Talkin’ Performance with Russell Stephens

Sep 13, 2012

Russell Stephens knows that his two companies, MSD Performance and Racepak, have a vital, 21st century common denominator: technology.

And he knows that this is what makes his four-decade-old automotive performance business different-a respected name from the performance industry’s past that remains on the cutting edge.

In 2005, MSD Performance added Racepak’s instrumentation and data acquisition products to its well-known ignition offerings. In 2011 the two companies merged, and today Stephens oversees both organizations, making sure they continue to work toward the mutual goal of remaining leaders in the industry.

A lifelong MSD employee, Stephens shared with us a few of the methods he employs to make sure that happens, building on the company’s impressive past toward an exciting future.

PB: Hi Russell. Thanks for taking some time to talk with us-it’s exciting to learn more about a company like MSD & Racepak. So, what got you interested in the automotive aftermarket?

RS:I never had a chance (at doing anything else.). My dad took me to races-not games, not sports-we went to races. When I was 11-years-old, we raced karts; when I was 16, we built a stock car together as a family and raced stock cars.

I never knew anything other than cars; it’s been in my blood my whole life.

Eventually, all of that morphed into a business. It was actually a stroke of luck. I knew someone in high school and we were talking and her dad was an engineer and my dad was an engineer. Her dad owned MSD and, as a 16-year-old, I asked for a job.

It began as a summer job, and then I worked my way through high school and college so I could get a business degree and I took it from there.

This has been my job my entire life. I began in repair, then customer service, then marketing, then sales, then management, then president.

I started in 1979 and I’ve been full-time since ’86.

PB: How would you describe the business?

RS: Both MSD and Racepak are family-oriented businesses.

At MSD, we have had three generations of employees in the business. The common thread at MSD and Racepak is that everyone is passionate about cars, performance and racing. We have drag racers, circle track racers, powersports riders, Bonneville racers and a bunch of performance street car enthusiasts. We are inundated with passionate car people.

PB: Tell us about your company’s place in the performance aftermarket.

RS: Both MSD and Racepak are technology-focused-we drive innovation and technology. MSD is known in the ignition category and fuel management, fuel injection. Racepak is known for instrumentation and data acquisition expertise.

Racepak has been out there for over 28 years. It started in 1984 and both companies are premium brands, both have a deep racing heritage.

Also, both have very loyal customers based upon word-of-mouth advertising. We’re known for having quality products that they can count on that work. Both are lead brands in the industry.

The reason we brought these two companies together is one word: technology.

Racepak is about gathering all of the information on a vehicle’s performance, including ignition and fuel data. MSD controls a lot of the data-the systems all communicate together.

PB: What’s a typical day like for you?

RS: I’m a list guy. At the end of the day, before leaving work, I make a list of priorities so when I get in the next morning, I hit those and knock them out.

I attend various meetings, like marketing and engineering meetings. I keep up with what’s going on and work to keep my finger on the pulse with everything that’s happening.

We have goals we want to accomplish and my big job, on a daily basis, is to make sure all the parts are running together and we’re headed down the right path. We’ve got some aggressive goals as we approach the SEMA Show and we want to keep it on the right track.

PB: What’s the best thing about your job?

RS: It’s the industry involvement-enjoying cars, being around cars and car people. Being able to work in an industry like this is a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to do some incredible things.

I remember my first visit to Daytona and going through the tunnel and into the infield and listening to the cars going around the track. Driving stock cars at a Las Vegas track and attending the Street Rod Nationals with 10,000 street rods all in one spot stand out.

I’ve also enjoyed meeting influential racers and business owners who define this industry.

PB: What’s the biggest challenge?

RS: Being a manufacturer and an employer is the biggest challenge-the health care costs, the corporate taxes. It’s difficult to be competitive in this marketplace. We need relief in those areas.

PB: How do you see the current state of the performance aftermarket?

RS: One word: evolving. The products are evolving, distribution channels are evolving and manufacturers need to be evolving. Even the customers evolve.

One thing remains the same, however: People are still passionate about cars. But in this business, only those willing to evolve are the ones that are going to succeed. Everything is in constant evolution.

PB: So, where do you think the industry will be in 10 years?

RS: It’s going to grow. It will look different in manufacturing, and distribution, and how products get to market. Those parts of the industry that deliver what customers want, they’ll win.

Technology is key-the way cars work, how parts get delivered. Excellent companies are making the necessary changes and adapting.

People love cars and performance and those that can fulfill the customer’s needs are going to win. Those that don’t change will struggle.

PB: Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

RS: From 2002-’06, I served on the SEMA board of directors. This year, though, SEMA is reducing the board size, and I was elected to the SEMA board again.

That is a big accomplishment-to be reviewed by my peers and then elected by members of SEMA.

PB: What’s your next big goal to achieve?

RS: We have a great vision for where the technology is going in this industry and especially for MSD and Racepak. My goal is to be sure we stay on that track and develop the infrastructure, particularly in the next five years.

PB: Thanks Russell. As a final question, what’s your advice for speed shops seeking long-term success in the performance aftermarket?

RS: Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. They have to understand product knowledge.

The performance parts developed in the future will be complex-for example, with mobile apps controlling them. Connections to computer systems, products that all work together, all those different things communicating with each other-that’s how it looks.

People who know the products are going to make the sale, and customers are going to need help. People who are educated and who understand new products will succeed.

More with Russell Stephens

What was your first car?

A 1970 Olds Cutlass Supreme. It had an 8-track, bucket seats with crushed velour, honeycomb mag wheels, and, interestingly, an MSD ignition. After that, I had a 1969 SS Chevelle, which I turned into a stock car-my first race car.

What’s your dream ride?

Anyone who knows me knows it’s a 1932 Ford Five Window Coupe-like Milner’s in the movie American Graffiti. That’s my car. Someday I’ll build one.

What’s on your computer/phone wallpaper?

A picture of my beautiful wife, Michelle, and me and we’re in a Polaris Ranger on a 14,000-foot peak outside Ouray, Colo. We enjoy riding ATVs and that part of Colorado.

Person you’d most like to meet.

That’s a great question. I don’t get too wrapped up in celebrities, but I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of my heroes. Larry Phillips, the late, great, multiple-time NASCAR Winston Racing Series champion is one. He was a hero of mine when I was a kid. I got to meet and know him through MSD.

If there was one person I’d like to spend time with, it would be Joe Gibbs. I’d like to spend time with him and learn how he builds people and teams.

If I wasn’t in the performance aftermarket, I’d probably be…

I’d want to do something that helps build men into the leaders that God designed them to be.