Life in the fast lane

A former PwC partner shifts gears from the boardroom to the racetrack.

Robert Biggs
Biggs’ modified BMW M3 and the former PwC partner standing alongside another very fast car.

Two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Robert Biggs was acutely aware of this basic scientific principle — and the consequences of violating it — given that he was strapped inside a racecar thundering down a narrow strip of asphalt at about 145 mph.

Then again, there’s not much time to think about| quantum physics when you’re racing a highly modified, high-performance BMW M3 around the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course at breakneck speed. Biggs’s senses were redlining. His ears throbbed with the roar of engines, the click of metal and the squeal of gripping tires. The air was filled with the smell of hot brakes, burnt rubber and spent fuel.

It was a sweltering summer day in 1998, and the relentless heat inside the car felt even more intense thanks to Biggs’s full-body racing suit, flame-retardant face sock and heavily padded helmet. Muscles tensed, slackened and braced as speed and gravity played tug of war. His eyes darted between the blacktop and the cars rocketing just ahead, behind and alongside his M3. He gripped the steering wheel, directing 3,000 pounds of steel, aluminum and carbon fiber as it hurtled through the Ohio summer like a thunderclap on wheels.

“It’s not a good time to think about what you’re having for dinner,” Biggs says with a chuckle. “All of your concentration is focused on that moment.” Then, it happened. As Biggs barreled down the back straightaway at Mid-Ohio, he saw the fast-approaching car ahead of him slow down abruptly as it headed into the next turn. Biggs hit the brakes hard — with surprisingly little effect.

The car’s limited response — known as “brake fade,” a sudden failure brought on by extreme heat — was a problem, given that Biggs was still traveling at about 130 mph. His BMW and the car directly ahead of him were milliseconds away from a devastating impact — two solid objects about to occupy the same space at the same time.

Setting the pace

With his brakes compromised and catastrophe looming a half-breath away, Biggs instinctively relied on his training. For years, he had honed the ability to anticipate, assess and react to everchanging circumstances on a racetrack at speed. Now those skills were brought to the fore in an instant. Biggs deftly maneuvered the M3 away from an imminent collision and off the track into a gravel run-off area, where he finally brought his car to a grinding stop.

“Incidents generally happen so fast that there isn’t really time to be scared,” Biggs says. “But, I have to say, not having the braking force you are expecting at 130 mph is a very scary thing.”

In a sense, Biggs began preparing for moments like this in August of 1967, when he embarked on his professional services career. He had plenty of opportunities in front of him at the time, given his exceptional talents and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Manchester University. In fact, he was weighing job offers from several of the world’s most prominent accounting firms.

After interviewing with Price Waterhouse Managing Partner Tom Buck, visiting the South Bend, Indiana, office and hearing glowing reviews from a close friend who had already joined the firm, his decision was made. “Price Waterhouse had a great client list and a tremendous reputation,” Biggs says. “In hindsight, I obviously made the right choice.”

Biggs began as a staff accountant and soon established a sterling reputation of his own in a distinguished career that spanned 32 years—including 16 spent as a managing partner—at PwC offices in South Bend, New York, Peoria and Indianapolis before retiring from the company in 1999. When he reminisces on his time with PwC, Biggs uses words like “quality,” “dependability,” “honesty” and “integrity.”

I was fortunate to work with a lot of tremendously talented, high-quality, really bright people both inside PwC and at the client companies I worked with.

— Robert Biggs

“The thing that really stands out most to me is the people,” Biggs says. “I was fortunate to work with a lot of tremendously talented, high-quality, really bright people both inside PwC and at the client companies I worked with.”

Those clients included several Fortune 500 corporations like Caterpillar Inc., Miles Laboratories and Clark Equipment, as well as top-tier industrial companies like Meritor, Hillenbrand and Bindley Western. Biggs worked across industries ranging from automotive and finance to healthcare and manufacturing, developing meaningful relationships that allowed PwC to play a significant role in helping clients succeed.

“For years, I’ve told my kids and my grandkids that relationships are like bank accounts—you can make deposits or withdrawals depending on how you interact with others,” Biggs says. “One of the things I learned at PwC was how to make more deposits than withdrawals.”

Those tight-knit bonds with colleagues and clients lasted beyond his tenure at PwC and eventually led Biggs into the world of auto racing. Biggs was working as managing partner at PwC’s office in Indianapolis when a client’s chief financial officer—who also happened to be a BMW Performance Driving School instructor—encouraged him to enroll in an upcoming BMW driving school course.

Biggs had long held love for fast cars, from his days watching drag-strip races as a youth during the muscle-car era to attending the Indianapolis 500 as an adult. But he never seriously entertained the thought of getting behind the wheel himself. Biggs decided to accept the CFO’s offer and attend a high-performance driving event at the Putnam Park Road Course outside Indianapolis. After some instruction on the fundamentals of performance driving, Biggs climbed into the passenger seat of a BMW M3 alongside his instructor. What followed was a transformative experience.

“I thought I was going to die,” Biggs says, laughing at the memory. “I was both thrilled and frightened out of my wits at the same time. I had no idea how fast a well-tuned sports car could go through turns and stay on the track. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I was hooked.”

Biggs went on to attend about 20 performance driving weekend programs, which coupled in-classroom teaching with on-track driving. He steadily improved from novice to intermediate to advanced, before becoming an instructor himself.

