Western innovator: Marketing skill moves bulls
Stock contractor played himself in movie '8 Seconds'
By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. -- Rodeo stock contractor John Growney found national fame through his knowledge of marketing -- and a little luck.
The upstart producer whose family has owned a car dealership since the 1920s landed a bull that would gain him national attention and a chance to play himself in a movie.
Growney, 64, is quick to credit his mentors, teachers, business partners and friends for the success of his Growney Brothers Rodeo Co., which provides bulls and bucking horses to about 20 West Coast pro rodeos a year.
But he cherishes the lessons taught to him by his grandparents when he was a boy, about how to present himself to the public -- even just by behaving well in a restaurant.
"We weren't just selling ourselves, we were selling our automobile business," said Growney, whose grandfather started Growney Motors in 1922.
Though he didn't grow up on a farm, Growney was always a cowboy at heart. His friend's older brother rode bulls, and it got him started riding bulls and bucking horses at junior rodeos, he said.
As a young man, Growney tried selling cars when he got out of the Army and didn't like it, so he went to college.
"I knew I wanted to do something in the rodeo business," he said. "Because of the Growney name and the credit my dad and grandfather had established, the bank loaned me the money to get into the rodeo business. I had no clue what I was doing.
"Because of this community, people in the county made sure I was successful in the rodeo business," he said. "Then when you get older, you don't want to let people down so you start working harder."
Growney began his business in the late 1970s, when Cotton Rosser of Flying U Rodeos sold him a truckload of older bucking horses for amateur rodeos. Another guy sold him some cross-bred bulls, and he took it from there. By the mid-1980s, he and a partner were providing stock for as many as 80 rodeos a year, before they went exclusively pro.
In 1984, amateur stock contractor Mert Hunking of Sisters, Ore., liked the way Growney cared for his animals. He sold him a special bull that had been bucking off amateur riders -- even financing the purchase for Growney. The bull's name was Red Rock.
Red Rock was the 1987 Bucking Bull of the Year on the pro circuit, having never been ridden to 8 seconds in competition. During a rodeo in Southern California, a former rodeo rider named Jim Shoulders suggested Growney match the bull with that year's champion rider, Lane Frost, for a competition.
Frost and Red Rock were paired in a "Challenge of the Champions" at seven rodeos throughout the West the following year. Frost first rode the bull for 8 seconds on his third try in Redding, Calif., and rode it in four out of seven chances. The challenge gained national media attention.
"We lucked out with Lane Frost," Growney said. "This guy spoke well. People just gravitated to him. ... It just fell into place."
Frost was killed by a bull at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in 1989. His life inspired the 1994 movie, "8 Seconds," in which Growney is shown announcing the rider's challenge with Red Rock.
Growney said the movie's producers approached him at a rodeo in Pendleton, Ore. He remembers rehearsing his lines on his ranch for days before the actual shoot.
"When I did it, I did it in one take," he said. "It elevated us. Even in bull riding, you're elevating yourself constantly."
Over the years, Growney Brothers has provided more horses and bulls to the National Finals Rodeo than any other company in the West, earning the Stock Contractor of the Year title in 2000.
Today Growney handles the promotional side of the business while his long-time partner, Don Kish, raises the bulls on his ranch and another partner, Tim Bridwell, handles the horses.
Whether they're promoting rodeos or raising crops, Growney said each farmer and rancher should know about marketing.
"Now everything you do is marketing, how you market yourself," he said, noting the marketing orders for products as diverse as beef and nuts. "A lot of rodeo stock contractors were just old farmers sitting on their duff until the young guys came along."
Residence: Red Bluff, Calif.
Occupation: Rodeo stock contractor
Family: Daughter Lovette Growney, 47
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