Mitch Williams may not be a familiar name to most of you, but he’s been a big player in the industry many years over, having run Hella Lighting for 16 years and even served as Chairman of the Board at SEMA. His expertise in running corporations has helped him in his current position at Pilot Automotive, which then led to the following successful acquisitions of DME, DC Sports, Racing Sports Akimoto and APC. This month, Mitch drops knowledge on what it takes to run the business-side of things.
1 Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell them what you do.
My name is Mitch Williams and I am the Chief Operating Officer of Pilot Automotive. I am also the Immediate Past Chairman of the Board of SEMA.
2 What is Pilot Automotive and how long has it been established?
Pilot Automotive is a group of Accessory and Performance companies and brands such as Pilot, Bully, Navigator, APC, Vehicle Performance Systems (VPS), Redline, Design Motorsports Engineering (DME), DC Sports, Racing Sports Akimoto, Dub- air and STYQs. The parent company of Pilot (Wang’s International) was established in 1983 and Pilot itself was established in 1996.
3 Lots of importer/distributors have opened and closed over the years. How did Pilot stay in business for over 25 years?
Pilot always takes a long-term view of the market, our customer relationships, our sub-suppliers, our employees and our business partners. Everything we do is guided by integrity, honesty, and doing the right thing for our customers, our employees and the company itself. We may sell very exciting accessories and performance products, but we are basically a conservative company. We take calculated risks, but we are not gamblers.
4 What are some of the differences between Pilot Automotive and other brands?
I think we have more diversity in our product lines and we strive for product innovation and speed-to-market at a fair price. We have something for everyone. With some brands we stand for offering a better product at a good price – this means value and consumers don’t forget value. With other brands (like DC Sports, Racing Sports Akimoto, and Dub-air), we stand for the ultimate quality and performance. With still other brands (like STYQs) we stand for high technology.
5 How did you get started and how long have you been involved in the auto industry?
My first real automotive job was running a gas station in Atlanta, Georgia in 1974. It was 50 hours a week, I was going to college full-time, playing college ice hockey, and wanted to go racing. I learned about cars by helping the technicians at the gas station. I took the first sales position that came along. I went to work for Hella, Inc. in 1985 as a Regional Sales Manager and within three years I was running the company as President & CEO for North America. Hella has about 100 companies around the world, and I was the youngest President (32) in the then 90-year history of Hella.
I ran Hella, Inc. for almost 20 years, but I felt the attention of the market swinging towards the Far East. It was pretty obvious that the whole Asian-Pacific area was going to be the next big thing in the automotive industry. I started traveling to China in 1991, only a couple of years after it opened up, and I also began learning as much as I could about Japanese Quality Systems. We had a Joint Venture with two world-class Japanese OEM Suppliers, and I learned a lot about Continual Improvement from that operation. I felt like Pilot Automotive was a company of the future – more about where the market is going than where the market has been – and I wanted to be part of that.
6 Can you get me a nice set of foglights?
I would like to get everybody a nice set of foglights!
7 What are some memorable projects that you have now or have previously worked on?
There are many. I worked at the 24 Hours of LeMans in Race Tech Support. I worked in Paris for part of 1980. I was involved with virtually every Porsche endurance racing team of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. I worked on so many Porsche 911s, 934s, 935s and 962s, that it was only a matter of time before I became a diehard Porsche enthusiast and I am. I have run the Baja 1000 which was a fantastic experience. I was involved in the DeLorean launch as a supplier.
I lived in a motorhome for a whole year as a factory tech rep. We received a quality award from Toyota. I drove with the first set of HID Headlamps in the world – and later we were the first to launch HID Driving Lamps for the Off-Road Market. I led two ISO 9000 quality certifications and just started another one. I’ve had breakfast with Carroll Shelby and met more famous race car drivers than I could count.
I met Paul Newman at Daytona when he was racing a Datsun 510. He stands out among all my racing memories – a great person and an excellent race car driver.
