May 12, 2020 update to the BMW M3 project car

Project BMW M3: How BimmerWorld Grew a BMW Passion Into a BMW Business

Lead photo credit: MotorSport Media

We’re getting the band back together. Well, in a way.

When we first considered purchasing our 2004 BMW M3, we sent the details to James Clay, founder of BMW tuning house BimmerWorld. His reply was succinct: If we didn’t buy the car, he would. 

The car just sounded that good on paper, and since the seller was a friend, we all felt confident in the particulars. So we made the deal. 

After picking up the car from its previous home in Tennessee, before heading back to our Florida base we made a detour for Dublin, Virginia, to visit the BimmerWorld shop. James offered to do a post-purchase inspection for us–yeah, we got it backwards but we got Mexican food for lunch out of it. 

BimmerWorld’s 2020 racing plans include both IMSA and SRO Motorsports. (MotorSport Media photo)

The BimmerWorld name has been an institution in the BMW scene for decades, and race cars from their shop can currently be found across the motorsports spectrum, from ChampCar and NASA to Pikes Peak, IMSA and SRO Motorsports. 

E46 projects have included street and race cars, with the shop developing the Spec E46 class. James also owns a street E46 M3.

Now that our M3 project is back on the front burner–about four years after purchasing it–we pinged James: Mind answering about a million M3 questions? He said yes and agreed to serve as this project’s Sherpa. 

The GRM staff and James go back many years, but we realized something: We didn’t know how the company came to be. Did he follow a methodically developed plan or just fall into things? Did he really launch BimmerWorld from his dorm room? (We’d learn that it was actually an off-campus apartment.)

So we set up a formal interview, but this isn’t a puff piece. Our ulterior motive: What can James teach others contemplating a business built around a passion, and how is BimmerWorld weathering the current storm? And, yes, we asked about his sandals. 

GRM: How, where and when did the company start?
James: I was in grad school for my MBA and decided I wanted to learn to drive–and replaced my over-powered, over-heavy Dodge Stealth with an E30 M3–back when they were obtainable. 

I didn't have the money to foot the bill for some basic track mods, and I started selling parts I was stripping out of my car to fund it: a/c compressor, rear seats, etc. 

When those parts ran out, I had to find something else to keep the track times rolling along and started making decal kits for the E30 M3 and soon after started selling them under the BimmerWorld brand, along with other used car parts

First motorsports headshot.

GRM: Did you have a business plan or were you winging it at this point?
James: Totally winging it. I suppose, looking back, that's the entrepreneurial spirit. 

I knew that if I was going to be able to go to the track, I was going to have to figure out how to make money while I was still in school, and I was super into my newfound passion, so I was learning about BMWs while I was doing it. 

I remember after a throw-out bearing exploded, I was working on my car daily downtown in a metered parking spot to pull the trans, clean up the mess, and replace a bunch of parts. I was just trying to make it all work back then.

I think I may have started the whole journey around 1996, but I call August 1997 the start of the BimmerWorld business.

The first BimmerWorld-built car and first team hauler.

GRM: When did you say, Okay, this will be a real business? How did you make the transition from hobby to business?
James: That took a really long time. After grad school, I took a job in property development, and kept running the E30 M3 and selling parts. 

I did that for a little over a year before I got fed up with the conflicting schedules of my real job and the thing I was passionate about. I seemed to always leave work Friday around 4, finish prepping and loading the car, drive to the track, sleep two hours outside the gate, then start my Saturday event. Brutal.

I kept on selling parts after that and really ramped up the effort, but it was a lot of work and little profit, so for a while I sold down assets–including the E30 M3 as well as a bunch of parts sales–then ran out of that and had to pause on racing–I was still at the track–for about a year as things at work continued to grow.

GRM: Is that when BimmerWorld went legit?
James: Back then, I often felt like my parents weren't supportive–nor should they have been after 7 years of college and grad school and their kid was wrenching on old BMWs and goofing off with friends every day–but they were always there for me in retrospect. 

