Not many of us can say that we’ve received a life-changing job offer in midair, but Van Woodell can. But let’s back up a bit. Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Woodell tinkered with cars before discovering that four-wheeling in the mountains was his real thrill. He bought a ’71 Toyota Land Cruiser and joined a four-wheel-drive club in Durham. To pay for his hobby, he worked in the service department of a local Jeep dealership. “By now, I had been bit,” he recalled, and he went to work in 1974 for a start-up called Tar Heel 4WD Center, where he really became involved in learning parts, selling parts and developing expertise in off-roading.
Unfortunately, the difficult economy of the time caused Tar Heel 4WD Center to close its doors in 1979, leaving Woodell to take odd jobs, such as tuning cars, brake jobs and “…anything I could do to earn some money,” he said. “I had a baby on the way, so I was in a panic.” As it turned out, several of the reps who called on Woodell at Tar Heel 4WD Center also called on his future employer, Dudley Weathers, who was based in Tupelo, Mississippi, where the original Weathers Auto Supply was located.
Weathers flew Woodell to Petersburg, Virginia, for a talk and on the flight back to Durham, made a job offer to open a store in Petersburg. Since Woodell’s wife, Carol, was due to give birth, she stayed behind in Durham while he set-up shop—and living quarters—in the new Weathers warehouse.
Weathers gave Woodell an opportunity to buy 10% of the Virginia store, and the two then opened another warehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over the next couple of years, Woodell bought another 10%, then another 10%. By 1989, he bought the balance of the Petersburg store.
Sam Compton of Rep South Productions had called on Woodell as a customer and recalled looking for a buyer who was “…not reckless, but one that had vision, understanding of the customer and the courage to be a pioneer.”
“Van met all of these attributes,” he said. “You left Virginia feeling good and inspired to follow his image.”
Steve Starr of PSKB, who met Woodell early in his career as a manufacturer’s rep, recalled his affinity for others. “I feel he loves the industry mainly because of the people he has contact with and his passion for the automotive aftermarket,” Starr said. “He is definitely a people person.”
Woodell had attended SEMA Shows as a member with Tar Heel 4WD Center, but when he joined the association with Weathers, he had a new perspective.
“I figured, if I’m going to be in something or involved in something, I want to learn about it,” he said. “But at that point, I had no earthly idea how to become involved with SEMA.”
Enter Bob Cook of Bob Cook Sales, who told Woodell: “I’ll get you involved.” Cook was an independent rep during Woodell’s Tar Heel 4WD Center days and explained that Woodell and he hit it off right away. “He was very open to new-product presentation, friendly and understood the business,” Cook said. So when it came to SEMA involvement, Cook told him, “Don’t complain about issues unless you are willing to work toward changing them.”
That is what Woodell did, serving three consecutive two-year terms on the SEMA Board of Directors from 1997–2003. He was elected to the Board again in 2007 and 2009. He served on the nominating committee for the Board of Directors and has served on a variety of other SEMA committees and task forces. He held a seat on the PWA Board of Directors and is a past president of PWA. He has also been honored with the Vanguard Award by SEMA’s Young Executives Network (YEN) and was selected for the Light Truck Accessory Alliance (LTAA) Hall of Fame.
Compton might just sum up this SEMA Hall of Fame inductee perfectly with, “Everyone should have a Van Woodell in their life.