a very big company that has a lot of opportunities and challenges. I’m used to running businesses that I’ve built, but now I get to play with somebody else’s train set.

CSM is the sports industry’s best-kept secret. Not many people know the brand as all of its agencies have only come together in the last decade. In that respect it’s still a young company that has not yet started – or is not that far along with – total integration, so that is now my remit.

North America is CSM’s weak spot. It’s an area that needs to be built up and it’s where we will spend the majority of our time and money. Once we get north America right, we will have a really good geographic footprint around the world.

It is extremely flattering when people say I’m the next Bernie Ecclestone. I’m all up for having a bigger contribution to motor sport, but he’s obviously the king of Formula One, if not all motor sport.

I had to say no to becoming the CEO of IndyCar. It would’ve been a dream job, but it came at the wrong time as I had already committed to moving to London [in 2013], and I would’ve had to take on a different role at JMI. I also wanted to make sure JMI’s private equity investors had a good exit [before being acquired by CSM]. At a different time in my life it would’ve been one of the coolest jobs ever.

I’m not sure if I’ll be at CSM for 20 years. But if you’d ask me how long I would be at JMI 20 years ago, my answer would’ve been ‘I’m not sure it’s going to be in business next week’. I want to be around long enough to double JMI’s business and I’ll evaluate where I am after that. I’m not looking for a career change, but as CEO of CSM I’m no longer exclusively in motor sport, so from that perspective I’m opening up to new territories.

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