A Few Words With SEMA Chairman Wade Kawasaki


By SEMA News Staff

A Few Words with SEMA Chairman Wade Kawasaki

Kawasaki has been working in the industry for nearly 40 years and began volunteering for SEMA when he started his first company, Exports International, in the late ’80s.

At SEMA’s annual Installation & Gala on Friday, July 28, Chairman of the Board Doug Evans passed the torch of leadership to Wade Kawasaki, who has served as Chairman-Elect for the past two years.

Kawasaki has been working in the industry for nearly 40 years and began volunteering for SEMA when he started his first company, Exports International, in the late ’80s. Since then, Kawasaki has held key elected positions and appointments, including three terms on the SEMA Board of Directors as SEMA secretary/treasurer and as chairman of the SEMA Show Committee, and he was appointed by the United States Secretary of Commerce to the Automotive Parts Advisory Council. He has an impressive list of industry accolades. In fact, he is the first person to receive the SEMA Grand Slam of awards: Young Executive of the Year, SEMA Chairman’s Service Award, SEMA Person of the Year and SEMA Hall of Fame. Readers can follow Wade’s journey as SEMA Chairman of the Board on @carguy_adventures on Instagram.

SEMA News spoke with Kawasaki to learn more about his perspectives and priorities as he begins his two-year term as SEMA Chairman of the Board.

SEMA News: As a founding member of the Young Executives Network (YEN) and the Sport Compact Council, and as a very young board member pushing for the first International Auto Salon, you have had a hand in guiding the growth of the next generation for some time now. How do you feel about the progress that has been made, and what remains to be done in terms of youth engagement?

Wade Kawasaki: In terms of the progress that’s been made, I’m very proud of what the YEN leadership has done over the years by succeeding in developing programs that influence each new generation toward automotive aftermarket career paths. Over the years, YEN has helped young executives advance in their careers while assisting them in developing new ideas that turn into businesses. Launch Pad is a great example of one of these programs. It gives young innovators the opportunity to pitch their ideas to industry experts. And having been a judge on Launch Pad, I was able to see the challenges that each contestant faced with their pitch or product. This allowed me to mentor and advise the contestants on how to overcome the challenges when introducing new ideas to the industry. To be able to get tips and encouragement from people like Myles Kovacs, Jim Cozzie and Jessi Combs is priceless and the entire process is a great way to cultivate new talent within our industry.

As far as what remains to be done, I go back to the late ’80s after I joined SEMA; I was able to sit down with former SEMA Vice President Don Turney who invited me to join a group of young executives to discuss how SEMA could help young people in our industry. He arranged a meeting with about 10 of my peers in the SEMA conference room and little did we know that was the very first meeting of the Young Executives Network. Over the years we have based our entire youth engagement initiative on two things: to get more young people working in our industry and choosing to make it their career, while also sharing the passion we all have with motor vehicles. Doug [Evans] has really done a great job in pioneering those two things, and we’ll continue to move those initiatives forward as we enter my years as chairman. Judging from the progress of those initial 10 men and women to the more than 1,200 YEN members of today, I feel we are well on our way!

SN: A key part of SEMA’s mission is to produce the industry’s leading trade show. In the past, you have served as chairman of the Show Committee and on the SEMA Show Long-Range Planning Task Force, and you’ve also been an exhibitor for many years with both small companies and large ones. For 20 years, you also walked the Show as a buyer, so you have an exceptionally well-rounded perspective. With the 2017 SEMA Show two months away, what would be your advice for exhibitors to get the best return on their investments?

WK: The best way is to get involved and learn to serve our industry as a whole. SEMA offers training and educational seminars that every company should take advantage of because it’s a way you can get very specific industry training, which is not generally available—and you get it at a very low or no cost.

At Coker Group, we schedule training courses for every staff member who goes to the SEMA Show. They actually choose which seminars they are going to attend before they leave the office. And when we get back, they present what they learned to the folks back at headquarters.

Another way to get the most from the Show is our councils, networks and committees. The SEMA Show is an unbelievable time to network and there is a plethora of opportunities. I encourage folks to join those councils and networks that are applicable to their businesses and get involved. These groups are a great way to network with your peers, make new connections and share thoughts and ideas that will help you understand the best practices in our industry. This will not only help your business grow but you will also grow personally by contributing what you have to offer to the industry.

