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posted: 5/19/2014 7:12 PM

Naperville reporter's career takes flight at CNBC

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  • CNBC correspondent Phil LeBeau, of Naperville, covers the auto and aviation industries.

      CNBC correspondent Phil LeBeau, of Naperville, covers the auto and aviation industries.
    courtesy of CNBC

 
 

After swimming laps at his health club, CNBC reporter Phil LeBeau went into the locker room and checked his BlackBerry. A source had left him a hot news tip: General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner was being fired.

As CNBC's automobile and airline industry reporter, LeBeau knew this was a huge story. He immediately started making calls to confirm the rumors while hurriedly getting dressed and heading back to his Naperville home.

Thanks to LeBeau's hustle, CNBC was the first media outlet to report Wagoner's ouster -- a coup. But LeBeau's work on the story was far from over.

He continued to work the phones and computer while packing a bag, driving to O'Hare and flying to Washington D.C. With time for little more than a shower and shave, he was on the air. LeBeau spent the next few days there, reporting about what went down at GM.

It's not an unusual week.

Despite the hectic lifestyle, fierce competition and 24/7 schedule, LeBeau loves his job as a CNBC business reporter.

"No day is ever the same," he said. "Every day is different. That's the best part."

The LaGrange native knew he loved news early on, when he did newscasts for Lyons Township High School's student radio station, WLTL 88.1-FM. To this day, he considers the station "phenomenal" and regularly returns for alumni DJ stints (It is touted as "America's No. 1 High School Radio Station").

His journalism education continued at the University of Missouri, where he learned TV news through the school's baptism-by-fire approach. He looks back at it as the best training he could have for a real-world job.

"It's the Missouri method: Go out and do it. You have to have something on the air by a certain time. Sometimes it was good, sometimes not," he said.

LeBeau went on to work as a TV reporter and producer in Minneapolis, Wichita and Denver before briefly leaving the business -- getting a securities license and working as a media relations specialist for Van Kampen Funds in Oak Brook.

When a friend told him about the job opening at CNBC, he jumped at the chance to get back in TV. That was in 1999. He's been with CNBC ever since.

He also does special reports, like "Ford: Rebuilding an American Icon" and "Dreamliner: Inside the World's Most Anticipated Airplane," the latter of which had him spending 24 straight hours in the Boeing factory, watching the new 787 being built.

His latest documentary, "Failure to Recall: Investigating GM," will air at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 20, and will repeat on some future dates and times.

LeBeau appears on both CNBC and NBC News, reporting on the car or airline industry story du jour -- sometimes as frequently as once an hour, and on various shows. Occasionally he's tapped for breaking news, such as the missing Malaysia Airline jet, and how it relates to the industry.

He mainly works out of the NBC studio in Chicago but also does live reports from Detroit and Washington D.C., where he travels with CNBC cameraman Bob Pollack, of Skokie.

"We hit a story pretty hard," LeBeau said of the network, which just marked its 25th anniversary. "The people who watch CNBC are investors. The investors, they're focused on what's going to happen to the business, not what's going to happen for the consumer. The two don't always come together."

There's off-the-air work, too. LeBeau edits CNBC.com's "Behind the Wheel" section, and frequently tweets news from @LeBeaucarnews.

His hard work comes with perks, including world travel, hobnobbing with powerful CEOs and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as driving a $3 million Bugatti sports car in France more than 120 mph.

Many car companies offer LeBeau free cars, in hopes of publicity or favorable coverage, but LeBeau refuses them. Instead, he drives a dented Honda Civic, which he bought used.

"I bought a Toyota RAV4, but my (teenage) daughter drives it," he said. "I don't do car reviews. My job is not to talk about how great a company is. If they have great sales, I'll report that. But I've got good news and bad news stories on all automakers and airlines."

Once in a while, breaking news will force LeBeau to cut out early from his youth baseball coaching duties, or squeeze in cat naps to account for his weird work hours. He smiles when he says he "tries" not to sleep with his BlackBerry next to his bed.

But last month, GM made an announcement at 2 a.m. Chicago time that it was increasing its China production capacity to 5 million cars -- a big business news story worldwide. LeBeau knows the routine by now. So does his "incredibly understanding" wife, without whom none of this would be possible, he said.

"This job's allowed me to experience a lot of fascinating things," he said, "and I plan to keep doing it."

-- Jamie Sotonoff

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting feature, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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