How Three Successful Companies Took Divergent Paths to the 2021 SEMA Show
By Eric Colby
Because the founding principals all had backgrounds in powersports, they knew they needed to be at SEMA and they wanted to make a big splash. Hypercraft USA partnered with Geiser Brothers to build an electrically powered trophy truck.
In June 2021, Jake Merrick Sr., the owner of Merrick Tool in Hinton, Oklahoma, had a new product for the automotive industry. He was trying to think of ways to get the word out about his innovative new socket for removing stripped lug nuts.
“I said, ‘We need to go to a trade show,’ so I typed it in on the search engine and the first one that came up was SEMA,” said the 77-year-old inventor and entrepreneur.
“I got in touch with a guy named Scott Hartwick [SEMA industry sales director] and he was a gentleman all the way through,” continued Merrick. He put me in touch with Tom Gattuso [SEMA vice president of events], and they got me all hooked up.”
Merrick attended the SEMA Exhibitor Summit in July, which is kind of like a freshman orientation for new companies planning to display at the annual SEMA Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
“He became the poster child for the summit,” said SEMA Vice President of Sales Warren Kosikov. “He worked the event and made contacts with everyone at SEMA.”
The SEMA Show is the largest event of its kind for the automotive performance industry, and 2022 marks the 55th anniversary of the event first held in the basement of Dodger Stadium in 1967. Last year’s edition of the Show featured more than 100,000 attendees who checked out products from 1,700 exhibitors, 200 of which were first-timers. We talked to three of them to see what they learned from the experience.
Luck of the Draw
After attending the Exhibitor Summit and enjoying the experience, Merrick made his reservations for the 2021 event, reserving a 20x20-ft. island booth and purchasing a sponsorship package for $22,000 that further promoted his company with billboards and other presentations. Merrick Tool also participated in the New Products Showcase.
“We had $100,000 in the trip, and we’ll have the same in it this time, and it’s totally worth it,” said Merrick. “It’s like anything else you do. It’s only as good as your preparation, your enthusiasm, your marketing plan.”
He admits that Merrick Tool was not quite as prepared as he would have liked to have been for the 2021 SEMA Show, but because the majority of the attendees are knowledgeable about cars, trucks and performance, they quickly picked up on what his company was offering.
“They’re mechanical people and we were far enough along that the attendees saw the product and took it from there,” said Merrick.
The products that Merrick Tool displayed included the company’s CAMLOCK Sockets that are designed to remove two-piece, metal-clad lug nuts without damaging them. They come in three sizes: ¾ in.-19mm, 13/16 in.-21mm and 7/8 in.-22mm. What sets apart these tools is that they are designed to grip every flat on the hexagonally shaped nut or bolt head instead of just the corners. In addition, they are made from high-speed tool steel.
Jake Merrick Sr., has a mechanical background. In 1988, he invented a stud-
removal tool for oil wells. “I broke 90,000 of those studs with a wrench and came up with a tool that gripped the round surface and rotated it right or left,” he explained. With that tool, he went around the country, removing more than 500,000 studs that were more than 2 in. in diameter. He also invented a tool that linked the above-ground pump and the in-ground unit for oil wells.
Perhaps the biggest exposure from the Show came from a video shot by Koon Trucking at the Merrick Tool booth. When it appeared on YouTube, it called the CAMLOCK Socket the best product of the 2021 SEMA Show and featured interviews with Jake Merrick, Jr., who is a partner in the business and a state senator from Oklahoma, as well as Jake Sr. The video had garnered approximately 9,500 views as of early June.
When Merrick saw the potential for applying the same technology to lug nuts, he set to work refining his CAMLOCK Socket. Response from the 2021 SEMA Show made the tool an unequivocal favorite of attendees. “Sales were in the hundreds but the praise was 100% from the people who bought them,” said Merrick. He even gave a set to car enthusiast and TV personality Jay Leno.
Merrick estimated that between the show’s closing and the end of 2021, Merrick Tool had more than 10,000 inquiries, but he couldn’t turn them into sales because he couldn’t get machine shops to supply what Merrick wanted in terms of quality for the tools. Instead, the company started work on a research and development program that was wrapping up in early June so Merrick could machine its own parts.
Perhaps the biggest exposure from the Show came from a video shot by Koon Trucking at the Merrick Tool booth. When it appeared on YouTube, it called the CAMLOCK Socket the best product of the 2021 SEMA Show and featured interviews with Jake Merrick Jr., who is a partner in the business and a state senator from Oklahoma, as well as Jake Sr. The video had garnered approximately 9,500 views as of early June.
Aside from finding the walk from the Westgate Las Vegas Resort to the convention center challenging because he has bad knees, Merrick Sr., came away with only positive feedback for his first time at the SEMA Show. This year he’s booked at the Renaissance, so the walk is taken care of.
“It’s priceless. We could have paid 10 times more, and I’d still go back,” he said. “We went away from there glassy-eyed with our mouths open and dead tired, but we were smiling.”
While Merrick happened upon the SEMA Show almost by accident, the folks at Horizon Brands in Costa Mesa, California, are industry veterans. They knew that for their spin-off Project X product to grow, they needed to be at the biggest event in automotive performance.
