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JD Carlson
  J.D. Carlson

J.D. Carlson, MBA '95, Delivers for the Team

4/7/2010 --

Former placekicker is kicking the tires at Penske>

Whether he's playing big-time college football or arranging a big-time convertible-debt deal, J.D. Carlson is motivated by one thing: delivering for the team.

An inspiring leader certainly helps push that motivation. As both an athlete and a businessman, Carlson has been lucky to encounter that inspiration twice in his career. First, he leveraged a strong, accurate leg into a U-M scholarship and football glory under legendary head coach Bo Schembechler. Now he's leveraged his Ross MBA to a position as VP of finance and controller for Penske Automotive Group Inc. (PAG ), working for business and racing legend Roger Penske.

"If I had played football somewhere else, I'm sure I would have found great teammates and fans," Carlson says. "Playing for Michigan, I was fortunate to be led by a coach for whom I would try to run through a wall. That's what made my experience at Michigan unique."

Today instead of kicking field goals, Carlson is handling the finances at PAG , one of the country's largest auto retailers. Carlson says his current boss shares a lot of traits with his late football coach. "It's almost thrilling a lot of times, and from an accounting perspective you don't get to say that too often," he says. "Roger Penske has a lot in common with Bo Schembechler. He's very personable, yet demanding. He can have so many things going on at once but still be very precise in what he's doing. He takes time for everyone and emphasizes that no one person is more important than the team. The types of things we get into, the questions that get asked, I wouldn't have that any other place."

Carlson thrives under pressure, a trait he discovered on the football field. He was the game-winning hero more than once for his high school football team, a powerhouse in Florida. And once his career as a Wolverine kicked in, he gained national fame by hitting last-minute game-winners against Ohio State and UCLA . He graduated as one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the storied football program, scoring 129 consecutive point-after attempts in his college career.

But Carlson's early introduction to business brought unique challenges. By his own admission, he had a difficult first year in the MBA Program. Things turned around when he took intermediate accounting in year two. "Part of the final exam was preparing a cash flow statement," he says. "Everyone was all worked up about it. When I got a perfect score on the exam, it just kind of confirmed this was the field I needed to look at."

Confidence in both sports and accounting has served Carlson well over the years. In a previous position at Coopers and Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), he led a team dealing with the disposition of a 3M subsidiary, a billion-dollar transaction. Prior to PAG, he worked at manufacturer Tecumseh Products Co. When Penske called, Carlson was drawn to that rare combination in business: a public company that embraces an entrepreneurial spirit. Named America's most admired auto retailer by Fortune, PAG is the U.S. distributor for Smart Car, the microcar manufactured by Daimler AG, and owns a stake in Penske Truck Leasing. Penske also has a venture-capital firm.

"An accounting firm is very structured. With Roger, you don't know what's going to happen next," Carlson says. "When I joined Penske, we had just entered our convertible debt arrangement. Six months later, the Smart Car deal came about. This past year we've been evaluating our capital structure and came close to pulling off the acquisition of the Saturn brand from General Motors. It's definitely a strong team here with Roger as the captain. It's great to see how his mind works and participate in some of the things he's doing."

—Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,