Joseph “Corky” Coker delights in seeing people happy. He is passionate about his family, friends and businesses. He is energetic and ambitious, compassionate and caring. And he was born to be in the automotive specialty-equipment industry.
His father Harold opened the Coker Tire Company in 1958, and Coker remembers sweeping floors and cleaning wide whitewalls as his earliest jobs. But even though he was nicknamed after a character in the old “Gasoline Alley” comic strip, he was not enthralled about working at a tire company. In addition to the time spent at his father’s business, Coker grew up among livestock on the family farm. He liked the animals more than the rubber and planned to become a veterinarian until a too-carefree attitude at Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga put an end to that plan. As he recalled it: “I made all Bs in college—banjos, beer and babes—so I was not quite the student it took to become a vet.”
Instead, he discovered that he actually enjoyed working at the tire store when he retuned there and split his time between the business and school in Chattanooga. When he ultimately went full-time, his father directed him to take on the small antique-tire niche, which was then less than 5% of the company.
“I suddenly realized that selling hot-rod and Model A tires to these guys made them very happy,” he said. “They smiled when they did business with me because they got to play with their toys. I really got my head into it and started developing some ideas and goals of my own.”
Over the years, Coker put those ideas into practice and began to add to the goals. The antique-tire segment of the business now encompasses 95% of Coker Tire’s earnings, and the company ships tires throughout the United States and to 32 other countries. Coker acquired vintage molds from around the world to build stock, contracting with both domestic and foreign manufacturers to produce the company’s inventory. He negotiated licensing agreements and distributorship deals for vintage tires with producers, such as BFGoodrich, Firestone, Michelin and U.S. Royal, and he developed a separate division to sell accessories and automobile collectibles and memorabilia.
Coker’s personal auto collection includes more than 50 cars and 50 antique motorcycles, and he takes part annually in The Great Race, which is an antique touring event that runs from coast to coast. In 1998, Coker acquired Honest Charley, one of America’s first speed shops, which was started in 1948 by Honest Charley Card, himself a SEMA Hall of Fame member. Honest Charley celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
As he worked to grow his businesses, Coker also devoted time to building the whole industry through his efforts with SEMA. He was one of the founders of the Automotive Restoration Market Organization, which named Coker Tire its Manufacturer of the Year in 1997 and inducted Coker into its Hall of Fame the following year. He served numerous terms on the SEMA Board of Directors and became the association’s chairman in 2003.
During the course of his involvement with the association, Coker helped establish the SEMA Political Action Committee, guided the group toward an investment strategy that improved SEMA’s financial resources to ensure future security and also encouraged the development of better relationships with auto dealers that led to the development of the ProPledge warranty program.
Though faith and charity are hallmarks of his character, Coker’s humanitarian and community involvements are less well-known. He is a recipient of the Silver Beaver award from the Boy Scouts of America, that organization’s highest volunteer honor, and he has continually been active in his local Chamber of Commerce. In addition, he was selected as Tennessee’s Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration in 1996. He has made charitable visits to the Caribbean Christian Center for the Deaf in Granville, Jamaica, and he serves on the board of directors for Chosen Children Ministries, a Christ-centered ministry to orphanages, with a focus on Nicaragua.
“Doing right means something,” he said. “I became a Christian in my early 20s, and the Lord has guided me. Having a grandmother who prayed for me every day has been part of the reason for my success. She passed away a few years ago, and somebody asked me, ‘What are you going to do now that your grandmother isn’t praying for you any more?’ I said, ‘That’s not the case. She’s whispering in His ear now.’”
Family has always been at the core of Coker’s life, both personally and in business. He points to his father and his grandfather as the major figures who guided him. He has been married to Theresa Coker for 30 years (as of 2008). His daughter Casey joined the family business two years ago, and his son Cameron graduated from college and went to work for Apple Computers a year ago. His brother spent a number of years in the business and then started his own company, Newstalgia Wheel, and his sister is involved in education in Franklin, Tennessee.
Coker’s passion for his family and the industry is obvious, but he also holds an abiding love for his country.
“When we have the opportunity to be out in a convertible or a hot rod and see America, they always give us a thumbs-up and say that they love what we do,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I cherish that? It’s absolutely the best part of what I do.”