Coker family sells tire business

Kawasaki leads group that buys Coker Tire and related businesses

Coker Group
photo Wade Kawasaki

Sixty years after Harold Coker started his tire business in Athens, Tennessee, the Coker family has sold the tire and antique wheel production business to the company's management team, backed by the private equity firm of Irving Place Capital.

Coker Group CEO Wade Kawasaki announced today that he is leading a management buyout of Coker Tire, Wheel Vintiques, Universal Vintage Tire, Phoenix Race Tires, Specialty Wheel and Roadster Wire Wheel brands.

The sale comes after five years of continuous growth for the Coker Group under Kawasaki, who Corky Coker brought to Chattanooga to run the company and who will remain at the helm of the business after the sale.

Coker Tire Company, Inc., based in Chattanooga, is the world's largest manufacturer and supplier of collector vehicle tires and motorcycle tires with distributors in more than 30 countries for such brands as Firestone, Michelin, U.S. Royal and BFGoodrich. In an announcement of the sale, Kawasaki said the Coker Group will continue to operate under the same leadership team and staff while expanding both its range of products and its portfolio of companies.

Corky Coker, the son of the company founder, the late Harold Coker, retired from the tire business in 2014 but he will continue to own and operate the Honest Charley Speed Shop and his property management company in Chattanooga with his children.

"I would like to thank Corky Coker for his decades of leadership at Coker Tire and for the confidence and trust he has placed in me as I have led the company and positioned it for the next chapter," Kawasaki said today in an announcement of the sale. "We intend to accelerate growth with our partners at Irving Place Capital as we expand into newer models and markets while continuing to serve the traditional restoration market that has been our home for six decades."

Corky's father, Harold Coker, founded Coker Tire in 1958 as a local tire store, which grew over the years until Corky took the reins and began aggressively expanding the product line to support the booming restoration market. The company grew its offerings to include the hot rod, muscle car, motorcycle, motorsports and import markets.

"After my retirement in 2014, the Coker Group flourished under the leadership of Wade and his team," Coker said. "Coker Group has been and will continue to be committed to our core vintage customer and I have full confidence that this next step will be terrific for the company and the employees. The collector car market is evolving, and with the current surge in interest in 1970s, 1980s and even 90s vehicles, no one is better suited to expand the company strategically than Wade, who has always had a deep appreciation for these vehicles."

photo Phil Carpenter

Irving Place Capital is an active investor in the consumer, industrial and packaging sectors, including the high-performance vehicle aftermarket through its ownership of Dynojet Research. Irving Place Capital Co-Managing Partner Phil Carpenter worked with aftermarket veteran Dan Gresham and Kawasaki on the transaction.

"We are excited to work with Wade and the Coker Group –this partnership positions the company for long-term growth both domestically and internationally," Carpenter said. "The Coker family built a brand and a portfolio of companies that are beloved by enthusiasts around the world. By partnering with Wade and his team we will together advance that legacy well into the future."

Lillian Coker, the co-founder of the company, said today "it is sad to see this part of my life come to a close" and the conclusion of a dream her husband, Harold, began in 1958.

"But as I thought about it, we all must come to a time of change and this change will be new ownership of Coker Tire," she said. "So it is my hope and prayer that those who carry Coker Tire Company into the future will be as blessed as we have been."

Lillian Coker said the key to the company's success over six decades has come in customer service.

"If you serve people well, profits will come," she said Harold once said. "If profit is your only motive, you won't do as well."

"May God bless those who carry it into the future," she added.