When I was a buyer, the number-one reason I went to the SEMA Show was to see what new products were out there, what new trends were emerging, and the best way to do that was to look at the New Products Showcase. The Showcase is a place where people are actually looking for that next product they can sell. Whether you’re a billion-dollar or a hundred-thousand-dollar company, everybody looks the same in the New Products Showcase, so it’s a great way to get your products in front of customers—not just the ones you already have, but also the ones who have never heard of your company. Plus, all the media personnel stop there first to learn about the new products, photograph them and write about them. I encourage companies to take advantage of the New Products Showcase.

Whether you’re an exhibitor, a buyer or media, the best advice I can give is to have clear goals and a follow-up plan for after the Show. Following through with the contacts you made is the most important thing you can do to get the best return on your investment.

SN: You have been a volunteer for numerous SEMA committees and served in many volunteer capacities over the years. Looking back at your years as a volunteer, can you share your perspective on the rewards of industry service?

WK: I’ve learned that, by giving back to the industry, I’ve gained so much more than I’ve ever been able to give. There is something very gratifying about coming together for the good of the entire industry and working on specific projects while moving Board initiatives forward. But the really cool thing is, as a byproduct of that selfless work that we all do, there is the personal reward of being able to connect deeply with peers and mentors. When I started as a volunteer, I wasn’t afraid to say to people, “I really need your advice.” Through my volunteering at SEMA, I got to meet amazing people, ask them questions and be mentored by them. Peers like Myles Kovacs, Jim Cozzie and Doug Evans as well as industry icons like Corky Coker, Brian Appelgate and Harry Hibler. It’s been an immeasurable benefit to me personally and also to the companies I have run.

By connecting, this gives us a better global understanding of our industry and avails us to information from other market segments and distribution methods that help us make better decisions.

SN: Another one of your areas of expertise is export proficiency. As chairman, what do you see on the horizon with respect to SEMA’s international programs, and can you offer any advice about how SEMA members should position themselves as an increasingly global marketplace evolves?

WK: Well, we’re getting closer to a truly global event, and that’s the SEMA Show. We have attendees from 140 different countries and almost 17,000 buyers from around the world. It’s just an amazing global opportunity.

Members should be taking advantage of our international business development programs by getting in touch with Linda Spencer [www.sema.org/international] and her team. They should participate in our SEMA Business Development Programs (BDPs) we do during the year. These conferences allow you unprecedented, turnkey and well-organized access to developing or under-served markets. Additionally, Spencer’s team, working with our Washington, D.C., staff, offer intellectual property rights (IPR) protection information to help you plan and protect your valuable IPR. It’s one thing to export to other countries, but we want to make certain that our companies are exporting safely—with more IPR protection, not less.

We love to see our members leveraging their strong brand names and building U.S.-quality products for vehicle applications that are exclusively available overseas. We have many success stories of companies that have participated in SEMA BDPs, utilized SEMA Garage measuring sessions to develop products and are now selling products into these markets for vehicles that never hit our shores. Our American ingenuity, creativity and car culture carry a lot of clout globally and SEMA’s international team, SEMA Garage and our Washington office are here to help us so that we can thrive in those foreign markets.

Kawasaki has made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of the specialty-equipment industry. Here he is pictured with Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Political Affairs Director Brian Jack (right) following a meeting in the White House.

SN: Automotive technology seems to be advancing at an ever-increasing pace. Can you comment on some of the things the association is doing to help deal with disruptive technologies and, perhaps, to help companies identify opportunities that new technologies may bring?

WK: Technology is absolutely bringing about change at a faster pace. Information and education are key to understanding what is going to happen. It also helps companies clearly identify opportunities and challenges when developing new products and strategic business plans. During a Board of Directors planning meeting an initiative was introduced stating that SEMA is going to go out there and do the research so that we can get the resources and information specific to our industry directly to our members.

We’re looking at things such as lane- departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring. Those technologies are not just being forced upon the automakers but are actually being demanded by the consumers. There are millions of vehicles in our existing fleet that don’t have those technologies, so there are huge up-fit opportunities for some of our SEMA-member businesses. I think this will also be fuel to start a whole new set of companies within SEMA. Even for guys like me, who build tires and wheels for vintage automobiles, it’s really good for us to understand what’s coming in the future and better understand the timeline.

