Rapper to 'bring some sexy' to wheels

Saturday, March 26, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At 35, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs has already made his mark as a hip-hop musician, actor, marathon runner, fashion designer, celebrity boyfriend, gossip column favorite, voter registration booster and entertainment entrepreneur.

Now, the former Puff Daddy is going into the auto parts business.

Combs is joining forces with a Kansas City manufacturer to produce a new line of custom, precision-forged aluminum wheels for sports trucks, luxury SUVs and high-end American- and German-made automobiles.

The joint venture was announced Thursday. SJC Wheels LLC will produce and sell "Sean John Wheels," named for the entertainer. They hit stores next month, retailing at between $700 and $3,000 each.

Partner Greg Weld, the founding president and chief executive of Weld Wheel, said Combs had told him he'd show him how to "bring some sexy" to the wheel business.

Weld, a former auto racing driver who started his wheel manufacturing business in 1970, was a little overwhelmed at the attention attracted by his new partner, marveling at his ability to work a crowd and "build his brand."

Combs' company sought out Weld last year to pitch the joint operation.

"We researched the market -- who makes the strongest, who stands behind their wheels, who has the longest warranty, who has the best reputation in the wheel industry, who has the highest quality," said Josh Taekman, a partner with Combs. "We found that Weld makes the strongest and best wheels, but not necessarily the prettiest for the pop culture lifestyle."

He said the wheels seem to be another fashion accessory of the "Sean John lifestyle."

Weld Wheel usually makes wheels under its own name, but the deal with Combs will provide much wider exposure.

"He is an icon in the urban market and the urban market is huge, the single biggest segment of wheel business," Weld said. "But we did not know how to tap into that market. Having a personality or high-profile person is a little like Nike getting together with Michael Jordan. It increases recognition."

"In the urban market, they call it 'bling-bling,' which means showy, shiny and 'Look at me, I have a lot of bling,'" he said. "The way we've designed spokes, holes, the features, it looks like it is aggressively moving when it's not even moving."

Weld, now 61, won the national sprint car championship of the United States Auto Club in 1967, competing against such big racing names as Mario Andretti. Three years later he was the fastest rookie qualifier in the Indianapolis 500, but his car gave out after several laps in the race.

He continued racing for a few years after starting his wheel business, then known as Weld Racing Enterprises, but finally decided he couldn't keep going with both.

"I had some success, but it was a vagabond life," he said. "Five of my best racing friends were killed in one year. That was before roll cages. I don't look back, I always look forward. I still have a great time, but I don't have to get killed doing it."

Eventually, he sold most of the business to a California company, keeping only the sprint car forged wheel operation.

"I thought the future of the wheel business would be in forged wheels, and I knew I could engineer a better wheel againt the second time around," Weld said.

Still later, he bought back the name, trademarks and manufacturing operation from the California company. Weld's 400-employee company now turns out 1,000 wheels a day, six days a week, and he says annual revenues are between $50 million and $100 million, which he expects to triple over the next three years.

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