One On One With Bob McKee And Mike Phillips…

By Ellen McKoy

Twenty years ago, a former Pan American World Airways executive took a leap of faith. Having jumped feet first into publishing in 1995 with Mobile Tech News, Kevin Halewood embarked on his next venture, launching the first-ever trade show for the detailing and S.M.A.R.T. markets.

As Mobile Tech Expo marks its 20th anniversary in January at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, there is much to celebrate. Over the years, the Show has grown in size, scope, and stature. So, too, have the niche markets it represents.  From little-known cottage industries, detailing and S.M.A.R.T services have blossomed into full-fledged professional market segments.

So, in honor of the 20th Show, we are also shining a spotlight on industry legends, forward-thinking detailing and PDR pros whose wisdom and support have contributed to the growth and progress of both the Show and the industry. For this first article, Mobile Tech Digest spoke with two well-known influencers: Bob McKee of McKee’s 37 and Mike Phillips of Autogeek.

From Carnivals To Chemicals

Bob McKee, founder of Autogeek, now heads up McKee’s 37.

Growing up in New Jersey, Bob McKee was so intrigued by the carnival-style rides and games of chance found on the Jersey Shore boardwalks that he worked part-time as a “carney” while in high school. He later purchased several booths and spent 15 years as “an entrepreneur on the Seaside Heights boardwalk” before moving to Florida in 1982, where he opened the Driver’s Seat.

The retail outlets sold high-end automotive accessories. But as the business climate evolved, McKee embraced change. “Business was changing,” he recalled. “I could see the Internet was going to make brick-and-mortar more challenging.” To keep pace, he launched Palm Beach Motoring Accessories, which produced a mail-order catalog, but soon moved to online sales.

An early adopter of online sales, McKee established Palm Beach Motor Accessories, which was renamed Autogeek.

To enhance his online presence, McKee renamed the company Autogeek. It was a hit. From a 400-sq.-ft. space with three employees, Autogeek expanded into a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility with 50 employees. “There was a tremendous growth spurt,” said McKee, “but I could have never done it without the team.”

McKee continued to innovate. An early advocate of education, McKee populated Autogeek’s website with articles on car-care problems and Autogeek solutions—and he hired Mike Phillips as director of training. Known for his detailing and training prowess, Phillips helped raise Autogeek’s profile, hosting the company’s TV show, “What’s in the Garage,” and as a brand ambassador. “Hiring Mike was one of the best decisions I ever made,” said McKee.

McKee further cemented his firm’s reputation by creating proprietary brands like the Wolfgang Concours Series, Pinnacle Black Label 850 and Marine 31, among others.  “Anybody can resell other peoples’ goods,” said McKee. “So during the Autogeek times, I knew we needed house brands to remain competitive in the future.”

McKee also founded Detail Fest in 2006. In 10 years, the show grew from a few cars to more than 300 and featured industry luminaries Dennis Gage, Barry Meguiar, Chris Jacobs and Wayne Carini, now a minority partner in McKee’s 37.

Bob McKee with “Chasing Classic Cars” Wayne Carini, now a minority partner in McKee’s 37.

Tony George of Hulman and Company acquired Autogeek in 2015. McKee, however, retained the McKee’s 37 and McKee’s RV brands and was finally able to pursue his passion to develop branded surface-enhancement products for auto, marine and RV applications.

In reflecting on his successful career, McKee said Mobile Tech Expo played an integral role. “It was something my Autogeek team thought would be the best way to grow the business,” he recalled. “And it is still the best investment on return of any show that we do. From the educational seminars to the quality of the exhibitors and attendees, it’s unlike any other show.  To be part of this industry as it’s grown from a cottage industry to a legitimate business is very rewarding.

Pursuing A Passion

Mike Phillips loves detailing cars. Here, he’s demonstrating buffing techniques.

From detailing his dad’s cars and boats to dreaming of the cool cars featured in Hot Rod magazine to restoring his first car, a 1926 Model T hot rod, to detailing cars as a hobby and later as a side business, Mike Phillips seemed predestined to pursue a career in the automotive industry.

“It was just a normal love affair with the car hobby,” said Phillips. “My dad was a car guy, and I grew up doing mechanical stuff and detailing. I liked detailing the best. Once I started making my own cars look good, other people asked me to detail their cars. It was a passion, never a fulltime business.”

He yearned instead to be a boat racer and purchased a Sanger drag boat. A few years later, a boating accident, which resulted in the loss of his leg, altered his course. Not one to let it slow him down, Phillips landed a part-time job at a local Oregon parts store that was the regional distributor for Meguiar’s. It turned out to be life-changing.

Phillips teaching a class at Mobile Tech Expo.

Phillips worked the parts counter, where his knowledge of Meguiar’s products impressed his boss. “My boss would ask how I learned so much about Meguiar’s, and I told him I’d always used Meguiar’s when I detailed cars.”  That know-how earned Phillips a new role calling on body shops, dealerships and detailing shops along the Oregon coast.  As sales skyrocketed, his territory included Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

“It was the best training I ever got, because, even though I knew what I was doing, I was learning by teaching other guys,” said Phillips. “That really helped me to craft my skills and ability to speak in front of audiences.”

Those talents served him well after he quit his job, but continued to detail cars and teach classes for car clubs and at car shows. Impressed with his knowledge of Meguiar’s products, customers often asked why not write a book. Phillips took up the challenge and authored his first book, “The Art of Polishing Paint: A User’s Guide to the Meguiar’s Professional Line.” He couldn’t have imagined the outcome.

“One day, my cell phone rang. It was Barry Meguiar,” said Phillips. “He’d heard I’d written a how-to book on his products and asked me to mail him the first four chapters.” The conversation eventually led to Phillips joining the Meguiar’s team as a corporate writer in 2004. He later served as an online technical specialist, hosting discussion forums, and as an instructor for detailing classes.  

While in Florida teaching classes at McKee’s Detail Fest, Phillips met with Bob McKee.  A potential job at Autogeek and a TV show were discussed but hinged on Barry Meguiar greenlighting the idea. With Meguiar’s go-ahead, Phillips joined Autogeek as director of training in 2009 and host of “What’s in the Garage.”

The logo for “What’s in the Garage,” Autogeek’s TV show hosted by Mike Phillips.

In the years since, Phillips has authored more books, written 200-plus articles and appeared on “Two Guys Garage,” “My Classic Car,” Wayne Carini’s “Chasing Classic Cars,” and Velocity’s “Competition Ready.” His annual slate of seminars at the Mobile Tech Expo draw standing-room-only crowds.

Mike Phillips with Dennis Gage on “My Classic Car.”

“Bob’s dream for Autogeek was to not just provide products, but also education. So for Mobile Tech, I did the teaching part and we’d have a booth to buy the stuff I talked about, merging the concept of using good products with techniques for application,” said Phillips, who’ll be the keynoter at the 2020 Show.

“It’s been an awesome experience. Mobile Tech has been very gracious in allowing me to do classes. There’s nothing like having someone tell me what I shared in my class helped them. I love to detail cars and I love showing people how to do it—it’s the passion. Having worked in this industry for so long, it’s gratifying and humbling to be recognized.”

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