CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.-In ``Rain Man,'' when Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman rolled across America in a 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible, they did so on Coker tires. Coker tires also graced the classic cars in other movies such as ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' ``Miller's Crossing'' and ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit?'' They are on the vintage airplanes displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. They can be found at old-car shows in all 50 states and 27 foreign countries.
Harold Coker, president of Coker Tire Co., a Chattanooga tire dealership, started his firm's Antique Tire Division in 1958 because he needed tires for his collection of Model T Fords. But it was his son, Joseph ``Corky'' Coker, who-starting in 1974-began building the Antique Tire Division from a hobby grossing $40,000 a year into a business bringing in $10 million annually.
Combining business acumen with a solid record of community
service, Corky Coker was named the 1996 Tennessee Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. This puts him in the running with 51 other entrepreneurs for the honor of being named National Small Business Person of the Year.
Mr. Coker and the other nominees will be honored in Washington during the week of June 2, designated ``Small Business Week'' by the SBA. The winner of the national award will be announced that week.
Mr. Coker took over the Antique Tire Division soon after his graduation from Middle Tennessee State University. ``My father said, `See what you can do with it,' so I did,'' he said.
Scouring the world for antique tire molds, the younger Coker found and purchased old B.F. Goodrich, Firestone and U.S. Royal molds in Australia, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay and the Philippines. Besides negotiating licensing agreements with those manufacturers, he also signed a distribution agreement with Michelin North America.
Today, Coker Tire owns the molds with which Specialty Tires of America Inc. and Denman Tire Co. produce the company's line of vintage-style auto, truck, motorcycle, bicycle and airplane tires.
In 1991, Corky Coker was one of the founders of the Chestnut Street Men's Club, an organization of Chattanooga businessmen which raises money for programs to help homeless youth. He is involved in his local Kiwanis Club and Chamber of Commerce, and in various antique vehicle clubs.
Deeply religious, he is active in the Brainerd United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, and participated in two evangelical missions to Central America.
Regarding his philosophy of business, Mr. Coker recalled the time his grandfather taught him to plow behind a mule.
``Every time I plowed a row, I would look over my shoulder to make sure I was plowing straight,'' he said. ``But by the time I reached the end of the row, it was as crooked as a dog's leg.
``After watching me plow three crooked rows, my grandfather walked out to me and said, `If you want to plow a straight row, you have got to look where you're going, not where you've been.' I have remembered that all of my life. It's the only way to be successful.''