Joel Ayres has a reputation. A shrewd businessman and salesman, he has had a successful aftermarket career for more than 40 years. But his reputation is not hard-as-nails or barbarous. Joel Ayres is known for being one of the nicest guys in the industry.
His father, Boyd Lee, was a farmer (who later joined an upstart company called Winnebago RVs), so Joel was born on a farm in Forest City, Iowa, later moving to Waterloo, Iowa. He grew up with four brothers and a sister and loved school (an honor-roll student) and sports—although at 5 ft., 10 in. and 125 lbs., his football career did not last long.
Ayres said that his family had always been around racing and cars. For example, Boyd would take them to Tunis Speedway to watch races every Sunday night. Ayres refers to himself as “the least mechanical of my family,” yet when his older brother Dean became a stock-car racer after high school, Ayres would sometimes help in the pits.
At 16, Ayres got his first car, a VW Bug, and he piloted a ’69 Mustang while at the University of Northern Iowa, although “our family was a pickup-truck family.” Joel intended to study education, with the goal of becoming an elementary-school counselor, but he switched to business.
“I’ve actually had a little regret that I didn’t teach,” Joel admitted.
By now, Boyd had started his own company, Ayr-Way, which manufactured various items that included fiberglass truck caps. So Joel, his younger brother Jerry and his older brother Jim went to work for their dad. Boyd sold the company in 1978, but Joel and Jim had to continue in their positions for another year as part of the sale. When competitor Rigid Form called, Joel said yes to a job offer, and he moved up from sales manager to general manager over the years. He also oversaw a chain of nine truck-accessory retail stores in the Midwest.
Ayres eventually landed in California, working for truck-cap and tonneau manufacturer Leer, first as a sales manager and then as national marketing director. The company became part of Truck Accessories Group (TAG), where Ayres stayed for 20 years. In 2010, he moved to Tākit Inc., the maker of Bedslide, as vice president of sales and marketing and as a partner.
Those who know Ayres understand why he was perfect for a job offered in 2015: executive director of the Automotive Aftermarket Charitable Foundation. The organization provides financial assistance to those in need within the aftermarket industry from problems such as sickness, catastrophe or accident. The foundation is more than 50 years old, yet Ayres became the first to hold that position. And it speaks to the core of who Ayres is: that nice guy.
“My volunteer work started when I was very young,” he explained. “My whole life has been about volunteerism and charity work. It’s been my passion.” He’ll tell you that his father “gave me my business and selling side, and my mother and stepmom gave me my loving, caring and charitable side.” As such, he cofounded the first Big Brothers of Northeastern Indiana and has been a volunteer teacher and had a nearly lifelong involvement with various children’s charities.
“Someone told me back in my 30s, ‘You can make an impact every day on people’s lives that you work with, and that has a ripple effect. You may not be out there curing anything, but you can say the right thing, be the right example and make a difference,’” Ayres reflected. “It finally hit me that I could be in business and didn’t have to be a stereotypical businessman. And that’s why I’ve become good friends with all my competition. It’s not a war or a battle; it’s a game. And when the whistle blows, you share a beer.”
His colleagues and peers learned that attitude quickly, as he helped the truck-accessory aftermarket industry grow by becoming a founding member of the Truck Cap Industry Alliance that became the Light Truck Accessory Alliance (LTAA). Beyond that, he was “off to the races.” His involvements with multiple SEMA councils, committees and task forces are too numerous to list, but they have included the SEMA Board of Directors for multiple terms, the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network (SBN) board liaison and the SEMA Show committee. “I love the industry,” he said. “I’m a hand-raiser, and I just enjoy it.”
But he managed to mix business with heart as only Ayres could do. He is perhaps most associated with SEMA Cares, the charity arm of SEMA: He was instrumental in its formation and was its original chairman.
His devotion to the industry and community has resulted in many accolades, including the LTAA Hall of Fame, the SBN Athena Award, the Professional Restylers Organization Jim Borré Lifetime Achievement Award and the SEMA Person of the Year. Still, Ayres feels unworthy of his SEMA Hall of Fame induction.
“I’m still in a cloud,” he confessed. “To think about the legends who are in this—the people I grew up hearing about or people I’ve known—it’s just…wow. I shouldn’t even be here. I’m very honored and very proud. The biggest achievements in my life are my children and grandchildren, but as far as the industry and this association, this is huge!”