OAK RIDGE, N.C. -- Kevin Harvick is relaxing on the middle cushion of a white sofa stationed underneath the towering dark-wood cabana adjacent to his backyard pool. The setting belongs in a travel magazine, with its Irish-green grass and Biltmore decor. The contrast is stark between the pool's blue water and the blinding-white concrete deck. Birds chirp. It is 90 degrees.
Having just completed a workout, Harvick is wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sunglasses. No shoes. He sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup and ponders the various assets that comprise his budding athlete/entertainer representation business.
"Purely accident," he said. "Everything we've done."
Happenstance maybe. Not accident. You don't earn respect -- and you certainly don't keep it -- by accident.
Among the assets at KHI Management Inc. are a smorgasbord of sponsors, a pair of country music artists, a professional golfer, a mixed martial arts fighter and one of the most respected names in NASCAR racing. All get along really well. They must in order to participate.
Harvick demands that each ingredient in the recipe enhances the others, thereby improving the overall taste. Help me help you, and we all win.
"Different people have different levels of service [from KHI], so sometimes it fits in good on the sponsorship side for everybody to use different avenues and areas, whether it's the UFC or the PGA, a Jake Owen concert or a NASCAR race," Harvick said. "There's all these different options. You don't have to like NASCAR to be able to be happy as a sponsor."
Harvick doesn't fancy himself as an agent, per se, more a facilitator of relationships. His fame and its resulting reach is an obvious benefit. But he leaves the details to KHI president Fred Lekse, director of business development Josh Jones and Harvick's wife, DeLana.
"They do a great job. They work really hard," said KHI client Jeff Burton. "They're not a flash in the pan. They want to be a successful business and represent everyone well, the right way. A good friend of mine who is very successful in business told me, 'The plan is important, but what's more important is the people you do it with.' That's [KHI's] approach too."
There are no contracts. Like bygone eras when a man's word mattered, business is done with a handshake arrangement. No paper. As far as Harvick is concerned, if KHI isn't doing the job, it doesn't deserve the job.
If KHI gives the client what the client needs, the client will have fun and see a return on the investment. And if a client ultimately departs in favor of another representative, based on a few dollars here or there, that wasn't the right partner anyway.
Common sense has tremendous influence in decision-making moments at KHI. If a sponsor needs something, do it. If you sense something's amiss, call and ask. Study and go fix it. Right now. That philosophy, it seems, results in a less-corporate approach that is ultimately friendlier to the client. Who doesn't like to have a few beers at a concert, race or fight?
"You have to reinvent yourself every day," Harvick said. "What was right yesterday may not be right for today. You always want them to think they underpaid and were overserviced. That, in my opinion, is us doing a good job. If you say 'no,' you better have an alternative opinion. 'No' doesn't exist in the world we live in."
The company as it stands has been in place and active for more than a year. No one has walked.
"I have watched that company grow. I've watched it be very successful in regards to putting successful programs together," said Burton, who moves fulltime to the NBC broadcast booth next season. "They certainly understand [NASCAR] and the challenges, not only for the competitors or the broadcasters but also for the sponsors. They see both sides of it. That's so important.
"For programs to be successful, everything needs to be taken into account. Not just what's good for me, but what's good for the companies that are involved with me. So many times people look at a relationship from a one-sided standpoint: 'How's it good for me?' And what Josh and Fred have been able to do is put programs together that say, 'How does this work for everybody?' They do it well."
It all began with a chance meeting, when Harvick was introduced to Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. One of Harvick's sponsors, the clothing company Tapout, conducted a nationwide search for undiscovered mixed martial arts talent. It collected a busload of candidates from around the country and shuttled them to a centralized facility to train.
Cerrone was aboard that bus. He and Harvick hit it off and began a relationship that blossomed quickly after Harvick attended a fight and Cerrone visited a NASCAR race. Cerrone was impressed with the way Harvick and his staff conducted themselves and treated others.
"We always took care of our guests, always talked to everybody. Whether it was a $5 sponsor or a $50 million sponsor, we treated them all the same," Harvick said. "People notice that, and they like that. That's the way you have to treat people, because you never know when that $5 sponsor will evolve into a $5 million sponsor. So you have to entertain everybody.
