SEMA News - August 2010
Honoring Visionaries and Leaders
A hall of fame—it’s a place reserved for legends, trailblazers, visionaries and leaders. It’s bestowed on sports figures, musicians, inventors and others who inspire and shape an industry. A hall of fame is how the world finds out that, hey, this is a person whose work, contributions and service have left an indelible mark.
Yet inductees seem to always say the same thing: “I was just doing what I loved.”
The accomplished members of the SEMA Hall of Fame have each made an imprint on the automotive specialty-equipment industry, and their professional and personal achievements are what the association recognizes with this prestigious honor. Dedication to growing the specialty-equipment industry and SEMA are the passion of these exceptional people. They fight for the hobby and are the voice of many. Their dreams create realities for others.
And that’s the easy part of being considered for the SEMA Hall of Fame.
When the association’s very first Hall of Fame award was presented in 1969, what it took to be inducted was clear: “outstanding persons in the industry who have enhanced the stature of, or significantly contributed to, the industry and/or association’s growth.” A candidate back then, as with today, had to meet those criteria. However, the standards are even higher now. Nominees must also have at least 10 years of experience in the industry and/or association, and their contributions must have national influence. Additionally, a candidate must enhance technology, demonstrate integrity and help the industry thrive.
Which brings us to this year’s respected inductees: Richard “Dick” McMullen, Chuck Schwartz and Van Woodell. Each has reaffirmed the values established more than 40 years ago for this award, both in the spirit and letter of the criteria. It is with utmost regard that we welcome these three gentlemen into the SEMA Hall of Fame and to their place in history.
Growing up in Fremont, Michigan, Dick McMullen displayed a keen business sense early on, consistently selling more magazine subscriptions for the school drive than any other student. His trick of the trade? Call on people ahead of time for pre-order sales. But this wise, young salesman was also an auto enthusiast, so when McMullen was 13 and landed a job with the milk delivery man, it wasn’t just the free milk that he counted as a job perk—he also got to drive the truck.
The McMullen family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and he worked in a gas station while attending high school, handling everything from pumping gas to washing windshields. He was so good at his job that his boss gave him a raise, providing McMullen with enough cash to buy a car.
“Cars were always his interest,” explained his wife, Sally. By her count, McMullen owned more than 21 automobiles over his lifetime. In fact, he picked her up in a brand-new Oldsmobile for their first encounter, a blind date in 1954. “I thought, gosh, anybody that likes a nice car must be okay!” she said. But not everyone was thrilled with this love connection. “My mother was horrified to even think I would date a hot rodder.”
After attending college, McMullen enlisted in the Air Force, working in mechanics. Although he was stationed in Germany for nearly four years, boot camp took place in Texas, and that was where he and other car enthusiasts started a club limited to members of the Air Force. Following the service, McMullen and a friend from the Texas days, Dean Brown, launched the first newspaper dedicated to drag racing, Drag News. McMullen was the manager, handling the sales side of the business, which included clients ranging from Howards Racing Cams and Hedman Hedders to Weiand and Isky Racing Cams.
In 1963, McMullen sold Drag News and made the switch from publishing to advertising, joining Ed Elliott’s agency, which represented high-performance clients. The company was later renamed Elliott-McMullen Agency, and “…damn near every company that ever started in this industry went to that agency at one time or another,” said Bob Vandergriff of Vandergriff Motorsports, who was a friend and business associate/partner of McMullen.
It has been said that the idea of SEMA first came under discussion inside the Culver City, California, offices of Elliott-McMullen. “Dick thought the purpose of SEMA should be to unite the manufacturers and to have a united front,” Sally recalled. And McMullen remained dedicated to SEMA’s efforts. Over the years, he was involved in the establishment of the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Foundation and served on many SEMA committees.
After Elliott passed away, McMullen assumed full ownership of the agency and renamed it McMullen Advertising (which later became McMullen Design and Marketing). But one day, explained Sally, Bob Hedman told McMullen that he was thinking of selling his company and said, “If you ever hear of anybody that wants to buy it, let me know.” McMullen and Vandergriff took over Hedman Hedders, selling products worldwide.
