After losing his office job five years ago, David Beattie made a life-changing decision to pursue his passion for the racetrack — specifically, the miniature racetrack.
He found his true calling: slot car racing. What began as a hobby when he built models in his garage became a company: Slot Mods USA.
Slot Mods has developed a reputation for the elaborate installations produced at its 5,500-square-foot plant in Clinton Township. Think of them as the ultimate prize for car junkies who want the best and are willing to pay for it.
"The growth has come through magazine advertising and networking," Beattie said. "We've built tracks for billionaires. I can't say who they are because they are private individuals."
Having an "in" with luxury retailers is another boost for the company.
Over the holidays, the Slot Mods USA track was named one of Neiman Marcus' 10 fantasy gifts for Christmas. The Slot Mods USA Ultimate Slot Care Raceway is priced at $300,000 and includes a re-creation of the buyer's fantasy track along with an inaugural race night party co-hosted by racing legends such as Vic Elford and David Hobbs.
For each sale, Neiman Marcus donates $3,500 to The Heart of Neiman Marcus Foundation, which supports youth arts education.. Last fall, Beattie made his television debut on NBC's "Today" Show to talk about the fantasy gift.
Not all the tracks cost $300,000. Beattie said the average cost to build a track is $125,000. And there are tracks that start at $50,000. But it is a splurge item: Beattie's average customer has a net worth of $250 million to $1 billion.
The average build time is two to three months per track. But with a solid pipeline of jobs to do, Beattie estimates this year's revenue at around $1.5 million.
Not bad for a guy who borrowed $10,000 from a childhood friend six years ago just to get started.
Beattie had been operations manager for Rochester Hills-based EEI Global's large-format printing department, but he lost his job when the economy crashed in 2008.
Even before the layoff, he had been spending time on his slot car hobby — building a 170-foot track with friends in his basement. But after losing his job, he used it as a means of reinvention.
An early $700 product with do-it-yourself tracks failed, so Beattie turned to the custom market after research showed that products for slot car enthusiasts were scarce.
Beattie and his wife, Shari, decided to go all in on the business. Shari dropped out of medical school to care for their daughter.
The Slot Mods tracks have been featured in episodes of "Jay Leno's Garage," the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, the Robb Report and Crain's sister publication Autoweek. And besides traditional business clients, Beattie's customers have included racing legend Bobby Rahal and Tony George, former CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and creator of the Indy Racing League.
"Like many guys my age who grew up in the '60s, everybody was into cars, and you had a slot car of some type," said Rahal, a three-time PPG Indy Car World Series champion. "About three years ago, a friend of mine named Zak Brown (CEO of the world's largest motorsports marketing agency, Just Marketing Inc.) invited me to his house, and he had this unbelievable slot car set done by this guy named David Beattie."
After speaking with Beattie about his work, Rahal went ahead with a plan to build his dream track. Beattie would re-create a 22-by-14-foot Road America Raceway in Wisconsin, Rahal's favorite track, exactly the way it looked in the 1960s.
"David's slot car tracks are works of art," Rahal said.
"I said I wanted the track to look like it looked in 1967, not today," said Rahal, who declined to give a cost. "I gave David a number of old programs from Road America in the '60s. Then I showed him how the buildings looked, how the guardrails looked, how the grass looked, so that he could get a real feel for what the circuit looked like in those days.
"I told him about the topography and the hills, and over time he was able to re-create everything that we spoke of. He just did a phenomenal job with it. And when people come to my place to see it — they are just amazed. It's more than just a slot car set."
In the '50s and '60s, a slot car set was every young boy's fantasy — where you could be the driver of your dreams. Beattie has been able to help wealthy, middle-age men relive their childhoods and create the ultimate toy for their man caves. He helps them connect with their children, customers said.
Take Jim Farley, executive vice president and president of Europe, Middle East and Africa for Ford Motor Co. Farley, who was Beattie's second client, had just moved to Detroit from California in November 2007 and was looking for something to do with his son. He was specifically looking for something to do over the winter.
"When I moved here, I asked the Ford designers where the best place was to buy magazines and model cars," Farley said. "They gave me an address to a place on Woodward in Birmingham.
"So, my first weekend, I went down there and they had (Beattie's) business card next to the cash register, so I told the guy that I was thinking about building a slot car track for my son. ... They told me I didn't need to build it, that I should have this guy build it and I was like, 'No ... I like working with my hands, and I want to build it. I said I would rather do it myself.' "
What happened next would put Beattie on a course to success.
"So I got home and my wife was like — 'what are you talking about?' " Farley said. " 'You're an executive at Ford; you don't have any time, you've got three kids, you don't have any time to be messing around with that stuff. Why don't you let this guy do it?' "
Farley invited Beattie over to his house to talk it through.
"I remember giving him a hard time because he was driving a Volkswagen," Farley said. "I welcomed him into my house, and he met my family. We talked about the project. I knew exactly what I wanted."
The next week, Beattie returned with a computerized example, which Farley said was great. Six months later, Beattie was done and Farley had the toy of his dreams: a replica of Laguna Seca, the California landmark.
Farley loved it so much that he started to invite his colleagues from Ford over to his man cave, with all his old cars and his track from Slot Mods USA. Eventually, it led to another opportunity for Beattie.
Said Farley: "I'm a big believer that our auto shows should be entertaining for the whole family, so I called our (Detroit) auto show guys and said we should build a slot car track for the auto show for the public days so that when people bring their families, their kids will have something to do while mom and dad are looking at cars. Eventually, they called David up and put a deal together and built a track" for the 2010 North American International Auto Show.
Farley said the thing that resonated with him the most was Beattie's personal story, about how he had lost his job and was at a crossroads. Farley had just come from Toyota, the auto industry was in flux, and he had witnessed a multitude of layoffs at Ford and throughout the industry. Beattie's personal story stayed with him.
"What I have learned is that there is a fine line between creativity and business," Beattie said. "And you better have a handle on both of them, or there's not going to be much success. And never let somebody tell you what you're worth. Get paid for what you're worth."
Still, Beattie said, he "always tries to overdeliver. If it's $150,000, you're going to get $200,000 worth of work.
"Because for me, it's emotion. It's art."
Originally Published in Crain’s Detroit: January 4, 2015