Growing up in Indiana close to the Indy 500, Carolyn Vanagel never thought she would have a career in luxury cars. Yet, 15 years later, and after leaving a successful career in corporate America, she has grown the Concours d’Elegance into the exciting national destination that it is today. Located on Hilton Head Island and led by an all-female staff, the Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival is the best when it comes to automotive exhibition, racing, dining and entertainment. Inspired by the elaborate equestrian events she loved to attend, Carolyn has truly established Concours d’Elegance as a premier Hilton Head Island lifestyle event.
Karen Floyd. What was your first job?
Carolyn Vanagel. My first job was in Washington D.C. working for Senator Lugar. At that time, I thought I wanted to be in politics. After two and a half years in Washington, I decided I didn’t want a career in the political world. I went back to school and received my graduate degree in international business.
Q. Did politics give you a unique insight?
A. Yes, every job that I have had began where there was not a job. I would decide where I wanted to be and then create the job. I started as the receptionist for Senator Lugar’s office and ended up as an assistant press secretary.
Q. Being a self-starter and having a professional vision for where you bring value, how has that worked?
A. I think it works in a lot of ways. I am driven, but I also cut people a lot of slack. It sounds very trite, but I enjoy different types of people and learning from them. My circle of friends is very diverse. But for whatever reason, whatever I do, whatever I’m volunteering for, I always end up running it.
Q. How did working for Senator Lugar change you?
A. I gained confidence, and the experience was the beginning of building a competency. Mitch Daniels, my boss, went on to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget for Bush and later became the Governor of Indiana. If you mentioned my name to him today, he would smile. Even back then, as a young girl in the office, I was definitely forging my way.
Q. As a self-starter and leader, you are known for getting the job done. When did that characteristic begin?
A. I think I’ve always had it. As a young girl, I was awkward. I was never the prettiest in the class, but I was popular. I had braces and pimples, every possible thing that a young teenager could have. I wasn’t like my sister, who was beautiful from day one. Nothing ever came easy to me. I always had to try out, whether it was for choir or horseback riding. I wasn’t the best, but I never gave up. I think that was a huge factor for me later on: not giving up.
“I think it’s important to understand that things aren’t handed to you. Life doesn’t just happen. Not many people are just handed opportunity. I believe you have to be focused on what you want and work for it. You don’t quit. You don’t give up.”
Q. Is that one of your cornerstones, never quit?
A. Very much so. I think it’s important to understand that things aren’t handed to you. Life doesn’t just happen. Not many people are just handed opportunity. I believe you have to be focused on what you want and work for it. You don’t quit. You don’t give up. If it doesn’t work the first time, you try something different. So, I’ve been very focused. If you think about quitting, you should ask yourself, “What is it that I’m quitting?” You need to have a vision that defines where you’re going.
Q. Despite the fact you have this wonderful group of friends, leadership is often lonely. Do you get lonely?
A. I have my moments. I am a strong Christian, and that is incredibly important to me. My faith is real and fills a void. So, my lonely moments are filled with God being with me.
Q. Leadership requires an independence of mind and spirit, really, and your faith brings you comfort. When did you develop the anchor you call faith?
A. When I had cancer, my faith really began. I would read the Book of John when I was getting my chemo treatments, and I became very close to the Lord. I had to go through a lot. My mother passed during my illness. We had been very close. I had a small child who needed me to be strong when she was growing up. She remembers that. I thought, you know, I’m not alone. That is when and where it really began. My faith friends are very important to me.
Q. Is that what has kept you here in Hilton Head?
A. Yes, and I just love it here. The people are amazing. Everyone in Hilton Head has chosen to be in Hilton Head.
Q. Tell me about your parents.
A. My father was an attorney, and we lived in Indianapolis. From Philadelphia originally, and then moved to Zionsville, Indiana, which is horse country. He ended up running an insurance company in that area. My mother was an artist.
Q. What was unusual about the marriage?
A. They were married and then they were divorced for four years. They remarried a year before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, which is an incredible story because my father was back in her life for her death. So, they had a little blip there.
Q. What type of cancer did your mother have?
A. She had carcinoid cancer. It was diagnosed in her liver then spread throughout her body. The doctor said she had one year, and she died in that year. During that time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were suffering together. It was something that actually changed my life in a positive way.
Q. How old were you?
A. I was 42 years old.
Q. You were also a young mother?
A. I was a young mother, yes. I had a five-year-old who watched her mother lose her hair and go through all of that at the same time she experienced her grandmother passing. That was a difficult time.
Q. How was your breast cancer diagnosed?
A. I found the lump. Sitting on the couch one night, I had an itch. I moved to it and said, “Ah, there’s a lump there.” That next day, I went to have it checked out. It was surreal. I mean I was 42 years old, an athlete, and in perfect health. I’ll never forget the shock. I thought, how am I going to tell my Mother? She had been diagnosed and was dying of cancer. What was I going to say?
Q. How far along was she in that battle?
A. She was in her final stages. I knew that I had to tell my Mother that I was going to be fine because at that point, she could not take hearing anything else. Once I told her I would be fine, she was okay. Her own suffering was so great she could not handle any more pain.
Q. Was she in Indiana at the time, or did she live here?
A. My Mother lived here. She was a very well-known artist on the Island. She had a great influence, a huge influence on me, and my daughter who is named after her.
