Joseph ``Corky'' Coker is an intriguing cross between tire guy and specialty auto enthusiast.
As president of Chattanooga-based Coker Tire Co., Mr. Coker presides over the largest marketer of custom antique, vintage and classic tires in the world.
He also owns, by his own estimation, close to 50 vintage cars and 30-plus vintage motorcycles, so he's a major consumer of his own products.
For the last four years, Mr. Coker has served in the upper echelons of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA)-first as chairman-elect from 2001 to 2003, then as chairman the past two years. He turned over the reins of SEMA to Mitch Williams, founder of Vehicle Performance Systems Inc., this past July.
Now serving in an advisory capacity as SEMA immediate past chairman, Mr. Coker said he feels confident that he is leaving a stronger, more diversified and more united organization to his successors.
``We're not just a big trade show, but a trade association that provides useful services to its members,'' he said. ``We offer programs all around the calendar and `Webinars' that are available to any member with a computer.''
The variety of programs SEMA offers, according to Mr. Coker, make it an important group for tire dealers as well as the rest of the aftermarket.
``All tire dealers should be actively involved in SEMA,'' he said. ``It's a tremendous value. But they shouldn't belong to SEMA instead of TIA (the Tire Industry Association)-a smart tire dealer will be a member of both.''
Asked about what he considered his main achievements at SEMA, Mr. Coker unhesitatingly listed at the top his association's increased involvement in legislative and regulatory issues.
``We are attempting to bring some closure with NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) on various issues on behalf of our members,'' he said. These are not issues related just to the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, he said, but also regulations issued by the agency that essentially set parts specifications in stone-not just for the aftermarket but for original equipment manufacturers as well.
``Because of these regulations, you can't change a part, you can't do replacement parts, and it wipes out the aftermarket,'' he said.
Mr. Coker began a political action committee, SEMAPAC, to address political issues of concern to the aftermarket. He praised the efforts of SEMA's Washington staff on behalf of members.
He also said he instigated changes in SEMA's long-term investment policy. Although the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas is larger and more profitable every year, he said, he didn't want the association to have all its financial eggs in one basket.
``We want to thoroughly support our membership,'' he said.
The SEMA Show has become so big and so popular, in fact, that the association has started to limit booth size to allow more new exhibitors to come there, Mr. Coker said. For the past several years it has been SEMA policy not to segregate exhibitors by product, he added, but to arrange booths in a way that emphasizes interrelated aftermarket products. Tire and wheel exhibitors aren't grouped with each other, he said, but will be situated next to booths featuring shocks and struts, brakes or tire pressure monitoring systems.
``We want to create a venue that has tremendous value for new companies and return exhibitors alike,'' he said.
To make sure SEMA continues to attract new members, Mr. Coker initiated a program to reach out to young auto enthusiasts, an effort he said has met with considerable success.
``We feature trucks, tuners, hot rods, collector cars,'' he said. ``These guys are our future customers. If we don't make an effort to attract the youth market, we can't hope to keep growing.''
In the past few years, SEMA's membership has grown to about 6,400 from about 5,100, he said.
As a corollary to its efforts to attract the youth market, the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund is one of the nation's most active scholarship programs for young people who want to enter auto repair and related disciplines as a profession. In 2005 alone, the fund awarded $120,000 worth of scholarships to 80 deserving students.
``We not only preach involvement with the youth market and develop PR to attract youth, but we put meat behind it in the form of scholarships,'' Mr. Coker said.
During Mr. Coker's tenure, SEMA also has developed an anti-counterfeiting program, designed to root out product knockoffs at the SEMA Show.
The general rule is that if any exhibitor suspects another of counterfeiting its products, it can obtain a court order and SEMA will then eject the suspected counterfeiter, Mr. Coker said. The association has on its staff an attorney who is knowledgeable on product counterfeiting, he added.
In the future, Mr. Coker said, he hoped that SEMA would continue to attract the youth market and seek relationships with OEM companies. ``I know my successors share these goals, so to them I just say good luck and Godspeed,'' he said.