R.L. Polk & Co: All in the Family

Four men named Ralph Lane Polk would head the family company before tragedy struck in 1985.

Just four years after becoming president, the founder’s great-grandson Ralph Lane Polk IV disappeared and was presumed dead in a boating accident on Grand Traverse Bay in northern Michigan. His brother Stephen, 15 years younger at age 29, would have to quickly prepare for a top leadership role he never expected to have.

Stephen Polk was an unlikely CEO — a wildlife biologist by education – who proceeded to rescue the company from a mountain of debt, sell off non-core assets in the nick of time, and build Carfax into a national brand that would propel R.L. Polk to a sale price of $1.4 billion paid by IHS in 2014.

During a period of tumultuous change at the turn of the century – the dot-com boom, bust and a Great Recession – Stephen Polk revamped R.L. Polk to survive a shakeout that many other companies did not.

He tapped Michigan football coaching legend Bo Schembechler to motivate his team and explored possible deals with the likes of Warren Buffett. He sold off pieces of the company and explored merger proposals.

Ultimately, he concluded that R.L. Polk would need to either invest $1 billion or more to achieve the scale to compete against huge global data giants – or receive $1 billion or more to sell the legacy Polk business and its growing Carfax operation.

In R.L. Polk, both the company and family, we see a story that parallels that of America – a tale of constant change unfolding, adapting to change and ultimately, creating the change we want.

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