It's a Culture of Charity and Competition at NASCAR's Kaulig Racing

Photo credit: Motorsport Images - LAT
Photo credit: Motorsport Images - LAT

From Autoweek

'Today, not tomorrow' is how Matt Kaulig has grown numerous businesses, how he views philanthropy, and how he is ultimately laying the foundation to launch a full-time NASCAR Cup Series team by 2022.

The serial entrepreneur launched his first LeafFilter dealership out of his basement in 2005 and quickly sold $350,000 worth of gutter protection in that first year. By 2007, the business had moved to a 2,500-square-foot office and Kaulig earned $1.75 million in revenue.

In five years, Kaulig had opened six additional locations and had become the largest LeafFilter distributor in the Midwest. He outright purchased the brand in 2015 and plotted its expansion across the country.

The vehicle of that expansion was literally a vehicle -- a NASCAR Xfinity Series car.

Photo credit: Icon Sports Wire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sports Wire - Getty Images

Kaulig sponsored driver Blake Koch and TriStar Motorsports in 2015, but it wasn’t long until Kaulig once again wondered if he could more efficiently operate a business himself, even if this one was a NASCAR Xfinity Series team.

Today, not tomorrow.

Kaulig Racing was truly conceived in May 2015 at a Longhorn Stakehouse in Salisbury, North Carolina, when its future namesake asked to have dinner with veteran crew chief Chris Rice. Kaulig wanted an honest assessment over what it would take to field a team in advance of Daytona Speedweeks in nine months.

Rice thought it was ambitious at best, and maybe a little crazy at worst.

Photo credit: Jason Hanna - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jason Hanna - Getty Images

"I will never forget that day because my daughter had won an award, she played three sports, but I missed that banquet because I thought it was very important to meet Matt Kaulig," Rice said. "So, about two weeks later, Blake called me and said Matt didn't want to start a race team but would love to have me at TriStar."

At the time, Rice was working for NTS Motorsports in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and mulling retirement -- no longer wanting to make the two-hour daily commute from Elon to Charlotte -- so he respectfully declined the offer.

"I had actually started the process of owning a Jiffy Lube or something like that," Rice said. "You know, like an oil change business. My dad builds Late Model Stocks, so I was thinking I would just go back to helping him do that.

"So then, we get to October, and Matt calls me again and says he's going to do it -- he's going to start a team with four months to go until Daytona."

Definitely crazy territory, this time.

"We didn't have anything," Rice recalled. "We didn't have a shop. We didn't have a trailer. No employees. I wasn't even on the payroll. I had promised Spencer Davis that I would crew chief for him at the Snowball Derby, so I couldn’t even pick up anything until I finished that race."

It was Rice that reached out to Richard Childress Racing’s Mike Dillon about a technical alliance in November of that year, not reaching an agreement until December, two months before Speedweeks. Rice wasn’t even getting paid yet.

Kaulig Racing was just a hypothetical project the two were putting together.

"You know, RCR didn't think we were for real, either," Rice said. "I wasn't on the payroll. We were just talking on the phone every day about what we wanted to do. We hadn’t even talked about my salary yet.

"But I remember the moment I really felt like this was for real: I called Matt and told him we needed a secondary address for the Childress alliance. He said, 'Where do you want me to send it?' I gave him my address and there was a cashier’s check lying on my front porch the very next morning.

"I knew this guy was for real, and that this was going to be a great deal, and we were going to use it to grow LeafFilter Gutter Protection. He was going to be in it for the long haul. That's when I knew there was no need to hesitate with Matt Kaulig. He was the real deal."

Photo credit: Akron Zips
Photo credit: Akron Zips

A former four-year starting quarterback for the University of Akron, Kaulig is a natural competitor, and branded the No. 11 team after his jersey number with the Zips.

He had two primary goals in starting Kaulig Racing -- expand the brand awareness of LeafFilter and win a championship.

After five seasons, Kaulig Racing generates a profit and has won seven times in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition with a championship race appearance over the weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

Justin Haley finished third for the organization's best points finish.

"Our business is literally growing since being involved in NASCAR," Kaulig said. "From a marketing standpoint, it’s been phenomenal. It’s a great way to move product.

"It’s been even more phenomenal from a competition standpoint. We realized at the end of last year that we could compete with anyone. Our goal this year was to get both cars into the championship. We thought that was a realistic goal. … We realized we were as good as anyone, even against organizations that have been here for 50 years."

Kaulig says none of this was possible without Rice, who now serves as team president, providing nearly 30 years of experience, knowledge and the connections needed to lay the foundation.

"Chris is everything," Kaulig said. "Honestly, I would not have been able to start the team or maintain this without Chris. He is a unique individual, and I can't think of a better guy to do what he does, he knows everything there is about racing. He's got such a big personality that defines our identity."

Photo credit: Motorsports Image - LAT
Photo credit: Motorsports Image - LAT

Kaulig and Rice have also developed a strong personal bond that transcends racing and their workplace.

"He might be my best friend," Kaulig said earnestly. "I call him at least once a day."

Without knowing what Kaulig said, Rice said the same thing, that he considered Kaulig his best friend. Learning that Kaulig echoed that sentiment left Rice a little sentimental.

"That really that makes my day, makes me feel great," Rice said, "because we are great friends. We talk at least once a day because he’s in Ohio, and it’s not always about racing. He’s just a great friend, and a top-notch person.