If you want a successful outcome, you have to work hard, do your homework and be prepared.

— Robert Biggs

After six years as both a student and teacher, Biggs decided to put himself to the test by joining the amateur BMW Club Racing circuit. By then, he had come to understand that the lessons he had learned at PwC were as applicable on the track as they were in a boardroom. “If you want a successful outcome,” Biggs says, “you have to work hard, do your homework and be prepared.”

Changing course

At his first official BMW Car Club of America race, Biggs sat idling at the starting line in his M3. His mind raced as he waited out the last anxious moments before the green flag dropped. “I hope I don’t roll this thing up into a ball,” he thought.

The anxiety quickly passed. Biggs shook off the thought and focused on his training and all the preparation that had led him to that point. Crashes are a ubiquitous part of professional auto racing, but they’re the exception to the rule in an amateur sport where safety is carefully regulated, and drivers spend as much time learning about the ins and outs of vehicle dynamics as they do actually driving. Biggs was a passionate student. He read books on suspension tuning and the art of driving. His preparation was meticulous, honed to perfection through his years at PwC.

While still working full time as a PwC managing partner, Biggs would spend evenings in his garage, preparing his M3 for races. Biggs and his wife, Katie, frequently spent their summer weekends traveling to races throughout the Midwest and the South at prominent race courses like Road America in Wisconsin, Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio and his “home” track of Putnam Park near Indianapolis.

“I’ll give you the straight skinny: It wasn’t as glamorous as it might sound,” Biggs says. “I was an amateur driver. Sponsorships were minimal, and I funded my racing addiction with my own resources. At races, I was the driver and the mechanic, and my wife handled the fire extinguisher as part of my pit crew. It could be hectic at times, but we loved it, made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun.”

Biggs wasn’t merely racing for the kicks. He won several events despite the fact that he was in his 40s and early 50s racing against drivers in their 20s and 30s. “I was by far the oldest racer, but a car doesn’t know how old you are and it doesn’t care,” Biggs says. “I had a certain internal poise and confidence, and I was thoughtful and surprisingly aggressive. I didn’t want to be thought of as an old man on the track. I wanted to be known as a driver who was fast and tough to beat.”

With his affable personality, passion for the sport and ability to establish a genuine rapport with people, he easily navigated encounters with racing legends like Derrick Walker, Roger Penske and Mario Andretti. After Biggs retired from PwC, Walker encouraged him to consider joining the board of directors for Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), a public company and one of the top professional racing organizations in the world. After interviewing with CART senior management and other board members, Biggs was elected to the board.

During his tenure at CART, which has since merged into the IndyCar Series, Biggs got the chance to take a few laps with Andretti around Road America in a BMW M Coupe, a moment he considers one of the highlights of his racing career.

Biggs officially retired from competitive racing in 2003. The following year, his path took a turn when he joined the board of directors at Dayton Power & Light (DPL). For decades, DPL was one of the most prominent and respected public utilities in the nation, but it had experienced significant challenges that threatened the company’s reputation.

Gus Hillenbrand, the former chairman and CEO of Hillenbrand Industries (one of Biggs’s top clients at PwC), called his friend and asked him to help right the ship at DPL. New legislation required public companies to have an “audit committee financial expert,” and Biggs fit the bill. After several top DPL executives were accused of improper conduct and left the company, Biggs was elected executive chairman of the board and quickly helped restore the company’s credibility.

“I was viewed in a very positive light because I was new to the company and because of my background coming from PwC,” Biggs says. “DPL really was a well-run utility, and it was able to prosper again after some troubling times. I attribute that success largely to all the great, dedicated DPL employees who kept the lights on and performed their duties with professional excellence despite all the noise going on around them.”

Biggs continued on as an independent director at DPL until retiring in 2011. During his tenure, DPL experienced a tremendous turnaround, earning Biggs a prestigious national Outstanding Director honor in 2009 from the Outstanding Directors Exchange, a premier global conference operated by the Financial Times. Biggs credits his experience at PwC as a significant factor in his ability to help steer DPL back on track.

“PwC had an enormous impact on who I am and how I operate,” Biggs says. “I learned the importance of honesty, integrity, hard work and preparation. I learned how to work through difficult and contentious issues in an unemotional, fact-based manner. PwC also taught me how to persuade people to do things they really didn’t want to do but that were ultimately in their best interests.”

The road home

Retirement has brought a more languid pace to Biggs’s life after years spent in the literal and figurative fast lane. He plays golf regularly, reads, travels and spends time with his wife, their two children and four grandchildren. But he’s not ready to slow down entirely.

Biggs still occasionally gets together near his home in southwestern Florida with a handful of other experienced drivers—including British racing icon Derek Bell (winner of five Le Mans and three Daytona endurance races). The drivers trade stories and run “hot laps”—racing against the clock and for the pure joy of hustling a car around the track, rather than fierce bumper-to-bumper competition. A month or two will pass, and then Biggs will get the itch and find himself at Sebring International Raceway or Palm Beach International Raceway, gripping the wheel of his Porsche GT3, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of controlled abandon as he tears around the blacktop at speeds up to 135 mph.

“You have to race on a regular basis to do it well and safely—I don’t want to take a plane ride with a pilot who only flies once a month,” Biggs says. “I still find it exhilarating. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I’m able. To spend a few hours out on the track and just open it up—there’s nothing quite like it.”