"We've become friends with a lot of people, and those relationships are what build the sponsorship and relationships with the athletes. It impressed Donald."
As the relationship developed, they began to discuss sponsorship and management ideas as well as the various benefits and drawbacks of their respective career paths and evolutions. Cerrone had other management at the time.
"It really all started when we started drinking beers and hanging out and bulls---ting," Cerrone said. "Kevin is a very down-to-earth guy, but I had no plan of having him work with me at all. But when he said, 'What if we worked with you when your contract is up?' I said, 'Hell yeah, that'd be awesome!'"
Under his old management, Cerrone said, he didn't know who was getting paid what or when and wasn't especially sure when he might get paid. And he was the fighter. Backed by KHI and its sponsors, he said, the check is in the mail the next day.
"I know I'm paid, and I know they have my back win or lose," he said. "That's huge out here."
Away they went. And the company has only grown from there. The logos of four Fortune 500 companies now grace Cerrone's shorts for every fight. Not coincidentally, they all sponsor Harvick in NASCAR.
"No one else in my sport has Budweiser or Bad Boy Buggies or Realtree or Bell Helmets," Cerrone said. "It's just so cool! Just having the power of NASCAR behind us is huge. I've gained a lot of his fans, and likewise for him.
"The guys that watch my sport have taken a liking to NASCAR. It's bridged a gap between the two sports. The demographic is similar. The people I'm going after -- blue-collar NASCAR fans -- relate to me more than other fighters, and that's because of [Harvick], somewhat."
As I'm listening to this, I can't help but think about Harvick 12 years ago, jumping over cars to strangle competitors. I asked him when he grew up.
"Your credibility is really all you have. That's a Richard Childress line from years of being around him," Harvick said, that trademark smile creeping toward the corners of his mouth. "If your credibility goes bad in the NASCAR garage, it doesn't take long for it to spread around. If you're doing a bad job or lying to people, it is over."
Burton, too, chuckles about Harvick's growth.
"I think he went from believing the minute he was living in was the most important thing in the world to understanding that the minute you're living in is a step to the next minute," Burton said. "He has a much broader view of racing, of family life, of business, as opposed to the real narrow view that most young people have, that are very driven and want to be successful.
"People like that tend to be very narrow-minded about what is important to them. He's transitioned into a big-picture guy. He wants to be successful now, right now, but knows you have to do so much right to make that happen. He still doesn't want to wait, but he understands now there's a process."
Harvick has taken that worldview and transferred it to his growing business.
"There's a lot of people, in my opinion, that do a bad job, and that's because they try to do it the way they've done it for 20 years," he said. "This isn't your parents' day and age of how things work. You have to do more with less.
"We don't have a lot of overhead or a lot of people. But we work. We chase. In my opinion, we work harder than everybody else. We are friendly. Your contract is irrelevant. When somebody wants to go on a hunting trip or golf trip, and if fits your schedule, you go do it. Not only is it fun, it's being a part of people away from the corporate environment. People appreciate that."
In The Beginning
Kevin Harvick Inc. was founded as a racing organization that housed several NASCAR teams. Its Truck Series program, which won 43 races and two series championships in 10 years of competition, was formed because Harvick had never won a series event, and it ultimately expanded to a full-time operation because General Motors desperately wanted to compete against Toyota.
Its Nationwide Series team, which won 10 races and finished as high as second in the championship standings, began on a whim when Tony Stewart voiced the desire to his friend that he wanted to race that series at Daytona. By the time Harvick sold all competitive assets in that company to Richard Childress Racing after the 2011 season, it included 130 full-time employees.
All that overhead and all that worry, and none of it was Harvick's real job. So for him, that bill of sale was liberating. He was now free to race and race alone -- and seek other opportunities for diversification.
"There was no 'want' in the beginning," Harvick said with a laugh. "We knew we wanted to do something, but we didn't want the massive undertaking that the race teams had. In all honesty, it was really Donald pushing us to help him that really got it all started.
"As he pushed and we started working through his stuff and working with the UFC, the rest of it just kind of made sense for everybody."
The greatest area of growth, Harvick said, may be that UFC platform. KHI has twice hosted sponsors in a suite at a UFC fight, the card for which included a Cerrone match. They have sold out both times. Cerrone joins the group after his matches to mingle, again offering sponsors -- and potential sponsors -- a unique experience.