"He truly loves his charity work. It's not about getting his name out there or telling the story about how hard it was for he and Lisa to have (daughter) Samantha. He came from nothing. He was just a guy selling windows but had a vision. He understands numbers and analytics, built this gigantic company and become a millionaire."

Photo credit: Kaulig Racing
Photo credit: Kaulig Racing

And it’s hugely important for Kaulig to give back.

In addition to Kaulig Racing, Kaulig Media, Ellsworth Private Wealth Management and Leaf Home Solutions, the family also operates Kaulig Charitable Givings -- which has generated countless millions in charity funds.

"Every year, we try to run our Kaulig Charitable Givings like a business," Kaulig said. "What I mean by that is that we try to win races and championships in NASCAR. That’s how we define success. In business, we try to serve our customers to the best of our abilities and make money doing it.

"With our charities, we want to help as many people we can in our community. Philosophically, the more money we make, the more we want to give."

Kaulig has been named an Akron Children’s Hospital Champions for Children honoree, has hosted the 2020 Cleveland Indians Charities Giveathon and was recently named a finalist for the Comcast NASCAR Community Champion of the Year Award alongside winner Bubba Wallace and track executive Clay Campbell.

The common theme throughout most of the charities is a focus on helping children in the Upper Midwest.

"Someone has to help these families and kids in need, so we make it a priority," Kaulig said. "It's become our favorite company because we can make a difference. This year, more than ever, people need help and support.

"With the pandemic, charities are not able to have events and raise money like they could before. We’ve worked harder to find ways to help families in need.

Again, today, not tomorrow, and Kaulig has said repeatedly that the biggest investment that anyone can make into a community is towards its youth -- the foundation for its future.

"Someone has to step up, and if you have the ability to, you have to help people," Kaulig said. "Kids especially, they can't help themselves, so they need help from parents, to grandparents, to teachers, or the clergy, they can't help themselves.

"My daughter is 13 and if she needs help, that's my responsibility, so we have a responsibility to especially help kids if they don't have that infrastructure around them or enough of it. They can't help themselves, so we need to help them."

Kaulig says he is most proud of the work his company has put into erasing the so-called digital divide in Northeast Ohio, providing computers, tablets and digital connectivity towards education and after school programs for families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In hosting the 2020 Indians Giveathon, Kaulig helped raised over $250,000 towards providing internet to rural communities.

"You don't make people like Matt Kaulig," Rice said. "He's such a rare breed. You don't see guys like this in the corporate world. What you get with Matt Kaulig is something very special that I don't know if I can really put into words.

"All I know, is that it meant a lot to make the championship race with a LeafFilter car or winning that first race with his car because of everything else it and Matt stands for. It gives me chills."

Kaulig and Rice made their Cup Series debut as an organization in February with a 13th place finish in the Daytona 500 with Justin Haley. The team intends to enter all the superspeedway and road course races next season with the goal of going full-time in 2021 with the debut of the Next-Gen car.

Why not wait until 2022 once the new car arrives? Today, not tomorrow, of course.

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

"We have to race on Sundays to know what that's like," Rice said. "I don't believe it's a simple as getting to the new car and immediately being competitive and racing for top-10s.

"I've been in Cup, and even though I wasn't a manager, I know how challenging that series can be. So, we need to get over there next year and see that it's like ... The new car will be a blank slate for everybody, so maybe we can be aggressive like we've been in the Xfinity Series, and become a big contender.

"But we need to lay the foundation for next year."

Rice says Kaulig is working towards purchasing additional property on the Richard Childress Racing campus so it can expand its footprint and build a second shop. At the same time, Kaulig doesn’t want to enter Cup at the expense of contending for the Xfinity Series championship, either.

"We know that it's going to take a battle and it's going to be tough, but we got to get good people," Rice said. "We have to be financially sound to be able to do it.

"And that's what I'm looking forward to being able to build with Matt. I think we can do it. We just got to do it slow. Just like we've done with the Xfinity Series. We can't expect to be a powerhouse right off the bat."

Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images

And at 47 years old, Kaulig has time to get this right.

"There aren't a lot of Matt Kauligs in the world," Rice said. "Someone that loves racing and is under 70 years old. So, like, we have a long time to do this right and build a powerhouse like Hendrick, Penske and Roush.

"They had time to build it, while slowly accumulating great people. I look forward to seeing what that looks like in the future for sure."

Kaulig is already in talks with several teams about an ownership charter and has come away from those preliminary conversations extremely impressed with how the industry is restructuring itself for the next decade and beyond.

"I actually have to give a lot of credit to NASCAR," Kaulig said. "I'm really proud of NASCAR because the charters are doing exactly what they were intended to become five years ago. With the new car, there's a lot of competition for these charters and it's giving those who have them leverage and value.

"Even two years ago, the perception of the charter program was like, why even continue it? It gave you a guaranteed starting position, and purse money, but what else? It has value now. It's very intriguing to us. I'm interested. NASCAR is doing a good job of bringing the cost down. We definitely want to be there in 2022."

Kaulig continues to excel in the gutter screen industry, even as the race team becomes a greater priority, and that’s keeping the business healthy enough to find every tenth of a second needed to contend for wins and championships.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, trees are still growing, and leaves are still falling. That alone is keeping race cars on the track.

"We're putting a lot of thought into where we want to go and we're conscious of not growing too fast," Kaulig said. "And I think you've seen that in the results over the past five years.

"We're trying to do things different than other teams have in the past and I think that's evident in our success."