Jason Whipple grabs a shiny, 20-inch, golden wheel from one of the shelves stacked with car wheels that towers above him. Futuristic-looking, with clean lines, it's like something off a massive robotic flower. He's showing off the products inside the 6,500-square-foot warehouse in Huntington Beach that's home to Rotiform, the company he started with business partner Brian Henderson in 2009. The wheel he holds is one of the standard offerings, designed by him and Henderson, designated WRW after Whipple's 1-year-old son, Waylon.
The impressive thing about what Whipple does isn't just found in the clean lines and tight look of the aluminum alloy wheels he sells, which adorn all types of cars from Subaru Imprezas to Porsche 911s. Rather, it's the way Rotiform found success during hard economic times in the least likely of ways—by machining, powder coating and assembling a product here in Orange County, then exporting it to Europe, Japan and China.
"Western car culture is huge over there right now," says Whipple. "I'm super-thankful that it's gone this way."
Standing at average height, his face framed by dark-rimmed glasses and short-cropped hair, Whipple speaks in a voice so low it occasionally dips below audible. It's difficult to reconcile such an unassuming personality with success in an industry as flashy as the automotive aftermarket. But when it comes to wheels, Whipple knows what people want.
"It's a way for people to express their personality through their cars," he says, explaining that Rotiform takes pride in selling a little slice of Orange County to the rest of the world. "That's a big part of what makes our brand. Overseas customers and fans of ours really love the OC image. We call it palm trees and 80 degrees."
Friends said he was crazy when he decided to start a business during the Great Recession—especially when he and his partner quit stable jobs to embark on the venture. "It was the bottom of the bottom," he remembers. "We both quit our cushy corporate jobs. We had enough money to design and purchase a container's worth of wheels—about 9,000—and bet the farm on it."
The bet paid dividends, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of Asian markets. "It's nice to sell into those countries instead of buying," Whipple jokes. "We're getting our money back for a change."
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Since 2009, Rotiform has watched its inventory grow from an offering of two wheels to more than 40 different designs. The driving force behind the product (pun intended) is a custom-car style described by a single monosyllabic word: stance.
"That's our core market," says Whipple. "The stance scene is focused on making your car look as aggressive as possible."
This is achieved by how flush the wheels are aligned with the side panels and bumpers—a real pain in the ass to accomplish when "every millimeter counts" and the customer looks at the finished product under a proverbial microscope. To achieve such a look, Whipple and his team tailor each wheel to the customer's car. And though the process can at times be painstaking and trying, Whipple says it's ultimately about achieving an uncomplicated look.
"You don't have to throw everything on the car to get people to look," he says. "You just have to do things well."