By Michele J. Kuhn
Tom DeFelice was born with a bit of motor oil in his veins and “car guy” imprinted in his DNA but he didn’t always think that would be his future.
DeFelice, president and owner of Circle BMW in Eatontown, grew up in Lincroft, the son and grandson of car dealers. Beginning at age 12, he worked in the various departments of Circle Chevrolet, founded by his grandfather and later run by his father and uncles. He worked in the parts, service and detailing departments while still in high school at Christian Brothers Academy and during summers vacations from college.
When he graduated from Biscayne College in Miami, Fla., with a degree in English – he had contemplated a career in teaching – he came home to a tough job market, went to work for a tree surgeon for a few months but then got laid off.
“My father said ‘Why don’t you come into work?’ At that point of my life I was not interested in going into the car business … It was that period of time in 1974 … I was a different person then,” he said. “I had watched how many hours my father had worked all my life and he never had much time off.”
Back at his family business, one of the salesmen talked DeFelice into trying to sell cars. He made a sale that very first week and still – almost 40 years later – he remembers the name of the young, recently widowed woman with two little children to whom he sold that maroon four-door 1974 Chevy Nova sedan. He also recalls the feeling he got when he made the $200 commission that augmented his $50 a week salary. “I said, ‘This isn’t bad.’ … That first year selling cars, I made more than all my friends who went into different businesses … I thought I did pretty well. That’s how I started.”
While still in college, DeFelice frequently drove friends’ BMWs. “That’s how I fell in love with the cars,” he said.
In 1980, a time when some Chevy dealerships had small BMW franchises attached to them, he decided to purchase a tiny BMW dealership, Muller BMW in Matawan, when it became available. He incorporated in 1981 and rented space from his family to start Circle BMW at the family’s Shrewsbury dealership, initially employing one salesman and one technician.
“I rented one showroom space, one service bay and 12 parts bins,” he said. “Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my family.”
His father, Thomas Sr., was his original partner in the company but it was the younger DeFelice’s money that was invested in the company, he said. Thomas Sr. was his son’s “security … and he had more clout with banks.” Tom eventually bought his father out.
As he was starting his company during the early ‘80s, it was a time when BMWs “still weren’t as popular as they’ve become. It was a niche market,” he said.
BMW had only four models then – a 3, 5, 6 and 7 series. The original 320s didn’t come with air conditioning – the dealer installed them – and there was no power steering, he said.
“There are now about 80 different models,” he said. “As a 28-year-old kid, I think I was the youngest dealer in the country at the time.”
The year before he purchased the BMW dealership, Muller had sold 25 cars. The first year DeFelice owned it – and while still working as the sales manager at Circle Chevrolet – he sold in excess of 100.
In 1985, he built his first new BMW showroom in a parking lot next to his family’s dealership. He bought the independent body shop next door and created a parts and service department along with a showroom. “I was on my way to making an exclusive environment for BMW and BMW was delighted,” he said.
“In 1986, I resigned from Circle Chevrolet … and moved to Circle BMW,” he said. “It was a scary time.”
Eventually, he looked to move into a separate space, away from the family dealership, and found property in 1999 on which his operation is now located in Eatontown. It wasn’t until 2005 that he was able to move the entire business to the site where he now employs about 90.
As the success of the company grew, so did DeFelice’s ability to do charitable work. He has been able to give to a number of organizations and his company has sponsored countless events over the years.
“I feel like I want to give back to the community. I feel that there are people less fortunate than me,” he said.
“I contribute to charities and have become very concerned about where my contributions go. I try to limit them now to charities that use at least 90 percent of it for charitable purposes.”
One of the agencies he and his wife Valarie feel strongly about giving their time and money to is Catholic Charities of Monmouth County.
“That is a charity where 90 percent of the money you contribute goes to help local missions, local efforts. I can see them in Monmouth County – so we limit it to Monmouth County. All the money stays in Monmouth County,” he said.
Valarie DeFelice for the past eight years co-chaired the annual Catholic Charities’ Ray of Hope Gala. The DeFelices are past recipients of the organization’s Guardian Angels Award.
DeFelice has been a longtime supporter of the Monmouth County Boy Scouts of America, the Monmouth University Scholarship Program, Christian Brothers Academy and Prevention First. He has also been a supporter of Count Basie Theatre, Holiday Express, Junior League of Monmouth County, Monmouth Council Boy Scouts of America, The Community YMCA, The Monmouth County Historical Association and Two River Theater Company, among many others.
“I try to look (at charity) as a percentage of my income and to help other people out,” he said.
“I do it because I want to do it,” he said, adding that he is rather uncomfortable talking about it. “I think that what you do for charity is not something you’re looking for credit for …”
DeFelice met his wife when they were both in the same wedding party. The groom was Tom’s best friend; the bride, Valarie’s. The DeFelices, who live in Colts Neck, are the parents of Thomas J. III, an attorney with an M.B.A, and Emily, who just graduated from Fordham University with a degree in marketing.
Though he may have lost his “car guy” roots for a bit, DeFelice, who grew up during the muscle-car era of the 1960s and ‘70s, “always worked in the business and always loved cars,” he said recently as he sat at his large desk in his office overlooking his expansive, shining showroom at 500 Route 36.
So, what’s his favorite, fun-to-drive car?
“I have a BMW 2000 Z8 which are rare. I love driving that. We only got a couple when they first came out and I kept one of them,” he said with a smile. “That’s my toy.”