SN: As you know from your long-standing participation in the SEMA Political Action Committee (PAC), SEMA maintains an office in Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of the specialty-equipment industry. Can you share your perspective on current legislative/regulatory issues that might be on your radar at the moment?

WK: I’m a founding board member of the SEMA PAC. I feel that the PAC is strategically important to our future as an industry. We’ve got a lot of momentum right now and we’ve got a great story to tell in the Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports or RPM Act. Plus, we have an administration that is listening. That gives us an opportunity to speak with the authority of more than 7,000 member companies representing a $41-billion industry. I’d like every member to make your voice heard and join Doug Evans (PAC chair) and myself as a member of the SEMA PAC.

Additionally, you really need to go to the SEMA Washington Rally. It’s not intimidating; Steve McDonald and the SEMA Washington office have a well-oiled machine that allows you to experience Washington in a new light. You get complete briefings, and when you walk into a representative’s or senator’s office, they are anxious to hear your story. They want to know what we are doing and how it is affecting us at ground level. It’s a great opportunity to be able to tell our story, how many companies are in their area, how many employees that represents, and what the effects of the current legislation has on your business.

SN: You have been involved with the SEMA Data Co-op (SDC) since its early conceptual stages. In its first five years, the Co-op has grown to house nearly five million SKUs, with more than 68 million live vehicle applications. Where do you see the SDC in its next five years, and what effect will it have on our industry?

WK: Consumers are getting their information at the touch of a phone key now, and we have to be prepared to have accessible information about our products. Other industries are trying hard to gather up great data and market research. We have to make sure that we’re positioned just as well, so that we get our share of that discretionary dollar.

It is tough to determine where data is going, but I can tell you that there is probably nothing more business critical. Here at Coker Group, it is one of our top priorities—the collection of data, the aggregation of that data and how we leverage that data. There is nothing higher on our priority list than that, and it should be the same for all of our members.

SN: Connecting with non-enthusiast consumers has been a long-term strategic goal for the association for many years, even decades. What is your opinion of the progress made in this area, and where do you see additional opportunities for consumer outreach?

WK: That is, truly, a long-term goal for our association—to take a look at outreach opportunities to consumers. An event such as SEMA Ignited is a big step toward that goal.

Here we have this phenomenal property in Las Vegas where we have the coolest cars in the world gathered in one place. SEMA Ignited leverages the cars, excitement and technology, not only in person and on social media but also on TV. Battle of the Builders did a great job of being able to leverage that as well, and now I’m looking forward to what is going on with the Young Guns competition. I was just at the Street Machine Nationals [last July] in Minnesota, and I watched the Young Guns competition. The kids were telling great stories, and they’re energizing and exciting their friends with that passion. I just can’t wait to see how that is going to play out at the SEMA Show this year.

SN: What are you hearing from SEMA-member companies about their balance sheets for the first six months of 2017? What’s the vibe out there?

WK: Well, the companies I speak to are a little bit tentative right now, but they do have hopes that the Trump administration will be able to move Transportation (RPM Act)/Infrastructure (recreation-related), Health Care and Tax reform forward. These top priorities of President Trump would help our members by reducing regulations and increasing the freedom to enjoy outdoor activities while reducing the costs of health care and cutting taxes. During our Washington Rally event, I was able to meet in the White House’s West Wing with Brian Jack, special assistant to the president and deputy political affairs director, about all these topics. He asked me to stay in touch and keep him up-to-date as to how these initiatives are affecting our members.

Most of the CEOs I speak to are very optimistic for the second half of 2017 and the first half of 2018. I know there are folks out there who may think we’re always ready to slide into a recession at any time, but at least the SEMA members I’ve talked to aren’t so worried about that and see the far greater opportunities that lie ahead.

We must expand our markets both globally and here at home. We need to encourage the youth to catch our passion for motor vehicles. We also need to keep our members informed about the opportunities and challenges that advanced technology brings to both the vehicles we build products for, and our businesses. SEMA must listen first, so we can serve our industry efficiently and effectively to fulfill its mission in helping our members succeed and prosper. I am looking forward to working with each and every SEMA member, regardless of size or scope to forge that future.

Please feel free to contact me with your ideas, questions or concerns at wadek@sema.org.

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