8 What are some of the fun things (perks) and not so fun things you have to do as the COO?
2008 is my 30th SEMA Show and everyone has been unlike the one before and more fun. Getting to drive really cool show vehicles is always alot of fun. Seeing new vehicles before they come out is always interesting. Hanging out with my many industry friends is also great fun. Being in the automotive performance industry is always a great reason to buy the next trick part for one of my cars.
The downside is that I hate firing people, but it comes with the territory. I will only fire someone when we have tried everything else and they simply don’t want to be part of the team. When someone loses their job, to a certain degree, the employee and the company have failed. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often.
9 For those readers that are not aware of SEMA, what is it and how are you associated with them?
SEMA is the largest automotive trade association in the world – about 7,000 members. SEMA’s mission is to preserve and protect the specialty equipment market for automotive enthusiasts and to help its member businesses to succeed worldwide. This is a big mission and includes all types of automotive enthusiasm from antique cars to sports cars to drag racing to off-roading.
SEMA is very active in legislative and regulatory issues (both from an educational and lobbying perspective). SEMA sponsors the Motorsports Caucus in Washington which is now one of the largest caucuses in Washington counting one in five members of Congress as a member. SEMA is also very active in the areas of vehicle technology and continuing education. The SEMA Show has become the largest specialty equipment trade show in the world. SEMA has eight councils which are sort of like mini-trade associations and are more focused on specific market segment issues. SEMA also has the SEMA Action Network, a group of about 7,000 car clubs comprising about 700,000 individual members. I have been on the SEMA Board of Directors for 12 years and was Chairman of the Board from 2005-2007.
10 What types of motorsports are you guys involved in?
It’s a little bit of everything. We have been involved in Off-Road Racing, Drifting, Road Racing and NHRA Drag Racing through our various brands and companies.
11 Do you have a golf cart?
Yes. a. If yes, is it modified?
Of course...23 mph. I know this because the police set up one of those remote radar trailers behind my house – I kept fooling around with the golf car until I could hit 23 mph. Most of them are only good for about 12 mph. But, 23 mph with a soft suspension and brakes on only one axle, can actually be pretty exciting.
12 How many vehicles do you have and what kind are they?
I have a Hummer H3, a Porsche 911 Carrera 2, a Porsche 911 GT3 and a BMW K1200S Superbike. I have a Toyota Tundra (4WD), a Toyota Sequoia (4WD) and a 600 HP Shelby GT500 Mustang.
13 Can I have one of your cars? Not the pine box one...
Actually, the rocket-powered Pinewood Drag Race Car we built might be the fastest car I own at least for about three seconds. It’s the first time I ever had to deal with thrust and burn times instead of horsepower! It goes…well…like a rocket.
14 What advice do you have for our readers that want to get into the auto industry?
Pick something you love to do and try to be the best at it. Whether you ever actually become the best at it is irrelevant…just by the effort you make, you will always be ahead of the pack. Demand continual improvement from yourself. The highest standards you have to meet should be your own. Make a plan. Set goals for yourself – very big goals…you’ll be surprised at how many of them you reach.
Get involved with SEMA! There are so many industry resources there and networking opportunities. My involvement with SEMA has been the best training I ever had for success in this industry. I’ve loved every job I ever had – and I didn’t get one of those jobs because of what I know – it was always who I knew. Having a good knowledge-base is a given these days – so concentrate on the networking. There are numerous industry icons involved with SEMA who will gladly share what they know with you and this becomes a shortcut in your career.
Find someone who is the very best at whatever it is you want to do. Talk to them, study them or write to them. Ask them for their advice. Ask them why they think they got to the top and why they are different, things like that. I predict you’ll get an answer and probably make a new friend along the way as well.
15 What upcoming trends do you see that are getting popular now?
Vehicles are becoming more and more complex – more like computers than like we traditionally think of as automobiles. This means we have to commit as an industry to becoming more knowledgeable in high-tech areas. Just being good with a wrench isn’t enough anymore. Continuing Education and Training are going to play a major part in our success as an industry going forward.
