It’s a crowded market full of fickle customers,
but sometimes you just have to go for it.
By TODD BURLAGE
The Lower South Hall of the 2014 Specialty Equipment Market Association show – a.k.a SEMA – in Las Vegas, Nev., is lined with perhaps thousands of wheels.
They twinkle like casino lights as corporate buyers mosey from the booth to booth and chat up the reps, which is a process that can literally take days to complete. Let’s be frank here: there is no shortage of wheel variety, brands or experience. Not by a long shot. Names and trends come and go in a world of vehicular fashion that’s more than a little fickle.
So why does 23-year-old Tony DeFranco think the world needs yet one more brand? It’s a venture that seems doomed before it even gets off the ground.
“Why? Because I have a fresher mind with a different take on a somewhat stagnant, repetitive wheel industry.”
Call him what you want – a gambler, a dreamer, an artist, a bragger, a creator or even a crazy fool – DeFranco has heard it all.
“What do I say to the nay sayers? Keep nay saying because it keeps things interesting.”
Determined to find his own way in a business he loves – and do it with pride and style – DeFranco decided about a year ago to chase a passion, leave his full-time job with another wheel maker, start BLK Wheels, and take his chances in a crowded market.
Crazy endeavor? DeFranco and his business partner, Miles Maroney, actually don’t think so.
“Let’s face it, you can’t really do too much with a wheel. You can’t reinvent it,” DeFranco says with a laugh during a phone interview.
“So it really comes down to customer service and attention to detail to be successful in this business, the full presentation of the project, and that is what we think separates us from the rest.”
And separation is the uphill battle DeFranco and BLK face everyday, a hurdle these two young men are convinced they can overcome in the high-end wheel market.
Specialty wheel companies such as Advan, Volk, BBS, HRE, HKS, Vossen, Enkei and others have already found firm footing in the wheel market. In fact, many of the wheels stocked by Volkswagen, Porsche and BMW are from BBS, so taking BLK Wheels from fledgling to established remains the challenge for DeFranco and Maroney and their striking designs.
“For me, it is just a form of art. And designing wheels, I try to do my own thing with it,” DeFranco said.
“Everything is made to order, so we can do it exactly how the customer wants, and that is part of what makes our approach unique.”
DeFranco might be young but he is no novice when it comes to designing and making wheels, spending almost all of his working years after high school in the industry. In that capacity, he saw what he liked and didn’t like about the business and used those lessons when he launched BLK in his hometown of Los Angeles, Calif.
And while things haven’t necessarily gone as expected during the first eight months or so as a business owner, the company’s wheels are rolling along, often in markets and places he never expected them to.
Who are the customers?
DeFranco says that about 75 percent of BLK’s business is being driven overseas out of Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, from buyers who found DeFranco’s company online through Facebook and/or Instagram.
“It has definitely been interesting,” DeFranco said. “You wouldn’t assume somebody in Indonesia would find your company, but they love their wheels.
“We’ve set ourselves up so we can produce 50 to 75 sets a month comfortably and we are prepared to grow beyond that.”
BLK’s three wheel designs – the 501GTR, the 502GTR and the 901M – are all whittled from forged aluminum and each can be customized through color, finish and size. Three different construction methods are used: one-piece “Monoblock” design; two-piece design with a separate center and outer barrel/rim; and a three-piece design with a separate center and separate inner and outer hoops that all bolt together. This gives buyers plenty of design and cost options, while making the wheels fit just about any vehicle alive.
At www.BLKWheels.com, buyers select their wheel design, configuration, size and customization instructions and receive a price quote back by email.
“When I started my company, I wanted no designs to resemble anybody else’s,” DeFranco said. “I’m not really big on crazy wheels, crazy colors, or all that stuff. It’s simple designs and intricate details and then just kind of focus more on quality and doing the small things.”
Tony DeFranco of BLK Wheels fills us in on the process of ordering/building custom wheels, what you can expect and how long it takes. The basic fitment includes several key measurements beyond width and diameter and the bolt pattern. Perhaps the most critical for engineering is brake caliper clearance, which affects the shape and placement of the spokes.
QUESTION: So, how does all this begin? Someone gives you a call?
DeFRANCO: It usually starts with something we post on social media. We’ll post a certain setup or wheel and we’ll get contacted about that exact post we made and that exact wheel. From there we find out exactly which car, model, etc., they have and we offer a few different fitment options for them. After the desired fitment is chosen we go over the finishes. This can be the trickiest part because everyone at some point wants to get a little crazy on their finish, but most resort back to something more neutral and classy like a brushed gunmetal. You can never go wrong with that finish. After we select finishing, the order is essentially placed and it goes on us to start. We start off with engineering. Each order is specifically engineered to those specifications. We engineer the order to those specs and the wheels change based on those specs, so each order will differ on profile and looks. After engineering, we approve it and the profile gets lathed from a blank (aluminum) forging. After lathing comes the milling and that’s where the wheel is machined out to its almost-finished look. The design is cut during this part. Once they’re cut, they go to the finisher to get the desired look. Depending on the configuration (three-piece or monoblock) they come back in different pieces. For a three-piece, each piece is inspected for quality control before assembly to make sure everything is perfect quality. Then they are assembled and testing is performed to make sure there is no vibrating and the wheels are true. After that, we send finished photos to the customer and see their reaction. Then they get to wait a few days for it to get shipped to them and then they mount it up and everyone lives happily ever after.
QUESTION: About how long is the process?
DeFRANCO: From ordering to getting the product in their hands, we say four to six weeks. We like to underpromise and over deliver. We’re trying to cut down the process to about three weeks.
QUESTION: That’s the biggest complaint we hear about custom wheels: how long it takes. Any horror stories, there?
DeFRANCO: Not with us, yet. But it’s definitely possible. Every thing can add up and just extend the process. For example, if a company has a lot of orders, it might take them three weeks or so to even get to the engineering side of it. Once it’s engineered, there could be a backorder on forgings or rim parts that could be another four weeks or so. Already at seven weeks there, and then say programming or milling is backed up so another one to two weeks, and then finishing is the same. Then you get the product back and the finish is spotty, you have to send it back to get refinished and etc. There are a lot of things that can go wrong.
QUESTION: What does engineering entail?
DeFRANCO: Basically just taking the design that we already have and adjusting the centers (if three piece) for the exact fitment. So you have to take into account brake profiles, offset, width front and rear, center bore, hidden or exposed hardware, etc. Weight of the car as well.
For more information on BLK Wheels, please visit their website: https://blkwheels.com/
Todd Burlage is feature writer with Wheelbase Media. You can reach Wheelbase online at www.theoctanelounge.com using the contact link. Wheelbase Media is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.