“We knew we needed to be there, and we knew that the people we needed to see were going to be there, and we had a focused plan when we got there,” said Jared Chavez, director of brand development for Horizon Brands.
Horizon supplies automotive parts and accessories to Costco, AutoZone, Wal-Mart and other brands. Chavez and some of his coworkers wanted Horizon to have a presence in the high-performance off-road market. “We needed to create a whole new brand to house this off-road product and needed a different sales channel,” he said. “This wasn’t going to be something that you put into AutoZone.”
Project X began as performance lighting for off-road vehicles. It then morphed into a full ecosystem with a central control box for all functions in an off-road vehicle. Project X launched at the Johnson Valley, California, King of the Hammers event in 2021 and barely made it on time because of material shortages.
For SEMA, Chavez, who has attended the show since 2006, and his team had a specific plan. “Some of the struggles you have at a trade show include not having a focus,” he said. “We weren’t really ready to talk to jobbers or direct shops yet. We really wanted to talk to distributors.”
He continued, “We had a hit list of who we wanted to deal with and a five-year business plan that made sure we communicated our brand and our product well.”
Project X reserved a 20x60-ft. booth with a meeting room as well as three freestanding displays and a custom Ford Bronco as the centerpiece. The company took advantage of the New Product Showcase, introducing a total of nine new products.
While a product like a wrench or supercharger almost explains itself, something like a management system requires more conversation, and Chavez said that the show environment gave his team the opportunity to do that. For the 2022 Show, Project X will have a 30x70-ft. booth and plans to partner with other exhibitors to have products in their builds to get visibility outside its primary display.
“We ended up leaving the Show with commitments from every person that was on our five-year plan,” said Chavez. “The biggest thing I can tell people going into the SEMA Show is you need to have a plan. If you go into SEMA and think you can stand there and it will sell, it won’t go well.”
A Big Splash
In 2019, Jake Hawksworth wanted to build an electrically powered mountain snowmobile. He designed it and quickly found out that there was no electric propulsion system that could provide the power needed to make it perform.
In his previous career, Hawksworth had led the development and launch of more than 100 products in the powersports industry. Something of a serial entrepreneur, he reached out to some friends in the powersports industry and told them of his plans to develop an electric propulsion system that could be scaled to power anything from a snowmobile, motorcycle or personal watercraft up to a yacht. Hypercraft USA was formed with its headquarters in Provo, Utah. A year ago, the company signed on with an accelerator program to get Hypercraft USA moving in the right direction.
“That’s where we pivoted and realized this was a billion-dollar idea,” said Jon Miller, co-founder and chief creative officer for Hypercraft USA. “We’re the first company to do that in an application-agnostic way.”
Because the founding principals all had backgrounds in powersports, they knew they needed to be at SEMA and they wanted to make a big splash. Hypercraft USA partnered with Geiser Brothers to build an electrically powered trophy truck. Geiser Brothers has built more Baja 1000-winning trophy trucks than any other manufacturer.
Hypercraft USA has electric engines that can make up to 1,600 hp and the company put two of them in the trophy truck, dialing them back to improve the range. During the Baja 1000 off-road race, instead of recharging the batteries, the company plans to do complete battery swaps, according to Miller.
“They let us use one of their trucks and we wrapped in their livery and did cutaway renderings and that made our backdrop,” said Miller.
Hypercraft had the truck in the SEMA Electrified section of the Show. A couple of halls away, the company also had a 10x10-ft. booth.
“We thought we were going to go to SEMA and have to convince everyone this was happening,” said Miller. “Instead we were met with, ‘Where have you been all my life?’”
Like Project X, Hypercraft USA was quite early in its program at the 2021 SEMA Show, and one of the goals for the management team was to meet with interested parties in person.
“We’re still pretty early in this space and there were a couple of companies that we were already partnered with and it was a good place to have in-person meetings,” said Miller. “With electric, you need to look at the system level and not the component level.”
There were other companies at the Show, including OEMs, with electric “crate motors,” designed to be drop-in replacements for gas engines. Hypercraft USA says what sets it apart is that the company can work across diversified platforms. Miller said Hypercraft USA is working on a gas-electric hybrid power system for the military and is replacing a supercharged LS V8 with an electric motor on an airboat. The company currently has 16 different customers in myriad fields.
Project X reserved a 20x60-ft. booth with a meeting room as well as three freestanding displays and a custom Ford Bronco as the centerpiece. The company also took advantage of the New Product Showcase, introducing a total of nine new products.
Looking back at 2021, Miller admitted, “I don’t know that we optimized the whole experience the way we could have.”
Coming into the 2022 Show, Hypercraft USA plans a bigger presence than last year.
“We’re scrambling on every customer, and we’re going to show up with whatever we have that’s show-worthy at that time,” said Miller. The company has purchased a 20x10-ft. booth and hopes to the in the SEMA Electrified section again as well.
“Whatever we show up with its going to get a lot of attention,” said Miller. “We look forward to growing our brand in front of the SEMA audience.”
For new exhibitors coming into the 2022 SEMA Show, he offers the following advice: “You definitely want to do some research and look at maps and plan how everything is going to go, give yourself time to get to where you’re going,” said Miller. “SEMA was our coming-out to the world party, and it made a significant impact for us.”