If you're a baseball fan, you know C.J. Wilson: During his 11-year MLB career with the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels he recorded 94 wins, 52 saves -- yep, at different times he was a starter and a reliever -- and posted a 3.74 lifetime ERA.

And oh yeah: He was a 2-time All Star. (Pretty good for a guy who taught himself to throw left-handed so he would be more attractive to scouts.)

But what you may not know is that C.J. Wilson is also a highly successful entrepreneur. In  2012, while still playing for the Angels, he bought his first car dealership. In 2013 he bought another. In 2014 he bought two more.

Then in 2016 he bought a McLaren dealership (wouldn't you love to take one of those loaner cars home?) and in 2017 bought Porsche, Audi, and BMW dealerships in Fresno, CA. Today the CJ Wilson Auto Group employs more than 200 people and last year sold over 4,700 cars. 

And if that's not enough, in 2010 C.J. founded CJ Wilson Racing, a sports car race team that recently announced its move up to the IMSA GTD class, one of the premier sports car classes in the world.

Professional baseball seems like an all-consuming career. Couldn't buying a car dealership have been seen as a distraction?

I knew I wanted a career after baseball, and I've always loved cars. I probably could have done better for myself if I was into the stock market (laughs), but I'm a car guy.

I also like the sustainability of the industry. People need transportation. People fall in love with cars. And people enjoy being in the industry. You tend to see entrepreneurs scale up and build relatively big businesses, much more so than other avenues.

Sure, I could have gone heavily into real estate. In terms of opportunity, real estate is obviously essential to millions of people. But I don't have a passion for it. I don't want to get too deep real estate. I just like cars. 

So why a Mazda dealership?

We entered our first race with a Mazda MX-5. So it seemed natural. Plus, I knew a guy who was selling his Mazda dealership. Keep in mind the only reason people tend to sell car  dealerships is if they want to buy a bigger dealership, or they're retiring and don't want to leave their dealership to their kids. People hang on to them.

It was available and affordable, so I jumped on it. I'm glad it was a Mazda dealership, but I would have seized any good opportunity. I wanted to go into the car business.

You were into cars, but still: Running a dealership requires a different set of skills.

The learning curve was steep, but I enjoy that. 

You're right, though. As a pitcher, you largely rely on your catcher and the shortstop... but still, everyone is on the same page.

Dealerships, like many businesses, are different: Departments don't always interact with each other, the people that previously owned the dealership may have run it very differently, sometimes people can have different agendas or different goals... 

That was true when I was in manufacturing. We all worked at the same plant, but different departments actually competed with each other. And when a new boss came in...

The whole "that's not how we do things here" can be a problem. Like if you go to a 4th place team and recommend changes and people say, "That ain't the way we do it..." Well, maybe the way you do it is why you've been in 4th place for the last few years. 

My goal is for people to be able to bring their ideas and their personalities, but also to work together as a team. 

But again, starting up and then scaling up was not necessarily easy. There's no easy aspect to running a business, especially as it grows. You have to constantly work at it every day.

So you're scaling up your auto group... and you also decided to scale up your race team?

At first my focus was on starting a race team so I could be a race driver. That's why I started the team in the first place.

But I realized that while I couldn't out-drive people who had been racing for years, at least not right out of the gate, we could "out-team" many of the other teams. I felt I had an ability to build a team, to use my experiences from baseball to build a great team... that's how we could get support from manufacturers and sponsors and other players in the sport.

As with many things, it's not a question of not being able -- it's understanding that you have to find the best way to move forward.

I still love to drive, but I also found that I love building and being part of a successful race team. In some ways that's even more rewarding.

So why move up into IMSA and the GTD class? That's a big step for a relatively small --at least at this point -- race team.

Stepping up into GTD was something we always wanted to do.

It sounds basic, but when you build something you just keep moving forward. We've been responsible and dipped a toe into the water, we've analyzed and asked a lot of questions... and now we're ready to to put up or shut up.

So it's exciting to move up to GTD, but we haven't actually accomplished anything yet. All we have accomplished is that we bought a car and showed up to practice. (And, since I talked with C.J., run the 12 Hours of Sebring race.)

If you're really being professional, you should never pat yourself on the back until you get seriously good results.

Speaking of moving forward: Where would you like the race team to be in three to five years?

Right where we are now. Sure, I would love to have a factory team... but if we never get any higher than GTD, sustaining that level would be impressive. Then possibly contending for championships. And maybe even running Le Mans someday.

But all that hinges on the dealerships continuing to grow and be successful. 

So how do you define success, whether in business, or racing, or just in general?

Improvement. If you're not improving, the gravity of the universe will swallow you up. You have to be moving forward and making progress.

If you're moving forward, if you're learning and leaving old expectations and old ways behind... that's what matters most.

An issue many entrepreneurs struggle with, especially those with multiple enterprises: How do you juggle your different interests? 

Everything is going on at the same time. Like fishing: When you're on the water there are waves and wind and weather and fish... you have to understand where all the layers are.

Yet you don't have to control everything. You just have to be aware of the sequences.

Simple example, but I showed up today and a truck was unloading cars. Those cars need to be inspected, delivery prepped, cleaned, photographed, put on the website.... if a car has been here for a couple days and it's not on the website, obviously that's a sign there's a problem.

In any business, there's a certain sequence of how things have to go. As long as you're present and know the process, it's still hard -- but it's not complicated. 

That's why I didn't just put my name on the dealerships. I work on them and I work in them.

Like every other entrepreneur who is passionate about their businesses... that's just what you do.

Published on: Mar 22, 2018
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