Small Car performance is going to experience a resurgence – maybe not back to the mid-1990s levels, but with high gas prices, insurance costs, the environmental concerns, and more, it is only a matter of time.
Green Performance is a term that we never heard of until a few years ago – but it will play a big part in our future automotive design and products.
16 What changes would you like to see in our industry?
Change is coming – whether we like it or not. We are very good at adapting to change, but I would like to see our industry get better at leading change. It’s too easy to hang on to something we are already doing because it works…but it might not work next year or the year after. In fact, I might even suggest that with the current rate of change, many of the things we do today – the things that got us here - will not work going forward. In other words, change our culture from reactive to proactive. I think SEMA will continue to play a very important role as the industry evolves and changes. This is a challenge, but one I am very confident that our industry will meet because we are the best industry I have ever seen at turning challenges into opportunities.
I drove with the first set of hid headlamps in the world - and later, we were the first to launch hid driving lamps for the official off-road market.
17 How will the economy and the gas prices affect our market?
Of course they will have some effect – our market is not recession-proof but it is recession-resistant. A true car enthusiast may make some minor adjustments in their spending, but they are not going to lose their passion for their car or truck. In a down economy, going to a fancy restaurant or buying a new refrigerator doesn’t really make you feel better – but buying some chrome wheels or a loud exhaust makes you feel better every time you walk out to your garage. Small car sales are the one bright spot in new car sales, which of course creates numerous opportunities for the aftermarket to then accessorize them and improve their performance.
If you watch TV, then you might believe that the automotive industry is going out of business – yet, we just held our second most successful SEMA Show ever. In terms of the Buyer Attendance, we set an all-time high in overall attendance, we had a long waiting list of new car dealers for our SEMA Dealer Day that introduced our industry to interested new car dealers, SEMA’s Intern Program had an all-time high participation from automotive students across the country, and we even had a record number of new products introduced at the Show.
I would never tell our industry that something can’t be done – because that is exactly when we go and prove that it can be done.
18 How is Pilot Automotive positioning itself in the current economy?
We believe in this economy. The strong will get stronger and the weak will get weaker, therefore this economy is actually an opportunity for us. We are one of the strong ones so we are more aggressive in our selling efforts. We are reducing expenses where we can, increasing our market visibility through shows and our advertising, increasing our visibility on the internet and developing stronger and closer working partnerships with our customers.
The bar is getting higher and higher in the market, so we know that we have to be better next month than we were this month.
19 What is the future outlook for the High Performance Industry?
It’s excellent – the future will look different from the past – but it’s still an excellent future. The automobile is so much a part of American culture, it can’t be separated from American culture – like Baseball, or James Dean, or Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley. Regardless of what we are driving in the future, as soon as everyone has one, then a niche develops that wants to improve what we are driving, make it perform better, make it look different, or stand out from the crowd. It has happened over and over in our industry, and it will keep happening. It’s human nature.
We are living in a great time. Opportunity is what you make of it. Just always be prepared, think ahead, continue to learn and enjoy what you do.
20 What is Pilot working on for future new products?
My favorite one is a new Vehicle Performance Analyzer we just developed called STYQs. It will tell you more about the performance of your car and your driving than any other product that’s on the market, including speed, horsepower, torque, acceleration, deceleration, lateral Gs, air flow, temperatures, air/fuel mixtures and a lot more. It’s definitely a game changer!
DC Sports, Racing Sports Akimoto, and Dub-air all represent the ultimate in performance brands and they all have numerous new products coming, so this will be a lot of fun in the coming months and years.
21 Any last words or shout-outs you would like to say to our readers?
Don’t take your automotive enthusiasm for granted. There are a lot of elected officials out there, who like to blame the automobile for many of the ills of society. The automobile is an easy target – but I would argue that it is also one of the main reasons the United States has became the largest economy in the world. There is a huge opportunity here for young people to get involved and influence the future directions that personal transportation will take.