SJ Q&A: Tommy Phillips, California Wheels
President and Owner of California Wheels
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Tommy Phillips gives the spin on his company California Wheels.
Name: Tommy Phillips
Age: Just turned 35
San Jose native Tommy Phillips went from selling rims out of his trunk with nothing more than a pager to owning California Wheels, one of the leading car shops in San Jose. Phillips opened the shop in 1998 when he was just 21 years old. In 2007, he opened a second location in Campbell where he now spends most of his time.
California Wheels has become more than just tires and rims. The shop provides almost every service including paint, doors, lights, and interior. The east San Jose location regularly services the Mercedes Benz dealership and the Campbell location services the Los Gatos Luxury Cars dealership.
Phillips boasts a star-studded list of clientele, including well-known Bay Area rappers, professional sports athletes, and recognizable Silicon Valley tech industry names. Along with a list of San Francisco Giants, San Jose Sharks and other professional teams, it’s been rumored that Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn got his Porsche Panamara tricked out at California Wheels.
How long have you lived and worked in San Jose?
I’ve lived her since 1977; I was born in Good Sam Hospital. I opened up the store in 1998 selling custom rims and modifying cars—lowering them, installing accessories, that kind of stuff—and I got started before that selling wheels on my own for two years by putting ads in local newspapers like Metro, Diablo Dealer, Bay Area Classifieds.
What do you like most about San Jose?
There’s a few things. I like the weather, but the location of San Jose is also great because of that fact that you’re one hour away from San Francisco, four hours away from great skiing and half an hour away from the beach. It’s really centrally located to do all sorts of nice outdoor activities, or even drive or take a quick flight to L.A. Iin the years that I’ve lived here, San Jose has grown to be more fun for fine dining and night life.
What were some challenges you faced in starting your own business?
There were all sorts of things, but sales were hard when I first started off. Especially for me, I was only 21 years old so nobody really thought I knew what I was doing, and honestly when I started I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had to go to other shops and watch other people to eventually learn how to do it myself, and eventually I saved up money to buy the equipment myself. After that, it was a challenge growing to have employees and keeping customers happy.
When you’re smaller, it’s harder to break through. It takes a lot of time for people to get to know who you are. It takes a while before your name and reputation gets out there and people know about your company.
What was the very first car you owned?
The first car that was my own actual car was a 1990 Honda Civic DX. It had no power steering, no air conditioning, no power windows, no mirror on the right side and black plastic bumpers. I was 17 when I got it.
What car(s) do you drive now?
I have a 2009 Mercedes CL63 AMG, a 2008 Cadillac Escalade Platinum, a 2006 Mercedes E500, a 1994 Chevy Silverado, a 1969 Chevelle SS Convertible, and a 1972 Oldsmobile 442 Convertible.
You have a star-studded list of clientele. Who have you been most excited to meet?
The rapper Too Short; he’s pretty famous. He’s been rapping since the 80s so I remember listening to his music a lot. He was inducted into the Hip Hop hall of Fame. We also just did some wheels for comedian Angela Johnson. Some of them we’ve been working with me for probably 10 years: San Francisco 49ers like Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis, as well as San Francisco Giants Andres Torres; San Jose Sharks Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle. For the Warriors, Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, and Oakland Raiders Darren McFadden, Sebastian Janikowski and Jerry Rice. Also UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez. Probably the two that we’ve done the most work through the years are Patrick Willis and Richie Rich, another Bay Area rapper.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m a really big sports fan, so another thing I like about San Jose is we’ve got two professional baseball teams, two football teams, basketball and a soccer team. I enjoy going to Warriors games, Giants games and hockey games.
I have two kids ages five and two, so I try to spend as much time with them as possible. That’s the downside to running your own business, you have to work 60 hours a week, so I only really get one day off and I try to spend some time with the family.
What are some of your favorite places in San Jose?
The HP Pavilion, because I like to watch the Sharks. I like Morton Steakhouse and Alexander’s, I just went there for my birthday. I like to go to Cardiff Bar, they have nice house music Tuesdays and Thursdays. And sometimes I go to Myth Taverna.
If you could change one thing about San Jose, what would it be?
I’d move the A’s here. I’m an A’s fan. I grew up in the 80’s with the A’s and the Bash brothers, and I like the Giants and A’s both. I think it would be great for the A’s and San Jose to have a major league franchise here.