I took my mom's garage spot to build my race car. We worked in an old metal building with no insulation or running water for some years that dad let me use. 

Then when it got too cold in there and we needed a little more organization and help, he let me use a room in his law office rent-free. It was really around 2006 when I was shopping for a commercial facility that I recognized this wasn't goofing off and racing with my buddies and it was a real business with employees, customers, and people that counted on me.

The first BimmerWorld shop: no heat, no a/c, no running water.

GRM: Once you "went legit," did you intend to take the business this far–multiple employees, race haulers and a giant facility? What fueled that growth?
James: It's funny, I never had a business plan–nor did I need to because I never had to ask anyone for funding–and my only goal after watching touring cars race at 2 a.m. after the bars closed when I was in the early stages was that I wanted to do whatever it took to race one of those. 

I'm a pretty hard worker and I get satisfaction in making things grow and doing more and better. Probably why I didn't recognize what the business was in 2006 until I had to pop my head up and look around. I just knew we were growing and we were doing the kind of cool stuff I'd always wanted to.

I was an MBA grad, and I did a little goal setting and strategic planning, and it wasn't just dumb luck, either. But after we started racing Touring Cars back in 2002, we were so busy that I didn't stop and think "What's next?"

Of course, that has changed a bit now and as we continue forward, we've reached a size that I have to be a little more sensible and measured with planning and actions because the stakes are higher. But what fuels it is just wanting to be the best–and do what we all love doing here.

Touring Car racing in 2003.

GRM: As someone who's done it, what advice do you have for others looking to start a niche business?
James: Goodness. I honestly have no idea. 
If I look back at everything I did to make it through those lots of years, I don't know that I would do it again–but those are words from a guy in his 40s, not the guy in his early 20s that had more passion than sense. 

I guess I would say that if you're going to jump very far off the beaten path, be prepared to give absolutely everything you have–time, money, fortitude–and then go find more to give, because it's not easy, and lots of days/weeks/years it doesn't even seem possible. 

I'm also an optimist and I've been pretty good at holding my head high in some very challenging situations, and agile enough to stay mostly on my feet–or able to get up and keep going.

Oddly enough, I always did what I do because I love it, and I wanted to do more of it. If making money drove my decisions, or was a high need for me, I'd have been out long, long ago. There are certainly other jobs that don't require this approach, but I can't imagine getting to where we are now without the road we took.

GRM: What other companies do you recommend that people watch and try to emulate?
James: I would say that looking at people that are passionate and pursue excellence above anything else is the person that I would emulate. And of course, add in a lot of luck and some good decisions along the way.

GRM: BimmerWorld has raced a lot–and continues to do so. How has that helped put the company where it is today?
James: Racing has been great preparation for me in this business and my role in the job, and I have a lot of parallels between racing and business. You can only drive forward; if you miss the apex and you aren't on the right line, fix it next time. And if you wreck, fix it and try again. And never stop thinking about how to do it better.

GRM: How does your engineering education fit in with all of that motorsports?
James: I am an Electrical Engineering graduate, and I wouldn't be the only person I suspect to say that I am the world's worst electrical engineer. 

But too late in my studies I realized that it wasn't my thing. I liked the problem solving, but I was more into mechanical things, and really more into freer thinking that would have served me well in business school. 

But I can communicate with engineers technically up to a decent level, and understand mechanical problems, and that has been huge in working with cars. And the problem-solving approach has also served me well in business in general.

GRM: How is BimmerWorld adapting during this pandemic, and any advice for other smaller businesses?
James: It's certainly more extreme than other tough world events I've faced before, but having weathered 9/11 and the housing market crash, and really just all the years leading up to now that still weren't easy, the core principles are still the most important. 

