How actor Mark Wahlberg, Detroit car dealer became great friends, business partners

Jamie L. LaReau | Detroit Free Press

Michigan car dealer Jay Feldman nervously sat in a restaurant in Hingham, Massachusetts. It was a hot day in August nearly four years ago. He was there for a business lunch, which would normally have been routine for him, but not this time. 

This lunch was with one of the biggest movie stars in the world. 

Hingham is about 22 miles south of Boston and hugs the Massachusetts Bay. It is home to the original Wahlburgers restaurant. The man who had invited Feldman to lunch there was Mark Wahlberg himself, who brought along his mother.

“In the first five seconds, I was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of crazy,'” Feldman said of his initial meeting jitters. “But one thing you find about Mark is that he’s very disarming. He’s a regular guy.”

The two met to discuss the idea of Feldman teaming up with Wahlberg to bring a Wahlburgers to Michigan. But this lunch was only the second time Feldman and Wahlberg had ever met. Their first encounter, a few weeks prior, was a brief handshake when Wahlberg was in Detroit filming “Transformers.” 

Little did either of them know that that handshake would lead to a multimillion-dollar empire together that includes several restaurants and car dealerships. Along the way, they have developed a deep friendship, too.

“If there’s something I’m interested in, I gravitate towards the people who are in that space,” Wahlberg told the Detroit Free Press while in Germany shooting his next movie, an action-adventure called “Uncharted” due out next summer.

“Jay’s experience in the car business attracted me, even though we got into restaurants first,” Wahlberg said. “But I’ve always been a big car guy and he’s very reputable. He’s just a good guy, a great family man. We just hit it off right away.”

‘A cop or a criminal’

Feldman and Wahlberg own three General Motors dealerships and a recreational vehicle store in Ohio, five Wahlburgers restaurants in Michigan, two in Ohio and two in Georgia and they are investors in F45 Training, which specializes in high-intensity group workouts.

Feldman is well-established in metro Detroit with nine dealerships that employ 799 full-time and part-time employees. His five Chevrolet stores sell the most Chevrolet vehicles in Michigan, GM said.

Wahlberg, well he’s an A-list Hollywood actor who’s starred in many hit films such as “The Departed,” “The Perfect Storm” and “Boogie Nights” to name a few. He was also an executive producer on the HBO show “Entourage.”

Wahlberg called the connection he has with Feldman a “brotherly bond.” They are the same age, 49. Both are married with children: Feldman has two and Wahlberg has four. They possess a compulsive motivation to succeed. And, despite their distance — Feldman lives in Oakland County and Wahlberg in Beverly Hills, California — the two visit each other several times a year, travel together and communicate almost daily. 

Mark Wahlberg and Jay Feldman’s daughters, Ella Rae Wahlberg and Sara Feldman, have become friends along with their dads. The two families gathered in 2019 at Mark’s home in Beverly Hills, Calif. L to R: Ella Rae Wahlberg, Mark Wahlberg, Sara Feldman, Ann Feldman and Jay Feldman.

Yet, the two men started life on divergent paths with markedly different upbringings.

Feldman grew up in Bloomfield Hills and Waterford. As the son of a successful car dealer, he was comfortably middle class and he became the first in his family to graduate from college. 

Wahlberg, on the other hand, grew up in the tough Dorchester neighborhood of Boston on a fast track to trouble. He is the youngest of nine children in a working-class family where his father, a Teamster, drove a truck, Wahlberg said. The young Wahlberg made some poor life choices early on and he never graduated from college.

“I grew up in a rough neighborhood where pretty much everyone became a cop or a criminal,” said Wahlberg, whose troubled youth has been well reported, including jail time for assault.

Disciplined lifestyle

But Wahlberg said once he focused on doing the right thing, fortune followed. Now he leans on his rocky past as motivation to follow a disciplined life.

