At the peak of the financial crisis, David Beattie was living the same nightmare haunting millions of Americans: He had been laid off late in his career. Unable to find work, he wasn’t sure where to turn.
“Losing your job when you’re up in age, when you’re 48 years old, it’s a very scary feeling,” Beattie says. But rather than giving in to fear and taking another unsatisfying job, he turned to a childhood escape that would eventually become his million-dollar passion project: Slot cars.
As the youngest in his family growing up, his many older brothers let him play with their replica slot car tracks, but it wasn’t until his job as a manager at a printing company ended in a layoff that he rediscovered the hobby. Friends visited his Detroit basement to race as he started designing a few tracks himself with the extra time, even selling a couple here and there.
“I wasn’t making really any profit out of it. I was just enjoying that there was other people enjoying the hobby along with me,” he says. “Out of fear can come a lot of creativity, and you’ve got to be open to those vibes that are coming through.”
Those vibes led Beattie to create do-it-yourself track kits he tried selling for $729 out of a hobby store on the weekends for a few weeks.
He sold one.
“It’s a very humbling experience because you know I worked at a job, I had the money and I had the office. I had no real worries and now I was … kind of like an amusement,” he says. “But the guy I sold it to was so happy.”
While the kits at the hobby store flopped, one Ford executive who had just moved to town looking for something to do with his son saw Beattie’s cars at the shop. After seeing the 170-foot track Beattie had built in his basement, he commissioned a $4,000 track of his own.
“So that kind of told me there’s a market,” Beattie recalls, adding that the excitement led him to write notes to popular auto magazines. Some of those publications sent reporters to cover just how detailed a slot car track has to be to warrant a price tag well in the thousands.
The resulting stories caught the eyes of some of the most important organizers in the automotive world.
“That was kind of a catalyst,” Beattie says. “The people at Pebble Beach had read the story and said, ‘David we’d like you to come out and build us a Pebble Beach replica.'” Beattie borrowed $10,000 from a childhood friend to front the build, knowing the event would be the perfect opportunity to showcase his skills in front of a high-worth crowd. In short order, the $10,000 Pebble Beach replica sold.
“It felt great to be able to pay him back. Unfortunately I didn’t really have any extra money from that,” he says. “But the thing about it is, if you believe in yourself, there are things that happen.”
Orders started to pour in, and the sizes and prices of the tracks began to grow. Beattie brought on a staff of four and upgraded from a small studio to a 5,000-square-foot building.
“It was kind of a snowball effect because I went from a track from $4,000 to $10,000 to $35,000 to $75,000 to $350,000,” Beattie says, adding that the client list has grown to include billionaires.
During one project build, a client even flew him out in a private jet to make sure the track matched his basement perfectly. Having seen that track, racing legend Bobby Rahal eventually commissioned a 22-foot exact replica of his favorite track, Wisconsin’s Road America Raceway. Now Beattie’s Slot Mods cranks out about six tracks a year to the tune of around $1 million in annual revenue, and it finds new customers beyond the car-crazed.
The next project is “not even for a car collector,” Beattie tells CNBC. “It’s for an art collector, which makes me feel really good.”
While Beattie says he’s been approached by investors looking to buy the company he started out of his basement, he’s never thought about working for anyone but himself since he was let go eight years ago.
“Am I going to be a multi-millionaire? I don’t know, I doubt it,” he says. “But then again, I’m always thinking about other ideas and how I can improve on what I do.”
For now, that means working to close his first ever $1 million commission and looking into expansion at Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World. “Yeah, I’ll do a gold-plated base track, Beattie says, smiling. “Or whatever — diamond-encrusted cars.”
—Video by CNBC’s Mary Stevens