Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 14
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Forty Under 40 Hall of Fame


Last February, Zak Brown flew to Zurich, Switzerland, for a special lunch in UBS’ executive dining room. He had spoken to CEO Oswald Grübel several times over the previous year about sponsoring Formula One, but each time Grübel said the bank wasn’t interested.

Brown did his best not to bring it up again over lunch. He asked Grübel about the bank, work and any other topic that crossed his mind. Then, as the fish entrée arrived, Grübel changed the subject.

“I think we should look at doing business in Formula One,” Grübel said. “What do you think we should do?”

Brown was shocked and did everything he could not to pop out of his chair and moonwalk across the office.

“How quickly can you get me a proposal?” Grübel said.

“A few weeks,” Brown said.

“Too late,” Grübel said. “I need it in three days.”

When Brown left the lunch, he immediately called Formula One Management Chair Bernie Ecclestone and asked him to travel to Zurich the next day. Six months later Brown presented a final proposal to the UBS board and closed on a five-year deal with Formula One reportedly valued at $200 million.

The deal was just the latest — and biggest — in a series of noteworthy sponsorships Brown has been at the nexus of during his 19-year career in motorsports.

A former race car driver, he closed his first deal out of necessity. After winning the U.S. Karting Championship in 1989, the 18-year-old signed airline TWA to sponsor his move to Europe to pursue his dream of becoming a Formula One driver. He expanded a relationship that started with complimentary airline tickets into a six-figure sponsorship.

In the process, he discovered that he was a better businessman than a race car driver. He dropped his pursuit of the latter and eventually built Just Marketing International. The agency today boasts 140 employees and has offices in Indianapolis, Charlotte, New York, London, Singapore and Daytona Beach, Fla. It is owned in part by Spire Capital Partners.

Brown has put the agency at the forefront of some of the most notable deals in motorsports. He still considers his 2004 negotiations with NASCAR that led the sanctioning body to reverse its 56-year ban on spirits sponsorship to be one of his greatest achievements. It allowed his client Diageo to become a sponsor of the sanctioning body and a team. It also led other leagues to begin selling official deals in the spirits category.

Over the last year, Brown has expanded JMI’s business internationally. He said that 40 percent of the company’s revenue now comes from abroad.

That hasn’t meant he has neglected opportunities at home. In 2010, he signed on to manage Jeff Gordon’s business, giving the agency its first driver representation account. He partnered with Bobby Rahal, Spire Capital and JMI to create a premium race series featuring historic cars called the Legends of Motorsports. He also maintained the business of longtime clients like Diageo and UPS.

“Zak epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit that’s driven his company,” said Ron Rogowski, the head of UPS motorsports marketing. “He built his agency on a few core competencies: being close to your customers, understanding what their needs are and representing them aggressively in the marketplace.”

Looking to the future, Brown expects to continue to expand the agency’s business internationally. He anticipates 60 percent of revenue will come from outside North America in 2011. He also plans to expand the agency’s area of consulting expertise to include digital, public relations and media support.

“Underneath the hood, there’s a lot of tinkering,” Brown said. “We’re the world’s largest motorsports agency and we want to stay that way.”

Age: 39
Title: Founder and CEO
company: Just Marketing International
Education: University High School, Santa Monica, Calif.
Family: Wife, Tracy; sons, McGuire (9) and Maxwell (7)
Career: Professional racing driver before founding JMI in 1994
Last vacation: Hawaii for New Year’s
What's on your iPod: Sponsorship presentations

Guilty pleasure: Collecting historic race cars!
Best stress release: Race car driving
Pet peeve: The term ASAP
Greatest achievement: Knocking down the spirits barrier (Crown Royal) in NASCAR
Greatest disappointment: Not making it as a driver into Formula One
Fantasy job: President of the United States
Business advice: Work hard and brush off rejection and learn from it. Surround yourself with good people you can lean on.