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Forrest Lucas: Entrepreneur blends success, downhome style
Title: President, Lucas Oil Products
Business: Manufacturer of oil stabilizers, fuel treatments, octane boosters, greases, lubricants and motor oils for the auto industry, marine, mining and agricultural industries.
Annual revenue: More than $150 million, according to Forbes.
Aggressive advertising: The company has 700 sponsorships in an array of auto racing circuits and in pro basketball, baseball, football, hockey, and bull riding.
Lucas Cattle Co. in Cross Timbers, Mo.;
Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo.;
Lucas Oil Production Studios - Television & Video Production Company;
Property Development in California & Phoenix, Ariz.-based property management company;
Lucas Rail Lines, a short-line railroad in Corydon, Ind.;
Naming rights to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and nearby Lucas Oil Raceway.
Personal: Married to Charlotte Lucas since 1982; their blended family includes seven children and 17 grandchildren.
Forrest Lucas grew up in Ramsey, Ind. and went on to become a multi-millionaire with his Lucas Oil Products, Inc. Lucas, who founded the business -- which makes a variety of lubrication oils for vehicles from race cars to trucks -- also bought the naming rights to the recently opened Lucas Oil Field where the Indianapolis Colts play their home games. Lucas operates two plants: one in California and the other in Corydon, Ind.
Whether he's glad-handing guests at an Indianapolis Colts game or hiking through barns on his cattle ranch, Forrest Lucas says new acquaintances always turn the conversation to his improbable life story.
“Everybody asks, ‘How did you do it?' ” Lucas said.
The 69-year-old entrepreneur and president of Lucas Oil Products, a nationally known brand since he bought the naming rights to the Colts' new stadium in 2006, has the answer, tied to a difficult upbringing in Southern Indiana:
“You have to grow up really poor to have the willpower to do what I've done.”
Forbes Magazine estimated last year that Lucas' privately held company — one of the world's largest makers of automotive lubricants, additives and greases — brings in more than $150 million in revenues a year selling its line of more than 100 products across the United States and abroad.
He and his second wife, Charlotte, own a video-production company, a western Missouri cattle ranch and racetracks in Missouri and California, and they have homes in Arizona and Southern California, along with a mansion near Indianapolis.
But in his native Southern Indiana, where they own a home in Marengo, Lucas' footprint continues to grow.
Since his Corona, Calif.-based company opened a second production plant in Corydon, he has tripled its employment to 160, bought a short-line railroad, and written checks for tens of thousands of dollars for local sponsorships and charities.
Next month, the company will sponsor the annual Madison Regatta for the second straight year for an undisclosed sum. “I have my causes,” Lucas said during a recent tour of his Corydon facility.
And he shells out big money for those causes, drawing admiration from activists and anger from opponents.
For example, he spent more than $250,000 to support citizens fighting proposed biomass-to-electricity power plants in Jasper, Scottsburg and Milltown.
And he paid the Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller to draft a county ordinance that would place restrictions on attempts to build the $100 million plant near Milltown, which would burn wood chips to generate electricity to sell to utilities.
“I'm no wing nut, but it's hard not to sound like one when you get into this,” Lucas said of his opposition to the biomass trend, which he believes is a boondoggle subsidized by taxpayers. “I shouldn't have to pay my money to fight our government, but somebody's got to stand up.”
“There was this huge, huge ‘Who is this guy?' ” recalled Myra Borshoff Cook, an Indianapolis marketing executive and consultant. “The story was not just what he did, but who he was.”
“I didn't know who he was,” said Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, where the Lucases let their 36-room mansion be used for community events. “We know who he is now.”
Forrest Dewayne Lucas was born in 1942, and was followed by three younger sisters. His family was extremely poor, he said, which was made more difficult by his father Raymond's struggles with alcohol.
Lucas said his now-deceased father was a bricklayer, concrete finisher and “never had an easy day in his life.”
His mother, Marie, and his two grandmothers held the family together as the Lucases moved from Jackson to Brown then Bartholomew counties.
“We never heard of welfare, never took a dime,” said Lucas' sister Connie Schooler, now a real-estate agent who handles properties for her brother in Arizona. But “believe me, we qualified.”
Their mother worked in a shirt factory and paid a co-worker for rides to work. Lucas and his sisters churned butter and tended animals. His sister said her brother's sales debut came at age 8 when he went door to door selling White Cloverine Salve, a cure-all ointment, to get a bicycle.
In his early teens, while showing cattle at the Indiana State Fair, he met Jacque Glen, a cattleman and Harrison County commissioner who asked Lucas if he'd like to work at his farm. Eventually, they struck a deal where Lucas got his parents' signed permission to move in with the Glen family in Ramsey and promised to finish high school.
“He didn't have anything,” Glen, 84, said of Lucas then — though within weeks, he surprised the family by rolling up in a battered Ford Mercury. He was 15, but not licensed to drive.
From then on, Glen said, Lucas' days started by feeding calves before catching the school bus.
Before graduation in 1960 from North Central High, now called North Harrison, he married Sharon Deloris Mills, with whom he would have three sons and two daughters.