At 4 a.m. daily, Wahlberg does a vigorous workout that includes “swinging a 150-pound kettlebell around like it’s nothing,” said Feldman, who has worked out with Wahlberg and described it as “crazy.”

“He’s an amazing golfer. He’s diligent about his golf game. I don’t play golf, but he’s very serious about it,” Feldman said. “Everything he does, he takes it to a new level. I work out, but not to his extreme.”

Religion is also a big part of Wahlberg’s life. He has Bible study at the same time daily, and a priest often visits him on movie sets. Wahlberg said he attends a church in Birmingham each time he’s in Michigan, sometimes with Feldman in tow.

“He came from nothing, and to take his life from what it was, to what it is, is so interesting,” Feldman said. 

Both men are charitable. Earlier this year, Feldman and Wahlberg donated 1,100 electronic tablets to Beaumont Royal Oak, Ascension Providence Southfield and Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center for children with cancer.

Anytime Wahlberg is in Detroit, he will quietly visit  kids with cancer at the Beaumont pediatric ward. 

Actor Mark Wahlberg and cancer patient Hudson Brown compared muscles at Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital during a 2019 visit. Wahlberg also brought Hudson several Transformer toys from Director Michael Bay. Hudson’s favorite is Bumble Bee.

“The inspiration I get from their strength and courage is really something,” Wahlberg said. “It’s something I should be doing, and we will continue to do more of it in the future.”

‘Hi, nice to meet you’

Yet, when it comes to business, both Feldman and Wahlberg have resolute ambition.

“No matter how much success I achieve, I’m still as hungry and driven as I was when I started out,” Wahlberg said.

His success in movies and business comes down to one thing: “The work ethic. It’s the amount of time and energy and effort I put into everything I do. I am willing to outwork everybody else. If it’s something I don’t understand, I’m willing to put the time into educating myself and I do things I’m really passionate about.”

It was a sense of Wahlberg’s aspirations that drew Feldman to their business lunch four years ago.  

That summer, Wahlberg was staying at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham while filming “Transformers.” He would eat dinner at Nino Cutraro’s Bella Piatti so often that Cutraro invited Wahlberg to his home for a barbeque. Cutraro also invited his pal Feldman.

From left: Jay Feldman, restaurant owner Nino Cutraro and Mark Wahlberg gather for dinner at Cutraro’ Bella Piatti restaurant in Birmingham in August 2019. The three were celebrating opening a Wahlburgers restaurant in Royal Oak.

“When I got there, Mark was leaving, so he shook my hand as he was walking out the door,” Feldman said. “He was nice, but it was, ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’ Then, a couple days later I was watching ‘Wahlburgers’ on A&E. I called Nino up and said, ‘Did you know Mark has a show about the restaurants?’ ”

Feldman and Cutraro talked about bringing a Wahlburgers to Michigan, with Feldman also as an investor. Cutraro made a call to Wahlberg to pitch the idea.

“Mark said, ‘Come to Boston and let’s talk about it,’ ” Feldman said. 

But after his lunch with Wahlberg, Feldman — a car dealer since his youth — got cold feet about the restaurant business. The first Wahlburgers to open in Greektown was a partnership only between Cutraro and Wahlberg. 

“Then Nino started telling me about doing a Wahlburgers in Cleveland and I thought I might want to get involved in that,” Feldman said. “Mark called me and said, ‘I hear you want to be involved in the Cleveland location?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘That’s fine with me.’ ”

data-c-caption=”(From left) Chef Paul Wahlberg and Mark Wahlberg celebrated the grand opening of the Flint Wahlburgers in July 2019. Jay Feldman is a partner in the restaurant.”

The three men opened the Cleveland location in 2017. Today, Feldman is an investor in all three Wahlburgers in Michigan — Flint, Royal Oak and Greektown — and two at Ford Field. He also invested in two of the restaurants in Ohio and two in Georgia. The Michigan restaurants employ 185 full-time and part-time employees.

