At the Forefront of the Future
Nile Cornelison grew up in Creston, Iowa, where his favorite class in high
school was metalworking. Like most of us, tinkering on cars came early. His
first vehicle was a 1954 Olds, which he was able to buy with money he made as a
machinist at NAPA. Those late teen years also gave birth to a voracious appetite
for racing cars, and he parlayed his love of the adrenaline rush to racing Top
Fuel in the 1960s and 1970s.
Through racing, Nile found himself the person competitors were turning to for
tips on how to build performance engines. That led to an engine-building side
business outside of his NAPA job. He soon left to start his own speed shop,
specializing in machine work for race cars. At that time, tractor-pulling was a
fledgling motorsport, and again, Nile became the person competitors turned to.
Only now, it was farmers; they wanted hot rod tractors.
The distribution of speed parts, from manufacturer to speed shops, was beginning
to formalize. That would be a career-changing observation, and Nile launched
National Custom Warehouse around 1970. “NCW was probably one of the first eight
to ten warehouse distributors in the U.S. buying parts from manufacturers and
selling to other speed shops. That operation ultimately sold parts in 48
states,” Nile explained.
But he also spotted flaws in the system. “Warehouse distributors did a fantastic
job of buying and selling the parts, but they did an absolutely lousy job of
moving printed catalogs and price sheets to the parts store front counters so
the parts could be sold.”
“So my idea was, why not put together all the jobber/customer lists of all my
competitors and create a database—although in those days the word ‘database’
hadn’t been born. The concept was a single file that got rid of all the
duplications and facilitated the distribution of catalogs and price sheets, wall
posters or anything paper and ink, to the 30-some-thousand outlets so we could
cut the time from end of the press to the front counter. We took it from taking
6 months to a year to get catalog information out down to a matter of a couple
As you might guess, competitors were reluctant to share their customer lists, so
Nile sold NCW to start Direct Communications Inc. (DCi) in 1982. DCi became a
direct mail clearinghouse for performance and accessory catalogs and price
sheets. “He was an early pioneer in trying to get companies to mail new catalogs
on a timely basis to the country’s jobbers and dealers. He did a lot in direct
mail and that was in the early days of computers”, explained Chuck Blum of Chuck
Blum & Associates, who has known Nile since 1981. “Communication was poor,
especially in our growing industry. We didn’t yet have the sophistication of
hard-parts distributors, who had been in business for years and years. Getting
that information down the line was something our guys just weren’t used to.” In
1996, DCi added electronic cataloging data development and distribution
“He truly was a pioneer in the beginning of electronic cataloging,” explained
Trina Wilson, an account specialist with DCi. “He helped the industry by getting
data into the hands of those who needed the information to sell product. Without
data, you’re unable to sell the product and accurately get the right part for
the vehicle.” According to Nile, today, DCi facilitates
$7 billion in performance and accessory parts sales through 60,000+ business
outlets throughout the world.
Nile still made time to become an extremely active volunteer within SEMA,
serving on the Board of Directors for eight years, during which time he chaired
the Educational Services Committee. From that came SEMA Innovations Day, an
effort to connect OEMs to the aftermarket for information-sharing, which was
also Nile’s brainchild.
The first keynote speaker lined up got other OEMs to stand up and take notice of
the SEMA Show: Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca. Nile also led SEMA’s initial entry into
market research, introducing the annual SEMA Market Study. And while serving on
the SEMA Show Committee in 1981, he created the show-within-a-show format-a
display area for new products now known as the popular New Products Showcase.
Among his numerous accolades, Nile was named SEMA Person of the Year in 1982.
As Trina explained, “Without Nile’s vision, there wouldn’t be the same large
number of businesses selling specialty parts today and our members wouldn’t have
the success in the new internet marketplaces we have today.”