Lucas said he supported his young family working factory jobs and hauling loads in a Ford dump truck on the side. In one stint, he worked in a Columbus muffler factory and “was bored stiff,” Schooler said.
So he enrolled in truck-driving school and scraped money together to buy his first semi tractor-trailer to contract with Mayflower Transit Co.
It was 1963, well before the country was covered with interstate highways.
“I was fascinated with long-haul truckers,” he said. “It was about the best job you could get.”
Over the next decade, Lucas bought a second semi, then another. He ran a convenience store and converted it to a bar near his trucking business in Marengo.
He and his wife divorced in 1969, and Lucas met Charlotte a decade later when she gave him a haircut at her salon in western Crawford County. He likes to say that he doesn't remember the haircut, but he'll never forget the barber.
“She's still a beautiful woman, but back then she was drop-dead gorgeous,” he said. “I was lucky to get her.”
The couple married in 1982. Lucas adopted Charlotte's son, Bobby, and they had a son, Morgan, now 27, a driver on the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel drag racing series. Charlotte Lucas still cuts her husband's hair, but her job evolved into bookkeeper and secretary.
The couple moved to Southern California in 1986, taking with them their fleet of 14 moving vans — and Lucas' habit of mixing his own oils and additives to squeeze out better mileage. His frustrations with trucks breaking down on runs through the desert led him to a salvage shop where he says he found a barrel of stuff he still describes as if it were magic.
He won't reveal its ingredients, or even where he found the barrel, but it became part of the secret recipe for his products. “Take any oil and put our additives with it and it'll make it better oil,” he said.
The couple incorporated Lucas Oil Products in 1989, and opened a manufacturing facility in Corona.
Growing a business
Working side by side with Charlotte, Lucas juggled the trucking business and sales calls for his oil products.
“Word got around, not that Charlotte and I weren't helping it. We were working our butts off” putting in 12- to 14-hour days, Lucas said.
Now, they live about half the year in Indiana, staying at their rural Crawford County home, and divide the rest of their time between their primary residence in California and their homes in Arizona and Missouri.
But the couple hasn't shifted into low gear, said Darrell Voelker, director of the Harrison County Economic Development Corp., which works with local businesses. “He works really hard and so does she. (Lucas) gets in a jet and goes to Arizona and back. People might say that's a great life, but he's working all the time.”
Weekends often are spent traveling to races or, in the fall, to a Colts stadium suite where the Lucases host customers and special guests. Charlotte Lucas said her husband's favorite form of relaxation is working with cattle in the Ozarks.
“He doesn't play golf — even though we own an interest in two courses,” she said. Their ranch near Cross Timbers, Mo., “is his golf course, he loves it there.”
The American Rancher - Circle L Ranch Video
As he sipped coffee in his Corydon office, Lucas said he's trying to put things in place so Lucas Oil survives for generations.
“I've got all these great people working for me,” he said, many of whom spend weekends watching races and traveling together. “It's a lifestyle working for us … (and) I want to keep (that) going.”
He said has no plans to pass the reins to family, although four relatives, including two grandchildren, are Lucas Oil employees. They're good workers, he said, but “they don't have the passion” he had to start and grow a business because they didn't grow up the way he did.
Spreading the wealth
The Lucas family's wealth has drawn a stream of groups and individuals asking for help with causes, charities and sponsorships.
Cathy Hale, an adviser to Lucas when his company bought the Corydon-based railroad, said he and his wife “get hit up constantly. Everybody wants a piece of them.” But they are humble and generous, Hale said, and willing to put their money toward causes they believe in.
Lucas spent $350,000 helping a coalition unsuccessfully try to derail a statewide ballot proposition in Missouri last year to restrict the size of dog-breeding operations.
As for the biomass fight in Southern Indiana, Lucas said he believes regulators have been hoodwinked into accepting claims that the technology is green and sustainable, while investors garner lucrative tax credits and energy incentives.
He said the reality is that residents will get to “gag down” polluted air and pay higher taxes to bail out cities and towns that partnered with such developers.
He has funded TV commercials in Scottsburg to oppose biomass plans there, and he paid for mailings this spring to several thousand homes in Jasper, where officials are negotiating with an Atlanta company to convert an old power plant to biomass.
Some of those officials have questioned why “outsiders” have gotten involved in the plan, which causes Lucas to scoff. People can and should question their elected officials, “but that's not something they're used to doing” in Jasper, he said.
The Rev. Christopher Breedlove, the opposition leader in Jasper, said the group “didn't have what you'd deem movers and shakers involved until after Mr. Lucas came in.”
But Lucas said he and Charlotte can't respond to every call for help or every request for a donation, but “I like to do what's good for my neighbor … I think when you've been successful, you should do some things for your community.”
Shirley Raymond, former executive director of Community Services, an emergency assistance agency in Harrison County, discovered that a few days before Christmas in 2009 when Charlotte Lucas called to ask about sending a $25,000 check to help low-income families during the holidays. “I was astounded,” Raymond recalled. “I thought, ‘This man hasn't forgotten his roots.' ”
Reporter Grace Schneider can be reached at (812) 949-4040.Follow @Lucas_Oil