Two car salesmen

But the restaurant business was Wahlberg’s brother Paul’s dream that “I wanted to make happen,” Wahlberg said. His personal interest, beyond acting, was in cars.

“One of my first jobs was as a tow-truck driver,” Wahlberg said. “It was at G&L Auto Repair in Dorchester, Massachusetts. I was driving tow trucks and doing mechanics. My dad was a Teamster member and drove trucks, so that’s always been a big part of my life.”

By 16, Wahlberg had his first entrepreneurial inclination when he started buying used cars, then flipping them for a profit. 

“I literally changed cars 18 times that first year I got my license,” said Wahlberg, who owns a Chevrolet Suburban SUV and a new 2020 Corvette.

Despite his movie-star status, he said, “I drive all the time. I like driving some of the Chevrolet prototypes.”

Similarly in 1987, at about age 15, Feldman was selling cars, too, at his dad’s store, Jay Chevrolet. A tiny store in Milford, Jay Chevrolet sold about 25 new cars a month then. But the young Feldman was a prodigious salesman. He found his calling and headed off to Northwood University in Midland. In 1992, he earned a bachelor’s degree in automotive marketing and management. 

Feldman Chevrolet of New Hudson on August 13, 2020.

He became a finance manager at Jay Chevrolet, but the store was struggling. His dad, Marty Feldman, now 80, wanted to sell it. But Feldman was undeterred.

“It was my first management job and I’ve always liked a challenge,” Feldman said. “I paid off Motors Holding. It took me a good year to get it successful.”

In 1992, Jay Chevrolet’s revenues were $25 million. Today, Feldman Automotive group’s total revenues are $1.2 billion, he said. That includes the dealerships he owns with Wahlberg.

By 1996, Feldman moved the Jay Chevrolet store to its current location on M-59 in Highland Township. Today, it’s called Feldman Chevrolet-Highland. It has required four additions to accommodate its growth over the years, he said. 

Putting Chevy vehicles on roads  

General Motors noticed Feldman’s business acumen,  and in 2003, it awarded Feldman a new store, which he opened two years later in New Hudson. 

In 2008, he partnered with his dad and sister, Marla, in Marty Feldman Chevrolet in Novi. Today, it is called Feldman Chevrolet of Novi. In July, it was the second-largest Chevy store in the country for new car sales, selling 560 new cars that month, the best month the store has ever had, Feldman said and GM confirmed. His father is now retired. 

Jay Feldman of Feldman Automotive Group at Feldman Chevrolet of New Hudson on August 13, 2020.

Feldman’s success led to other brands and here are his stores today:

  • Feldman Hyundai of New Hudson
  • Feldman 1-800 Preowned Waterford
  • Feldman Kia of Novi
  • Feldman Chevrolet of New Hudson
  • Feldman Chevrolet of Novi
  • Feldman Chevrolet of Livonia
  • Feldman Chevrolet of Highland
  • Feldman Chevrolet of Lansing
  • Feldman Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Woodhaven

Feldman’s group of Chevrolet stores sells one of every 70 Chevy vehicles in the country, about 1% of all U.S. Chevrolet sales, a Chevrolet spokesman said.

“Nobody puts more Chevrolets on Michigan roads than Feldman,” Feldman said, who drives a Chevy Tahoe SUV or Jeep Grand Cherokee himself.

When asked who he considers his biggest rival, he said: “Nobody. We compete with ourselves. We slice and dice and look at every metric every day. We look at every nuance to become more successful.”

He said, ‘Yes’

Feldman’s success in the car business intrigued Wahlberg.

So after Feldman had invested in Wahlburgers restaurant in 2017, Wahlberg invited Feldman to come to Boston again, this time to talk cars between filming scenes for “Daddy’s Home 2.” 

“He was fascinated about the car business,” Feldman said. “I was joking with him and said, ‘We should buy a car dealership together.’ He said, ‘Yeah we should.’ I said, ‘Would you put your name on it?’ He said, ‘Yes.’”

