Wade Kawasaki was pumping gas at the corner of Venice and Vermont in Los Angeles when he was just 10 years old. The year was 1970, and he was working at his father’s Shell gas station, which Kawasaki describes as a window into what was coming in his life. “Just filling up those cars with gas, washing their windows and checking their oil—I got to look under their hoods,” he explained. “That was cool stuff!”
Fast forward to 1978, and Kawasaki was working as a counterman for the Retail Speed Shop and Accessories Centers chain. From this vantage point, he observed a steady influx of customers from overseas. Enthusiasts were walking into the store from Scandinavia, including Sweden and Finland, and searching for American musclecar parts. In an effort to better serve those customers, Kawasaki suggested that his employer start an export department, but his boss saw no need and thought that if people wanted to buy parts, they’d come into the stores.
Although his effort was initially rejected, the idea eventually spawned a business plan. In 1987, Kawasaki and his wife, Rose, started their own company—Exports International—in their two-bedroom house in Gardena.
“I remember our first 53-foot truckload of gaskets coming in,” said Kawasaki. “We literally had 4x8 plywood sheets that I set up all around the house. We filled the entire living room, dining room and kitchen with these gaskets, and I used the plywood to make little tunnels.”
Hoping for advice on operating his small business, Kawasaki joined SEMA. As a member of the association, he took advantage of every member benefit available, which including global shipping incentives, marketing opportunities and the most important tool—networking. It was former SEMA Vice President Don Turney who encouraged him to get actively involved, beginning with an effort to try to organize SEMA’s younger professionals.
His volunteer work with the Young Executives Network was only the beginning. Before long, Kawasaki was elected to the SEMA Board of Directors. Suddenly, he wasn’t just networking with the sales managers and sales vice presidents at member companies; he was interacting with the CEOs. At this point, he met someone who would serve as a mentor, a colleague and an employer—Corky Coker.
“Here’s a guy from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who I would probably never have met, in a segment of the industry that I knew very little about—vintage tires,” said Kawasaki. “And because of work in [SEMA] leadership with him—especially serving as secretary/treasurer for the Board—it’s led to this opportunity to work with Corky.”
At present, Kawasaki is the executive vice president of Coker Group, which includes 11 different companies. And despite his success, he remains humble about his ongoing career, stating simply that it is a tremendous blessing. He even admits that he’s enjoying things far too much to consider retirement.
“I get to work with people who I enjoy being with and who have grown far beyond co-workers and are really close friends,” he said. “I don’t know how retirement could get better than this. I’m really enjoying this spot in my life.”
Kawasaki also remains as committed as ever to SEMA, insisting that there’s always a need to stay connected to the industry. Whether he’s serving as a sponsor/organizer for the annual SEMA Show Prayer Breakfast, becoming a founding board member of the SEMA PAC or working with the SEMA Show long-range-planning task force, he has always generously donated his time to the association. In fact, he continues to dedicate his time to numerous councils and committees purely out of gratitude to the association.
“If it wasn’t for the mentors that I met in getting involved in SEMA, I wouldn’t be where I am,” he said.
In addition to SEMA, Kawasaki also enjoys spending time with his family. He and Rose have two children, Timothy and Alyssa. Timothy also seems to have picked up the automotive bug and currently works as the materials manager at Wheel Vintiques. Alyssa also has a love for cars and was recently chosen to do a radio commercial for the Ford Focus. Based on the success of the radio spot, she was additionally cast in two TV commercials.
Even though his family is clearly no stranger to success, when SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting contacted Kawasaki to announce that he had been selected to enter the Hall of Fame, the entire family was beyond proud.
“Everybody talks about getting that call from Chris,” said Kawasaki “It was pretty much a heart-stopping moment. I know that there are probably a bunch of folks out there who are more deserving than I, but there’s certainly nobody happier than I.”
Certainly things have changed since he was pumping gas at that Shell station, but all of his success originates from a simple life lesson. It’s advice he hopes future generations will take to heart: If you do something you’re passionate about, work will actually be fun and you will do some really amazing things.