A love for cars, trucks and SUVs is the motivating force behind the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). This trade association consists of a diverse group of manufacturers, distributors, retailers, publishing companies, auto restorers, street rod builders, restylers, car clubs, race teams and more.

SEMA members make, buy, sell and use all kinds of specialty parts and accessories to make vehicles more attractive, more unique, more convenient, faster, safer, more fun and even like-new again.

The companies that founded SEMA--and the entire specialty parts and accessories industry, for that matter--were started by people who loved cars and trucks and turned their hobby into a career. Most people in the industry today still feel this way. That’s one of the things that makes SEMA and its members unique.

Today, the nearly 40-year-old organization performs many services for its members and for the hobby as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, SEMA works hard to protect consumers’ rights to drive accessorized, customized and vintage vehicles. SEMA keeps close tabs on legislators in Washington, DC, and also in each state within the U.S., so SEMA members and anyone who loves cars and trucks can protest pending legislation that might harm our hobby, as well as endorse legislation that’s good for car lovers. SEMA also has helped numerous consumers interact with car dealers, who sometimes try to get away with charging for repairs on a modified vehicle by claiming (wrongly) that specialty accessories have voided its warranty.

Every year, SEMA also presents an enormous trade show in Las Vegas. This is where manufacturers unveil their latest offerings, while buyers, distributors and members of the press walk their feet off to see it all.

The variety is astonishing, from restyling accessories and automotive organizers to engine parts, restoration supplies, street rod components and safety enhancements.

SEMA History

It all began in 1963 when a group of small manufacturers who were suppliers of performance equipment for early hot rods organized their fledgling industry and called it "Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association" (SEMA).

The mission was practical and straightforward: develop uniform standards for certain products used in motorsports competition; promote the industry as a supplier to consumers involved in constructive activities of recreational and hobbyist value; develop programs to encourage improved business practices among member companies; and hold regular meetings to achieve unity as a business organization. In those days, all of the members were founders of companies that produced speed equipment exclusively (hence, the organization’s title).

At the outset, the pioneering companies operated free of the constraints that come from governmental regulations and their attending restrictions. They were as aggressive and progressive as their imaginations would allow, and the mostly small businesses flourished. Today, many of the original companies are very large, successful corporations, and some, such as Edelbrock, Ansen, B&M and Offenhauser, are known internationally for their product lines. Today, more than 40 years later, the small group of entrepreneurial operations has been joined by thousands of companies, designers, producers and suppliers of specialty products that span the gamut. From performance products for street and race applications to appearance accessories for late-model automobiles and light-duty trucks, SEMA-member companies contribute to the vitality and strength of a $29-billion-a-year retail industry.

SEMA eventually became the Specialty Equipment Market Association, embracing within its  ranks all businesses in the distribution chain: manufacturers, warehouse distributors, jobbers, independent retailers, volume retailers, specialty stores (speed shops), sales agents, subcontractors and publishing companies. The membership categories even include racing teams, car clubs and special service organizations. The SEMA membership roster has steadily grown and continues its upward climb. Today there are more than 5,700 corporate members. Products supplied by the industry are in demand not only in the U.S. but also throughout the world.

In the recent past, membership in SEMA has been increasingly important to businesses active in producing and/or marketing specialty and performance products. The founders in 1963 could not have imagined the eventual scope of SEMA as a guardian and leader in industry affairs. Since the introduction of California regulations in the 1960s, federal and state governments and regulatory agencies have proposed, introduced and promulgated a variety of restrictive measures. Although in they were sometimes introduced in the name of clean air and improved safety standards, the laws and regulations are too often overly broad in scope and fail to consider less obvious repercussions and detrimental effects on businesses.

So, in addition to its pursuit of new markets and helping to cultivate them, SEMA must simultaneously maintain a relentless "watchdog" posture on behalf of all industry sectors. The association has staffed up to do so, maintaining a government-affairs office in Washington, D.C., and offices in Tokyo, Japan, and in Mexico City to help association members in their pursuits of new markets abroad.

Said Christopher J. Kersting, SEMA president: "Working together as a coalition, members of SEMA have the benefit of proficient legal representation. It would at least border on being prohibitively expensive for a company to individually tackle the problems involved with legislation and regulations by governmental agencies, in particular those that cause hardship among small- to medium-size business entities. More than ever, membership in SEMA carries with it a benefit that far outweighs the annual fee paid by a company to be an active member."

