CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.-The seeds of devotion are sowed early. For Coker Tire Co. Inc. President Corky Coker, they were planted well before he finished rebuilding his first antique truck-a 1932 Ford pickup-at age 14.
They have since flowered into a multimillion-dollar company that has offered Mr. Coker as much enjoyment as his satisfied customers.
In May, Mr. Coker won the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce 1995 Small Business Person of the Year Award-an award that is a testament to the past successes and future viability of the company, which sells replica antique tires.
But Mr. Coker said he was simply ``the one fortunate enough to stand up and accept the award.'' The honor, he insisted, actually was bestowed upon his employees.
In a sense, his humility is an outgrowth of an attitude that might very well be essential to the success of businesses like Coker Tire, which market to a select few.
``In dealing in such a specialized market, the circle of friends is very tight,'' said Mr. Coker, who took the reigns of the dealership's antique tire division right out of college in 1974. ``We want to turn a complaint or problem customer into an advocate of Coker Tire.
``If you fix the situation with gusto, (the customer) will stand up for you,'' he said.
Failing to satisfy a customer, however, can mean losing other customers, because a bad reputation can spread like wildfire among vehicle enthusiasts.
``We sell to people that breathe old tires,'' he emphasized.
Coker Tire markets replica antique tires in about 30 countries. The company also operates two retail outlets that sell Michelin, Dayton and BFGoodrich new tires in the Chattanooga area. But the retail outlets represent only about 5 percent of the firm's estimated $10 million in overall revenues.
Realizing the importance of satisfied customers has led to a number of Coker Tire policies, including the company's ``no sweat'' return guarantee, on-line tracking of UPS shipments from the company's Chattanooga and Santa Fe Springs, Calif., warehouses and constant swap meet and show appearances.
Just as essential as the services the company offers is the constant ``guessing game'' Coker Tire plays, attempting to provide new products it believes will best satisfy the constantly changing hobby.
The firm's latest effort, introduced this year, is the Windsor Classic line of wide-whitewall radials in eight 75-series sizes.
The company also offers ancillary items, geared specially toward their enthusiast customers. Toy trucks, vintage tire ads and colorful car ties are interspersed among the lists of tires in Coker Tire's catalog.
Mr. Coker is able to gauge the needs of his customers because he is one of them. His passion, after all, is antique vehicles.
``It's been my love,'' said Mr. Coker, who owns 30 vintage cars and 14 motor scooters. ``The gurus (of) business say. . . we usually tend to migrate to doing what we enjoy. That certainly applies to me.''
As a child, Joseph Coker was dubbed ``Corky'' by his father after the character in the popular ``Gasoline Alley'' comic strip.
Ever since he can remember, he accompanied his father on ``vintage car tours.''
His enthusiasm for his hobby-and his job-de-emphasizes the importance of the recent small-business award.
``It certainly didn't put any more money into my bank account on Friday,'' he joked before turning a little more serious. ``I was quite humbled by the award. I was certainly proud.''