By Fredy Ramirez
From the SEMA Hall of Fame:
Joseph “Corky” Coker delights in seeing people happy 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.”
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.’”
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.”
To learn more about the SEMA Hall of Fame, visit www.semahof.com.