How Alex Wellen’s Innovations Shaped His Path to MotorTrend’s CEO

Alex Wellen’s career path defies conventions. From his double-sided ping-pong paddle patent to revolutionizing CNN and MotorTrend, he thrives on new challenges

As a boy, Alex Wellen, CEO of MotorTrend, would spend hours upon hours in his family’s workshop working alongside his dad, an electrical-mechanical engineer. These moments felt playful and fun throughout his childhood, but in reality, they were the building the foundation of innovation that Wellen has leaned into throughout his decades-long career as a leader who never shies away from a new challenge. 

Before Wellen graduated law school, he’d filed his first patent for a double-sided ping-pong paddle. “I realized that if I had another paddle on the backside of my hand, it played more like tennis, so I started building a prototype with my dad. Filing that patent while I was still a student set in motion a much different career than I ever could have imagined,” Wellen admitted.

Wellen describes his career path as “emergent,” and believes that’s a large part of what has made it so enjoyable. “I love that kind of paradigm,” he says. “Most of my professional titles are peculiar because no one was doing that particular thing yet.” 

Since 2018, Wellen has been at the helm of MotorTrend, a dynamic automotive media company that not only helps people find the cars of their dreams, but creates content for car enthusiasts, understands the role that vehicles play in our personal lives, and creates spaces for car lovers to dive into their passions even further.

“If I understand the three cars that mean the most to a person, I can understand a lot about their life, their world, and the people they surround themselves with,” Wellen says. “Understanding how cars affect our stories is a window into understanding people on a very individual level.” 

Before MotorTrend, Wellen spent time as an intellectual property litigator, and then as a leading voice throughout CNN’s digitization journey. While the connection between his career paths might seem hard to understand at first, Wellen’s ability to act as the “connective tissue” between complex ideas has always come naturally. “My career is one of curiosity, storytelling, resourcefulness, and a commitment to creating a better mousetrap,” he says.

Photo Credit: MotorTrend Group

   CREATING A BETTER MOUSETRAP

As a natural-born innovator, Wellen finds fulfillment in looking at the current state of something and figuring out how to make it better. Improved inventions have been part of his world since before the double-sided ping-pong paddle patent was filed. “Timepieces, medical devices, electronic pointers—I’ve always looked at things through a lens of trying to solve a problem,” he says. “When you’re wired this way, you’re constantly trying to see around corners and decide, ‘Is this a better mousetrap?’”

With an engineering degree from Rutgers University, as well as the innovative experience he collected early on, Wellen was comfortable creating new products. Then, he went to law school and began practicing IP law, garnering an ability to understand how innovation worked behind the scenes. While at Harvard University for business school, Wellen honed in on a key piece of his career profile: looking at things through the addressable market.

“Business school helped me understand what problems I was solving, what cohort of people I was trying to serve, and all the ways in which I could create value through innovation,” Wellen says.

Looking back, the lessons offered by his emergent career are what paved the path for his success at CNN and MotorTrend alike. 

At CNN, innovation was all about the media company’s digital journey. “As the chief product officer, I had to be able to prove that the digital and linear pieces of the business could work in harmony, despite seeming so different,” he says.

When TV was where most of the money was coming in, it was difficult to convince the rest of the leadership team that taking a chance on different media channels made sense for the organization. 

Instead of sticking with the notion that all new content should be released to TV, Wellen challenged the team at CNN Worldwide to step into new areas of content, and ultimately, it was that push that helped the longtime television network transform into the digital global powerhouse that it is today, boasting the most multiplatform monthly unique visitors in the world.

MotorTrend’s 75th Anniversary Factory 5 Type 65 Coupe

   GOING DEEP INSTEAD OF GOING WIDE

At CNN, Wellen had a very wide role: He had to be able to look at the big picture and focus on breadth more than anything else. Eventually, he decided it was time for a new challenge, a role that allowed him to dive deep. “I wanted to be able to spend my time building a deeper relationship with 20 million people than a wider relationship with 200 million,” he says. So, in 2018, Wellen said goodbye to CNN and jumped right into a new, refreshing environment at MotorTrend.

Unlike at CNN, where he was focused on being a cost center, MotorTrend gave Wellen the chance to lead a profit center.

“It went so much further than the product itself,” he says. “My challenge was to build a team and create a culture that could distribute the content and other products in a powerful way to connect with our audience.” 

In an effort to form deeper connections with MotorTrend’s user base, Wellen reached out to executive director at the Petersen Museum, the namesake for MotorTrend’s founder, Robert Petersen.

In that conversation, Wellen learned that over the last 70 years, Petersen had published more than 50 magazines, many of which were dedicated to a particular category of cars like Mustangs or Corvettes. “He was already achieving the ultimate personalization then, so all I had to do was figure out how to emulate that in a digital world,” Wellen says.

Title card from MotorTrend TV

Under his leadership, over the last six years, MotorTrend Group reduced its reliance on print from 59% of its revenue to 5% and replaced those dollars with digital content and programming to achieve a nine-figure business annually. In addition to doubling-down on digital editorial car coverage, MotorTrend grew revenue from its automotive programming by over 18x in the same time span. Now, the company offers its users long-form programming on platforms like Max and Discovery+, has its own MotorTrend TV network, hosts events around the world, and even helps people find their perfect car matches through a proprietary technology platform. 

By playing in the content and entertainment sides of the business, MotorTrend gets to know its customers better. What are they interested in? What are they spending time learning about? How can it help educate them?

“I feel like we’ve truly stepped back into our namesake, I mean, it’s called MotorTrend for a reason,” Wellen says. “We’ve got to be able to set trends and be at the forefront of more than just cars; we’re at the forefront of mobility.”

Spring 2024 MotorTrend Cover

   LETTING THE FUTURE TAKE SHAPE

Wellen hasn’t always known where his career would lead. In fact, he seems to be more comfortable not knowing than most people.

“If you would have asked me 10, 15, 20 years ago what I thought I’d be doing, I never would have guessed that it would be this,” he says with a laugh. His ability to innovate in any situation and his commitment to understanding the people on the other side of his innovative endeavors are what propel his career. 

To Wellen, the most gratifying feeling is getting to be part of people’s lives.

“When a customer feels that spark of, ‘This brand cares about me. I trust them. They’re part of my life,’ that is the most rewarding part of any job I’ve ever done,” he says.  

If the next two decades are anything like the last two, it’s anyone’s guess as to what Wellen will be up to career-wise, but there are a few things we’d feel comfortable betting on: He’ll be creating new products, building deep connections with his customers, and challenging the status quo. 

Alex Wellen

CEO | MotorTrend

Residence
Los Angeles, California

Education
Bachelor of Science in Systems & Industrial Engineering from Rutgers University; Juris Doctorate from Temple University; and Advanced Management Program degree in Strategy, Leadership, and Finance from Harvard Business School

First Job
Landscaper

Philanthropy & Causes
The Invention Convention Worldwide, The Henry Ford, National Association of Women Artists, and The Emma Bowen Foundation

Mentors
News pioneer, David Bohrman; media executives, JB Perrette and Phil Kent; academic and business leader, Clay Christensen. I am also a devout student of business giants Simon Sinek, Peter Drucker, Michael Watkins, and Jim Collins

Favorite Reads
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek


MotorTrend Group

Founded
1949

Headquarters
El Segundo, California

Employees
MotorTrend Group is a full-owned subsidiary of Warner Bros. Discovery.