Denis McGlynn’s office at Dover Downs is similar to those of other successful executives. There’s stylish furniture and a large desk where business papers are arranged neatly. Subtle artwork decorates the light gray walls and photos are scattered around the office.
One functional piece of office equipment is missing, however: a computer.
“I don’t want to get bogged down in emails,” says McGlynn, the president and CEO of Dover Motorsports, Inc. “There’s so much data available on computers now that you could spend your entire time looking at the data. There’s a hole in the desk in case I want a computer. I don’t have a BlackBerry, either.”
Secretaries print out emails for McGlynn. He writes notes on the printouts, then the secretaries email his responses.
McGlynn, 63, is a tall, slender New Yorker who long ago adopted Delaware as his home state. He has worked at Dover Downs since he was discharged from the Air Force in Dover in 1972.
You’ve heard the story of the person who started in a company’s mailroom and eventually ran the place. That’s McGlynn’s story. He may be the most prominent Delawarean state residents don’t know.
“A job opened in the promotions department (at the speedway),” he recalls. “I didn’t want to go back to New York. You can get into fights and arguments three, four times on the way to work. The first time I got my butt kicked I was 4 years old, on West 51st Street, where I lived.
“When I got here—and I saw this elsewhere in the Air Force—people don’t know you, but they’ll smile at you and say hello. And the big kids will play with the little kids rather than beat them up. It’s a great place to bring up a family.”
McGlynn graduated from Pace University’s then-new Pleasantville, New York, campus in 1968 with a marketing degree. He and his wife, Louise, married before his senior year in college. Knowing he’d eventually serve in the military—these were the Vietnam years—he spent a few months as a commercial property insurance underwriter trainee after graduating. “It was so dull I couldn’t stand it,” he says.
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After enlisting in the Air Force in March 1969, he became an aircraft maintenance officer, which led him to Dover.
When McGlynn interviewed for his first job at Dover Downs, he told John Riddle, a former Air Force general who was running Dover Downs, that he didn’t know anything about airplanes before he went in the Air Force.
“I did OK,” McGlynn told Riddle. “‘I don’t know anything about horses or cars, but I can learn.’ He bought it. I always wanted to work in sports. The greatest thing about this business is it’s never dull. You’re always meeting interesting people. You rarely do the same thing twice.”
Keep in mind that Dover Speedway in the 1970s was not the dominating facility it is today. Now, the towering grandstands seat 140,000. Back in the ’70s, seating capacity was 22,000, and there were only 12 full-time employees. Five were in maintenance.
Smiling, McGlynn recalls, “When we had a staff meeting, we had all 12 people in the room. It got to be a joke because the maintenance guys put up a sign on their bulletin board that defined a staff meeting as ‘an occasion for seven people to determine what five people are going to do that day.’”
With such a small staff, McGlynn was involved in public relations, ticket sales and customer relations. “You got to learn everything,” he says. By 1975 he added director of operations to his duties.
Big-bucks sponsorship hadn’t poured into NASCAR racing yet. Dover’s races were called the Mason-Dixon 500 and the Delaware 500. “Selling tickets was a challenge with Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington (and their) baseball, football, hockey, basketball,” McGlynn says. “Trying to break in with a Southeastern-oriented sport involved a lot of uphill plowing.”
When Riddle left Dover Downs in 1979 to become president of Daytona International Speedway, McGlynn applied to succeed Riddle. John Rollins then owned Dover Downs.
“I basically gave John Rollins the same pitch I gave Riddle when he hired me, and that was I didn’t know anything about this business when I started, but I’m doing pretty good now in terms of knowledge,” McGlynn says. “He didn’t say yes right away, because I was pretty young, in my early 30s.
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“(Rollins) was a corporate magnate. He ultimately brought seven companies to the New York Stock Exchange. He was used to having older, mature guys running his businesses, people who were politically astute. He knew how much you needed to know about politics to be successful in Delaware. I don’t think he saw either of those things in me, but he said, ‘I’ll give you a chance. You run the place this summer, and we’ll talk again in the fall.’
“I got through the spring and the fall races. Everybody around here was pulling for me. They busted their butts to make sure everything was right. It was a very rewarding experience in that regard. John called me (in the fall) and said, ‘You’ve got the job.’”
McGlynn says Rollins tried not to hire people with master’s of business administration degrees. He also avoided employing people who played golf or owned sailboats.
“The MBA part was because, in his view, they all thought they were smarter than everybody else,” McGlynn says. “They didn’t have to work as hard as everybody else. Guys who played golf and sailed had such a passion for those things that they become No. 1 in their lives rather than their jobs.” Laughing, McGlynn says, “I met all three of those criteria.”
McGlynn notes that the presences of Melvin Joseph and Henry Tippie have influenced him. Joseph, who died four years ago, owned a construction company that was launched in Georgetown with one dump truck. Joseph only completed six grades in school. His company built the Dover speedway and the â…-mile harness racing track. Over the years he was heavily involved with the speedway.
Tippie, current chairman of Dover Motorsports and Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment, was a close associate of Rollins. “Henry came out of Iowa with no resources except his own determination,” McGlynn says. “He’s a big cattle rancher and business magnate in his own right. I’ve had the benefit of watching guys who had nothing make something huge of themselves.”
One practice McGlynn learned from Rollins is hiring smart people. As the Dover Downs company has grown over the years, McGlynn has brought in such people as Ed Sutor, Mike Tatoian and Gary Camp, a bright, young director of public relations.
Sutor is president and CEO of the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino. He previously worked at Caesar’s in Atlantic City.
“In 30 years in the business, Denis is the best boss I’ve ever had,” Sutor says. “He appreciates what I do and tells me that.” Smiling, he adds, “He also tells me what I can do better.”
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Jerry Dunning started at Dover Downs the same year as McGlynn. Dunning, now the speedway’s senior vice president and general manager, is from a Kent County farming background.
“Denis treats the business as if it’s his own,” Dunning says. “He’s always evaluating the bottom line from the standpoint of how it’s going to benefit the company. We kind of grew from the early years of the speedway and the horse racing facility, having to do our jobs with very little resources. You had to do as much as possible with very little cash.”
The speedway and the hotel-casino have grown from 12 full-time employees to 1,200. The company also now owns race tracks in Nashville and Memphis, and Gateway International near St. Louis. Since the expansion, McGlynn isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations as much as he was. “I have weekly staff meetings or I’ll walk around and get into where the action is, just to keep my finger on pulse,” he says. “Basically, I try to stay out of the way of the smart guys. If I see something getting a little off course, I’ll put in my two cents.”
McGlynn shows no signs of calling it a career. He doesn’t golf or sail. “What I do is who I am,” he says. “It’s truly not like work to me.”
Dunning expects McGlynn to stay on the job for several more years. “He enjoys work,” Dunning says. “He likes business. He likes the game—you win some, you lose some. You try to work out the best deals you can and move along.”
Then, alluding to the Rollins rule regarding golfers and sailors, Dunning says, “There are a few people that work on the team for Denis here that do play a little golf, but no one plays it a lot.”