Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
April 16, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Rick Spears is an “entrepreneur’s entrepreneur”

Rick Spears is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur – pursuing ideas and technologies with a combination of passion, knowledge and business savvy.

In a recent interview with, the Texas native who grew-up in Florida talked about the diversity of companies in which he is involved. One common thread that runs through almost every one of his endeavors today is carbon fiber and composites.

Spears worked in 32 states before he decided in 1990 to pick Knoxville for his new home. “It hasn’t let me down yet,” he says. Spears likes the climate and lifestyle and, in recent months, he has become “fired-up” about his long-time passion for carbon fiber and composites because of his new knowledge of the work being done by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Someone trying to keep-up with all of the activities that consume Spears’ time would benefit from a big whiteboard to map them. He’s a skilled airbrush artist who has a collision business that repairs automobiles, but he says that it is far from your traditional repair shop because of all of the state-of-the-art equipment that Malibu Collision has. On occasion, that equipment is used by sibling business – Malibu Customz – that customizes and restores automobiles. One of the capabilities that the latter has is the ability to “spray metal back into rusted parts” like fenders and floor pans. Spears explains that retaining original equipment is very important to restoration car enthusiasts.

Spears has a research and development facility that has been working on carbon fiber and composites for a decade. He also has manufacturing capability that produces carbon fiber products for Spears and others. Among those products is a mirror for 3-D imaging produced from carbon fiber that also does not require the traditional 3-D glasses. It is being deployed in marketing kiosks by two national firms in the west. Spears also manufactures “aftermarket” components for automobiles and replacement parts for truck tractors.

He’s in discussions with the nation’s largest manufacturer of pool tables about building a pool table out of carbon fiber. The owner of a chain of 27 beauty shops across the country is interested in carbon composite finger nails. Spears is involved with a company that recycles Styrofoam into second rate diesel fuel.

He logically asks, “Can we make carbon fiber out of Styrofoam?”

Spears even operated a used car lot for a while, but it is clear that the excitement of selling vehicles just did not match the opportunities that he is exploring today.

Spears readily admits that “I don’t know how to say no,” but it is also clear that the “art of the possible” is what drives him to continue exploring technology, particularly carbon fiber and composites.

In his earlier days, Spears was involved in the telecommunications industry just as deregulation was occurring. He travelled almost constantly, working with industry giants like Telex Corporation and Kodak to install, train people and maintain new telephone systems.

“Divestiture then was just like carbon fiber can be today – a goldmine,” Spears said.

Based on his experience training people, Spears is a big believer in understanding everything that he comes in contact with. “I want hands on experience,” he says. “How can I train people if I don’t understand what they are doing myself?”

Spears recalls that one of his sons convinced him to attend a “tuner car show” at the Atlanta speedway about 10 years ago. The customization that he saw on the cars started him on the decade-long journey with carbon composites.

He and his son built a “tuner car” and entered it into shows, but they kept coming in second, something that Spears readily admits was unacceptable. “I’m always in it to win,” he said, so they continued to work on the car and eventually started winning top prize in competitions. This experience led to the formation of Malibu Customz and the manufacturing of automotive parts out of fiberglass – dashes, door panels and truck lids to name just a few.

One day he asked himself, “Can we use these same molds for carbon fiber?” The answer was “yes” based on R&D that Spears has conducted for 10 years. Among other issues, he’s researched why Chinese-made composite parts are adversely impacted by ultraviolet rays. It took him time, but Spears’ tenacity found the reason. Moreover, the high priority he places on the quality of his products means he’ll never make a similar mistake.

“I will not put a product out that will fail,” he said emphatically.

Spears goal is to “be a leader in the (carbon fiber and composites) industry.” He cites well-recognized brands with whom he is working – Ford, Worldwide Equipment, Circle K and Rite Aid to name a few.

As far as his adopted hometown, Spears has a clearly stated goal – he wants to have three or four manufacturing plants in the region producing carbon composite products and employing 300 people within five years.

He’s taken a significant step by hiring a person with whom he has collaborated to open an office in the Halcyon Commercialization Center in the Oak Ridge S & T Park. Part of his strategy is to do something he has not tried before – secure government grants.

Spears is also helping Roane State Community College with its carbon fiber and composites activities by serving on the Advanced Composites Employment Accelerator advisory council. His experience in training and his knowledge of the needs of companies like his will be invaluable to Roane State.

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