SEMA's efforts and successes on behalf of its members in the legislative and regulatory arena are of critical importance, not only to the specialty and performance segment of the aftermarket, but also  to everyone in the industry,—hobbyists and motorsports participants included.

An overview of SEMA's role as a force in the aftermarket can't overlook the annual SEMA Show. From humble beginnings in the late '60s (about 100 booths at the first show), the SEMA Show has grown not only in size but in scope and international reach. Over the past few years, the SEMA Show to encompass more than 6,000 booths occupied by more than 1,900 exhibiting companies.

SEMA's services to member companies fill the full spectrum of unique and sometimes exclusive benefits, including attention to highly specialized segments of the industry. The council system within SEMA includes the Automotive Restoration Market Organization (ARMO), the Motorsport Parts Manufacturers Council (MPMC), the Manufacturers Rep Council (MRC), the Professional Restylers Organization (PRO), the Hot Rod Industry Alliance (HRIA), the Light Truck Accessory Alliance (LTAA), the Wheel Industry Council (WIC) and the Sport Compact Council (SCC) as well as the Young Executives Network (YEN) and the SEMA Businesswoman’s Network (SBN). The SEMA Show itself focuses on still more diverse markets, including individual sections for Racing & Performance, Wheel & Tire and Mobile Electronics.

The advent of specialized segments in the SEMA membership mix brings with it the need to monitor a wider range of proposed and pending legislative and regulatory issues. Old-car scrappage programs have obviously been of concern to collectors, and the ARMO section of SEMA has been at the forefront of efforts to assist states and municipalities with the design of acceptable collector and recycling programs. Instead of scrappage regulations, SEMA stresses the merits of inspection and maintenance programs, of importance not just to ARMO, but critical to general automotive parts and service sectors.

Old-car protection, specialty-vehicle registration, NHTSA regulations and other considerations have an impact on members of the Hot Rod Industry Alliance  (HRIA), a growing section of SEMA that has its roots in the organization's rich hot rodding heritage.

Restyling, as represented by the PRO section of SEMA, is an area of unprecedented growth. Pickup trucks and SUVs are included as targets in this market, which encompasses everything from ground effects to special trim packages and from interior alterations to sunroofs. In current lexicon, the movement is referenced as "personalization," and SEMA manufacturers and suppliers are again responsible for "ingenuity in action" in the design and development of products.

Of immediate value to SEMA members is the Research and Information Center in the headquarters office. The research center promptly responds to members' requests for market data and information on trends and anticipated developments worldwide. "It is a pacesetter achievement for our sector of the aftermarket," stated Jim Spoonhower, SEMA's VP of market research. "Use of the research center alone by some companies has more than offset their annual dues, emphasizing the value of membership in the organization." He said that the work done by the research center on the Mexico market is unmatched anywheree in the world. As a consequence, SEMA members preparing to export to Mexico are armed with research data that gives them a distinct edge over their competitors.

The educational services department at SEMA features a training center at the headquarters office. In addition, periodic live and web-based seminars are held on a variety of business- and operations-enhancement subjects. "So valued are some of the seminars that member companies send in representatives from distant locations to participate," according to Spoonhower, “and the Internet has provided an even broader and more easily achieved access to these valuable information sessions.”

Said Kersting in a recent statement: "The bottom line at SEMA, as it shall always be, is a combination of quality and service. The ingredients for a successful trade association are performing to the satisfaction of its member companies and accommodating industry growth and diversification. SEMA attempts to set the pace for others to follow. That's why our membership roles continue to increase in number."

Market data—sales and trend projections included—are critical in today's competitive arena. SEMA's trade journal, SEMA News, provides monthly updates and insights on business and consumer trends. Unlike the publications of most organizations, the monthly SEMA News is circulated throughout the aftermarket and is immediately archived online, reaching beyond the SEMA membership to keep key principals apprised of developments in the specialty and performance segments of the automotive industry.

As the complexion of the automotive specialty-equipment market changes, driven by consumer buying habits and trends, products offered by the SEMA constituency take on a new appeal and value.

Membership in SEMA today carries with it the prestige of a progressive trade organization that represents the most vibrantly dynamic sector of the global aftermarket—suppliers of specialty and performance products.