My staff is the most important thing to me because we couldn't do what we do without them, and the first step was to find the balance that was right for us, and made everyone feel safe as we get through this–because we will all get through this and I try to lead so that when we do, we still have a great place to work with the people we enjoy, coworkers and customers alike. 

The BimmerWorld crew giving back, bagging for United Way. 

Then, of course, our suppliers and customers are right there as well, and while we will all face challenges along the way, we have more time than typical to communicate, check in, and make sure as a larger group we are all getting through this the best we can. 

Even though I steer a lot larger ship than I did back in the late ’90s, I feel like you have to be constantly flexible and adapt, just like on the race track. As my veteran Marine now Warehouse Manager says, Semper Gumby!

(MotorSport Media photo)

GRM: You’re undergoing a physical plant expansion now, too, right?
James: We are–not exactly the time I would choose to be wrapping it up, but we're about 4 years late in doing it, so I can't complain, I suppose. 

We are doubling our footprint here with a new warehouse facility to house the continued growth of BimmerWorld, as well as our sister companies Powerflex USA–premium urethane bushings–and Lifeline USA Fire and Safety Systems.

2020 expansion. Dog shown for scale.

Quite honestly, we can make good use of a little slower pace, and nothing like another 17,000 square feet to allow people to socially distance as we build shelves, organize and move.

I think this will bring us to about 33,000 total for now, and we're working on another 50,000–or were before this mess started.

GRM: So more expansion is/was planned?
James: I think it still is. I was told in 2017 by our warehouse staff that we were out of space. And since then, we've added 150% more inventory, and after some time working in the warehouse recently, it's amazing what my team back there can do to make it all happen. 

But we went from 7500 square feet to twice that about 8 years ago and realistically needed that space well before then, and filled it almost immediately. 

As we continue on our path, I need to make sure the facilities don't choke the potential growth of our company due to lack of room to be efficient. 

But looking back, I don't think I would have done it differently. I've always been oddly frugal and while it looks like we spend a lot of money on some things, we save it where we can as well, and I think it's critical to be responsible so when we find ourselves in a situation like the current, I haven't hung our collective necks so far out that we risk getting them chopped off.

GRM: What else should people know about BimmerWorld?
James: Long ago, I looked at other people in similar positions at the time and felt like they were a bit on a pedestal and had recognition because of that. 

It was tough for me because I was hands on cars and liked direct interaction with people/customers. I struggled with that one for a while, then decided to just ignore it and do it the way I liked doing it, even if it never got me to that point of reverence. 

(MotorSport Media photo)

I think maybe I've given up some possible success along the way, but I think it's a rare thing to truly enjoy your job as much as I do mine. The tough days can be brutal, and it's been a hard road, but I really appreciate where we are today.

While we are all BMW here, and that's what I intend to be for the foreseeable future, we do sell some product lines that apply to anyone on a track, and they are sold by a staff that has hands-on experience using them, and knows the service expectation in buying them. 

And I talk to a lot of people that have X brand car now, and it's interesting to see how many people in the track and performance world end up having a BMW at some point. They are just well-designed, easy to work on, and a sweet spot for a lot of people on price, performance and replacement part prices, and durability/reliability. 

So, you may not be a BMW person now, but there's about a 60% chance that someday, you will be! 

GRM: Do we want to ask about the sandals?
James: I started wearing ’flops a lot in high school, probably dialed it back for skating shoes and combat boots for a while, but they're just comfortable. 

I just about lost a toe when I dropped a fish-mouthed end of a cage bar on it when I was building my E30 M3, but I'm certainly more nimble on my feet now. I don't do it because it's “a thing,” because it is now. It's just what I do. And no, when the shop is active, I wear shoes.

(MotorSport Media photo)

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Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/12/20 7:59 a.m.

By the way, this was written for those on the forum who are thinking about turning that love of cars into a business. We've all been there, right? Figured we could all learn from someone who did it. 

Thanks and enjoy. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/14/20 8:40 a.m.

See also: The latest from the shop.

 

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