Feldman instantly knew the partnership and Wahlberg’s name on the building would be an unprecedented home run. So in December of that year Feldman headed to Columbus, Ohio, on a tip from a dealership real estate broker, to look at a Chevrolet store. The broker told him, “It’s challenged, but could be successful with a good operator,” words of inspiration to Feldman, who excelled at turning troubled stores around. 

(In the center) Mark Wahlberg and Jay Feldman met with the Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet dealership team in Columbus, Ohio in November 2018. The two co-own the dealership.

Wahlberg was serious and the two started researching the deal in early 2018. They closed on the store in November 2018 and opened Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet in Columbus. The resulting media coverage received 475 million views, including being featured on the TV shows “Ellen” and “Good Morning America.”

“It’s pretty crazy. There’s a little Middle Eastern restaurant adjacent to the dealership and the owner told me his family in the Middle East saw his restaurant in the background of the press conference,” Feldman said. “You’ve seen sports figures that own dealerships, but nobody has ever had an A-list actor with their name on it.”

Since that day, the two have opened more dealerships in the Columbus area:

  • Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet of Columbus
  • Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet of Worthington
  • Mark Wahlberg Airstream & RV
  • Mark Wahlberg Buick GMC

The stores employ 298 full-time and part-time workers. Feldman said he expects the four stores will make $304 million in total revenue next year. The Chevrolet stores are second in overall Chevy sales in Columbus, a Chevrolet spokesman said.

A great partnership

When Feldman pauses to reflect on his partnership with Wahlberg, he is a bit overcome with how quickly the two have turned ideas into reality since first meeting in 2016.

“I don’t know if it’s an empire just yet, but we’re working on it,” Feldman said. “It’s certainly been more going on in a short period of time than I ever would have imagined.”

Wahlberg recently hired a new CEO for Wahlburgers restaurants, which Feldman sees as a “long-term play” because there is so much competition in the food industry.

“I don’t pretend to be a restaurant guy. I’m just an investor,” said Feldman, who declined to comment on his specific investment but said he has had a return on that investment.

Wahlberg visits his dealerships as often as possible between his hectic film schedule. He typically spends the most time in the service lane given his background as a mechanic. 

“I’ve had that entrepreneurial approach for quite some time. In film and television, we wanted to create our own production company,” Wahlberg said. “Anything I do, I’m really hands on with.”

Asked which is better, being a movie star or a businessman, Wahlberg pauses for a moment, then answers with a chuckle, “It depends on the day. In the middle of a pandemic with all our restaurants and dealerships closed, it’s easier to focus on my day job as an actor and producer.”

With that, Wahlberg politely said he looked forward to returning to Detroit when he wraps up filming in Germany; maybe he will catch a game of golf at Oakland Hills Country Club before the season ends. Then, he said goodbye and returned to his day job. 

Feldman said he and Wahlberg continue to imagine ways to further expand their businesses, though not necessarily for the Detroit area. 

“Our brand, the Feldman brand, is so powerful in Michigan, it wouldn’t make sense to bring any more here,” Feldman said. “But we’ve looked at other areas outside of Michigan.”

For example, the two have pitched the idea of a car dealership to another A-list actor, a pal of Wahlberg’s, who is willing to put his moniker on a dealership. It could be for “any” brand, Feldman said. He was elusive, saying only, “It’s another person who, like Mark, is extremely well-liked.”

That deal will likely take shape in a way similar to most of the deals with Feldman and Wahlberg. It starts with a friendly chat, maybe a handshake and then action. That’s how Wahlberg and Feldman operate, believing that, “Life is a contact sport.”

“Every time you have an interaction with someone, you want to make sure they think well of you,” Feldman said. “I have had lots of partnerships and lots of deals and I’ve never had a bad partnership. I’ve always been friends with them. That’s why all this stuff I’m doing with Mark … it’s because we have a great partnership.”