Q. And your Father, is he still here?
A. My Father’s here. He’s remarried. He’s still with us. He is incredible, an amazing guy at 88 years old. He is mentally sharp and is still my adviser. He is wise. He is proud of what I’m doing and totally supportive.
Q. Do you have fear of being misunderstood?
A. I sometimes feel I’m the biggest fraud in this business. I was not a car person when I took this job. I wasn’t a gearhead, right? You know, what kind of car do you drive? A red one. Right? I will admit that I wasn’t a car person, but I saw the vision, the sheer opportunity that this event held. At the beginning my fear was that people would discount me because I was a woman, in a male dominated business. I knew nothing about cars and was running a world-class car event. In the end, it turned out that my not knowing about cars served to my advantage. Here I am, 15 years later. I know a lot about cars today because I’ve been in this business. I have a great appreciation for the art of the car. At the beginning, my fear was that they would say, “What is this woman doing, in a male-dominated business, running a car show, when she knows nothing about cars?”
Q. Concours d’Elegance is a tremendous success. How did the idea come about?
A. Thank you. The idea was here before I took this job. The event started with a group of car enthusiasts and the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra. They had seen other events like this as fundraisers for charities. I think they had looked at the Concours in Dallas. The name, Concours d’Elegance, basically means a parade of cars, a parade of elegance. It’s a parade. They started the concept. I had just come to the Island from Chicago, burned out on my career and looking for a place to live. I love Hilton Head. I had been to the car event on Amelia Island, which is second in size after Pebble Beach. I saw the potential and opportunity. The event here had just started. This is where my equestrian background came into play. At that time, the event was a display of cars. That was it. I said, “No, you really need to start to build this event and bring in what I call the ‘life-style traveler,’” which is somebody that wants to come to Hilton Head and wants to see something beautiful. We started to overlay hospitality, shopping, and parties, all of that. I had a big battle to fight because I came in and said, “People don’t want to just look at the cars. If you don’t care about cars, then what?” I remember my father going to endless horse shows, waiting for hours for me to go around the ring one time, and being bored out of his mind. So, what happened at those events? They started to have other things going on; shopping, parties… probably the game on in the bar so the guys could go watch that instead of having to sit around and watch people on horses. I started to apply that concept here, selling sponsorships for the add-ons. I had always been in sales in some way. Whether selling ideas, selling myself into a job, or selling whatever product or concept I was working for. The local utility company Hargray Company was one of the first
sponsors we had.
Q. How do you prepare for a sales pitch, and what are the steps?
A. I talk a lot with my daughter about how important it is to know your audience. You did the research before you talked with me, right? It’s very important, before you go into a company, not selling them on what you think they should buy but understanding what is it that they are trying to accomplish. How does our event fit into what they want? It is about meeting their needs. Look at their website. Understand how they are marketing themselves and what it looks like they’re trying to accomplish. If you look at their needs versus, ‘I think you should come in here because we have a lot of fancy, rich people that come, I think they’re your audience.’ I have often said, “Don’t come in as a sponsor unless you know how to showcase and leverage what we’re doing. Don’t just sit behind a table with some brochures and expect results.” We coach the folks that are working with us on how they can capitalize on our event and the audience that is there.
Q. Now in its 17th year, how did you grow the Concours d’Elegance into this multidimensional 13-day event?
A. I have an amazing team. We are all women, which is interesting, running the business of the event. Who would of have thought? There are a lot of men that work with us on everything else, like on car selection. We made a conscious decision to keep it fresh. We keep adding new elements to broaden the reach. The event isn’t just about cars—it’s about an experience of a lifetime. Years ago, my mother wrote a poem about cars. She wrote about all the components that make up this work of art. Her influence taught me to look at cars as aesthetics. We display gorgeous cars like an outdoor museum. Four years ago, we added our airport event, and it’s really taking off. Hilton Head Airport is very close to our venue at the Port Royal Golf Club. Five minutes away. I had been out to the Pebble Beach Concours, and one of their events is the McCall’s Jetport Event. We started to look at how we might draw more media in by diversifying the content and bringing in some of these lifestyle elements. Well, the airport is so close, we decided we would pair Concours cars with vintage aircraft and create a whole other event. We have vintage cars, vintage boats, and vintage motorcycles. Why not bring in the planes? It was such a home run. The Chamber of Commerce and the Town of Hilton Head have been huge partners. Everyone on this Island works to make things happen. The airport works with us. The Town of Hilton Head helps fund it. The Chamber markets, and we create a heck of a party. It is so much fun.
Q. What is success?
A. Success is feeling that people are enjoying what we have created. For me personally, it is giving back. Whether it is a joyful experience that attendees have coming to our event or making people happy, that is success. The other success is what we accomplish for charity. That was something else very important to me. I took a huge salary cut to do what I’m doing. That is a big life decision. I could still be in a big corporate job making five times as much as what I’m making now. So, for me, it came down to whether I might make an impact on this community. I am in a chapter in my life that I wouldn’t give up anything.
Q. What piece of career advice can you give to young women?
A. I would say to ask yourself, “What do you like? What makes you happy?” Not what I’m telling you to do, or suggest you should do, or what other people are suggesting you should do. What is it that you really love? Listen to your heart as you make career decisions. If you are in an interview, and you get that little gut check, which is God talking to you, even if it looks like the perfect job, but it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. Be careful of the, “It’s what you’re supposed to do,” box. If you listen carefully, you will never go wrong.