Sadly, McMullen passed away in 2005 and will receive the SEMA Hall of Fame award posthumously. McMullen “…loved doing what he did,” said Sally. “He was very low-key, not a high-powered salesman, pushy kind of guy, but very caring.” Vandergriff fondly remembers him as “honest, sincere and extremely creative—a solid personality and trustworthy.”
McMullen’s hobbies were “cars, cars, cars,” according to Sally, and he had a passion for people, the industry, the association and his work. “He always told our kids, ‘Whatever you go into, be sure it’s something you like. Otherwise going to work every day will be a pain,’” she said. “That’s what he did, so his work was his fun.” Vandergriff recalled that what McMullen loved most about his work was “…helping people grow. He’s gone, but he’s still watching.”
Born in Danville, Pennsylvania, and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Chuck Schwartz studied at Ohio State before entering the U.S. Army, where he served in military intelligence. A move to California landed him a job at a seat cover and muffler shop in San Diego—The Big Wheel—where he began by installing dual exhausts and mufflers and was then promoted to salesman and played a key role in the company’s expansion. When an opportunity to buy a leased automotive department in a discount house presented itself, it was done under the name Western Big Wheel, and Schwartz played an instrumental role in the corporation, which owned as many as 165 leased departments at the organization’s peak and became the first mass merchandiser in the United States to offer speed equipment.
Schwartz also sponsored race cars at the local tracks where the corporation had stores, and the fleet even included a championship car. That led to California Racing Specialists, which built engines and chassis for super stock cars. Then came another venture—K-Bar S—which coincided with the growing appeal of off-road racing. K-Bar S focused on building pre-runners, but the company started selling parts before long as well. Schwartz and his crew even built and raced a Ford Bronco in the very first Baja 1000.
The next move was to start two companies—Pioneer 4-Wheel Drive Center and Pioneer Van Conversions—and Schwartz also was involved with the formation of the Off Road Equipment Association (OREA) with the likes of Pete Condos, Bill Stroppe and Thurston Warn as a response to concerns about the closure of land to off-road use. Schwartz participated with the team that produced the OREA Shows and produced the final OREA Show just prior to the acquisition of OREA by SEMA. And then he began to ponder a permanent career change: show business.
Prior to venturing down that new path, Schwartz sold his retail business and became a manufacturer’s rep for about three years. And then it happened: He launched the Auto Internacional trade show in 1980, which focused on parts and accessories for imports. In 1982, SEMA acquired that show. Schwartz became producer of the SEMA Show, and, “It’s been a great ride ever since!” he said. Ron Funfar of Hedman Hedders/Trans-Dapt, who has known Schwartz for nearly 30 years, described him as “…a force in attempting to make SEMA a better-known association from one side of the country to the other.”
Schwartz now produces the SEMA Show and other events through his company, ConvExx. “But Chuck’s impact on SEMA is far greater than his role at ConvExx and as a vendor,” explained Chris Thomson, national sales manager of AIRAID Filter Company. “He’s been an active participant in the actual growth of SEMA, participating in it long before the major successes of the SEMA Show.”
Schwartz is a charter member of the SEMA Political Action Committee (PAC) and was elected chairman of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) management in 1999. He served on that organization’s board of directors for seven years, received the IAEE Pinnacle Award and is an Auto International Association Hall of Fame winner, among the many honors he has accrued since becoming a trade show producer in 1976. He has also been an active volunteer in his community and continues to offer mentoring programs.
This will be Schwartz’s 29th year as SEMA Show producer, a job that involves drawing the floorplan, selling floor space, getting exhibitors prepared for the Show and “…having the knowledge of where manufacturers are going, what they’re doing, what’s changing in the marketplace. I watch all that and talk to as many exhibitors as possible and learn so that we know what’s going on in the marketplace,” he said.
And it’s clear that there’s no business like show business. “Chuck gets enormous satisfaction out of seeing others succeed,” said B.J. Leanse, Big Country Truck Accessories/Go Rhino! Products North America sales manager. “He sees change and creates solutions and meets every challenge with excellence as the only acceptable goal.”
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 Truck and Off-Road Alliance (TORA) Hall of Fame.
Compton might just sum up this SEMA Hall of Fame inductee perfectly with, “Everyone should have a Van Woodell in their