"Since we have gotten involved with Cowboy and the UFC, we try to bring added value to our current sponsors and clients," Jones said. "At our last fight, in Orlando [in April], we had six sponsors attend, but only four [pay for space] on the shorts. It was pretty cool to see the support from Jake Owen and other KHI sponsors in attendance to watch Cowboy put on a show inside the Octagon.
"We're here for our guys, but we're more here for the sponsors. In this day and age, the whole world of sport revolves around sponsors."
Basically, KHI took the business-to-business relationship philosophy that dominates the NASCAR sponsorship landscape and applied it to UFC. That approach enables corporations to use one another's assets to benefit their own brand, above and beyond any particular financial arrangement.
"It has surprised me," Harvick said. "Everybody's kind of jumped onboard on the sponsorship side of it and entertaining guests. We've been activating in the suites at the fights -- something I don't think anybody else is really doing."
They have another UFC suite event scheduled for July 16 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Cerrone is the main attraction. It is already sold out.
Beyond the suite scenario is the television rights scenario. Fox Network owns UFC broadcast rights for non-pay-per-view events. Fox also broadcasts the first half of the NASCAR season. That produces natural cross-promotion.
"We've fought on Fox the last four fights," Harvick said. "I don't think that's by accident."
The sponsors would rather fight on Fox, Harvick explained, because "it's in every home in America."
The Right Mix
Cerrone isn't the only client reaping personal benefits from Harvick's NASCAR reach. KHI also represents PGA golfer Jason Gore, Burton and country music singers Matt Stillwell and Owen.
During CMA Fest in Nashville, Tennessee, in June, Stillwell signed autographs on three days for three hours apiece on behalf of KHI sponsors Bad Boy Buggies, Hunt Brothers Pizza and Armour Foods. That enabled him to network with new fans and, more importantly, get his music in their hands.
"It was huge for me," Stillwell said. "Being associated with Kevin has raised my profile and opened up a very large audience in NASCAR. Beyond that, the relationship has, and is, connecting dots within the industry and giving me opportunities I otherwise would not have had.
"No one else at my level has the ability to leverage everything KHI has on their behalf. I already had a couple of sponsors on board and my infrastructure was pretty much in place before KHI."
As an up-and-coming independent artist, the missing piece for Stillwell was promotion.
"That's what I needed to cross over the exposure hump into the critical mass," Stillwell said. "With the sponsors they are bringing to the table, I will have the reach not many, if any, new artists have ever had."
Then there is an unorthodox variable most critical for up-and-coming artists, which Harvick's sponsors offer Stillwell: the opportunity to gain fans without radio. Stillwell owns his own label, publishing and merchandise companies and arranges his own touring. KHI allows him to use that business model, which in today's Nashville is a rarity.
"That's the kicker," Stillwell said. "It allows me to achieve what major label artists can achieve and continue to build fans and gain exposure before having a hit at radio. It's an unbelievable opportunity for someone at my level."
Owen has radio. He's had it for several years. At the peak of his résumé rest four No. 1 singles. But he, as much as anyone, has seen his personal brand expand since aligning with Harvick.
During the Sprint All-Star Race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, KHI leveraged its relationships with NASCAR, Sprint and the racetrack to position Owen prominently. He held an infield concert on race day before an estimated 15,000 fans. During the prerace festivities, Owen performed a new song on live national television and then introduced the drivers to the crowd.
He received substantial television time, which grows his brand to a new audience. But in turn, Owen can host other KHI partners at his concerts all over the country, invite them backstage and hang out for a drink.
That's the key to the KHI business model, Harvick said, a symbiotic approach that makes people feel special and uses assets from all corners of the company to benefit all involved. KHI isn't interested in adding clientele, unless it's unmistakably beneficial and meshes well with the current clients.
"We don't have to do any of this, but I think it makes your brand and our company stronger," Harvick said. "We're more diverse than most people in the [NASCAR] garage because we have more assets. We have more drive to figure out what's the next thing."
So what's the next thing? Harvick noted that grooming a young race car driver in all facets of his career was on his radar.
"There's no goal right now," Harvick said. "It all started by accident, and we're young in it. But I think we could build it into something that's there long after I quit driving."