By Ellen McKoy
Tale of Two Companies
How a Manufacturer and a Restomod Builder Maximize Their SEMA Memberships
|For shops, builders and manufacturers, SEMA can be much more than just a trade show.
Every year, scores of industry professionals from throughout the specialty-equipment marketplace make their annual pilgrimage to the SEMA Show. And while they are primarily there to take advantage of buy-and-sell opportunities, many fail to dig deeper to find out what else SEMA has to offer. Perhaps it’s because they’re unaware that SEMA is much more than just a trade show. Or they’re not sure how to get their foot in the door and take that first step to getting involved.
“For some folks, attending the Show is about as close as they get to being involved in SEMA,” said Sabra Johnson, owner of City Classic Cars in Houston, Texas, who was recently elected to the ARMO select committee. “I believe success starts with SEMA.”
“A lot of people go to the Show, go home and forget they’re SEMA members,” said Nils Forssman, president of Truck Covers USA in San Diego, California. “That’s a disadvantage to them. The most important thing is to use your membership to the fullest, and you’ll really benefit from getting involved.”
Face Time With a Congressman
Truck Covers USA has been a member of SEMA and the Light Truck Accessory Alliance (now the Truck & Off-Road Alliance) since 2002, and Forssman has experienced the value of membership firsthand. In 2007, LTAA-member manufacturers teamed with SEMA to conduct a wind-tunnel project to assess the effects of tonneau covers on coefficient of drag. Forssman noted that the study’s findings—that tonneaus help to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency—were a boon to manufacturers like him.
Forssman’s company has joined the SEMA Data Co-op (SDC), earning platinum-level status by exerting extra effort to provide participating SDC resellers with the most complete product data available.
“We use a number of services that SEMA offers—the SDC, other data, meetings, networking opportunities—it’s a huge benefit,” he said.
Forssman has also hosted SEMA Town Halls.
“We held the events annually for two or three years,” he said. “Since we know so many members, we thought it would be a great opportunity to bring everyone together, share our great experiences with being SEMA members, and just have fun.”
At one event at the San Diego Automotive Museum, guests were invited to display their show cars and trucks alongside those from Truck Covers USA.
“We pulled in members and people who weren’t part of SEMA to educate them,” Forssman said. “It was a terrific opportunity to network with people in our industry.”
Forssman was recently contacted by SEMA Membership Director Gary Vigil. He asked if Forssman would host a meeting with Congressman Scott Peters, who represents Forssman’s district in Washington. It was an offer Forssman couldn’t refuse.
“Gary explained that the congressman was arranging to visit manufacturing facilities in San Diego and asked if I’d be interested in hosting an event,” he said. “Absolutely!”
Forssman worked with SEMA Director of Congressional Affairs Eric Snyder to coordinate the details. The visit included a tour of the manufacturing facility, followed by a sit-down meeting with Peters and his aide, Snyder, Vigil, Forssman and Truck Cover’s Kim Tremelling.
“The congressman was very interested in what’s going on and what the challenges are for the average company in San Diego,” said Forssman, who had a previous connection to Peters through their children’s school. “While it was a great opportunity for us, I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted the opportunity to bring up the industry’s concerns. We talked about labor issues and how tariffs are affecting our industry. Fortunately, we are 100% U.S.A.-built, but we presented the case that tariffs are of concern to everybody. He was very receptive and gave us plenty of face time.”
As a bonus, Peters’ staff posted photos of the event on the congressman’s Facebook page. In reflecting on the meeting, Forssman was quick to express his gratitude.
“Of course, we are very appreciative that the congressman would take time to visit our facility—to have face time with him was fantastic,” he said. “But we can’t thank SEMA enough for creating the opportunity. Without SEMA, it wouldn’t have happened. Bottom line for me, anyone in this industry has to be a SEMA member.”
Seeds of Success
Sabra Johnson grew up around cars. His father and uncles were avid hot rodders and classic-car enthusiasts. They raced around a small dragstrip built on his grandmother’s farm, so it’s not surprising that he followed suit and began modifying and collecting his own vehicles as a hobby. Ten years ago, he turned that hobby into a 14,000-sq.-ft. full-service restoration shop that sits on five-plus acres.
City Classic Cars today employs a staff of 16 full- and part-time employees. Billed as a restomod mecca, the company typically has 60 projects in the works at any given time and does it all in-house—paint and bodywork, engine mods, metal work, upholstery, you name it.
“Everything we do is a restomod, and we are a true one-stop shop,” said Johnson, who’s the lead designer, project manager and brand ambassador. “I have one of the largest hot-rod shops. We’re known for making cars safer, faster and more comfortable.”
Besides wearing multiple business hats, Johnson finds time to pursue other passions. He’s writing a how-to book on turning Tri-Five Chevys into restomods; he funds a mentorship youth program for high-school students; and he volunteers his time and talents to SEMA. He’s a member of SEMA’s Political Action Committee (PAC) and has attended SEMA’s Washington, D.C., Rallies in support of the PAC.
“I (participate) at the maximum financial level, because I want SEMA to continue fighting for the industry I love,” Johnson said. “But whether I choose to donate or not, SEMA still fights for the aftermarket.”
Johnson has also signed up for a new association initiative, the SEMA Senior Class: A Mentoring Program. Comprised of fellow volunteers—industry pros with decades of automotive experience—the free program is designed to help any SEMA member seeking a mentor, advice or insights into the industry. More recently, he tossed his hat into the ring and was elected to his first term on the ARMO select committee.
“SEMA advocates for innovation, for creativity, for small mom-and-pop shops across the country,” he said. “It reaches legislators to make sure that we have a seat at the table and that the industry we love is preserved. I am on the ARMO select committee because SEMA encourages involvement, and I’m honored to be of service and give back.”
For Johnson, part of giving back means extending a welcoming hand to others who may not yet be a core part of what he views as the SEMA community.
“As an African-American leader, I am passionate about greater minority participation, to make sure that they understand that SEMA is a tremendous organization that offers great opportunities and to become a part of what SEMA is,” he said. “My SEMA experience confirms than success starts with SEMA. By any measurable metric, SEMA has increased the brand value and bottom line of my business.
I am so grateful that I choose to serve as a volunteer. SEMA has provided my company with the seeds of success. Now it’s up to me to grow them into a tree.”
The Next Step
Getting involved in SEMA is about making a commitment to help advance the industry—and your company. The opportunities to volunteer are numerous, varied, and open to any SEMA-member company. Joining a SEMA council or network can be a good place to start.
No matter what market niche your business may be in—restoration, off-road, restyling, hot rods, motorsports or wheels and tires—there’s a council or network that would be a good fit. To lend support to SEMA’s legislative advocacy and raise awareness of the specialty-equipment industry on Capitol Hill, there’s also the opportunity to host a congressional visit or, like Sabra Johnson, to mentor others in the industry who look to more experienced players for guidance.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities and how to get involved, contact SEMA Director of Membership Gary Vigil at 909-978-6738 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out the SEMA website, www.sema.org, and click on the link to membership.