Should Auto Trimmers Join SEMA PRO?

Published by Nadeem Muaddi on March 3rd, 2015

The Hog Ring - Auto Upholstery Community - SEMA Professional Restylers Organization

In recent months, there’s been some talk among members of The Hog Ring community about starting a professional association for auto trimmers that can help with legal and business matters within the industry, as well as preserve and strengthen the viability of our craft.

However, the point has also been raised that such an association may already exist in the form of the Professional Restylers Organization (PRO) — a SEMA council that, while not solely dedicated to the craft of auto upholstery, has opened its doors to us and shares many of our interests.

In fact, Nat Danas – late founder of the now-defunct National Association of Auto Trim Shops and Auto Trim and Restyling News – was instrumental in the founding of PRO. To this day, the SEMA council awards an annual Nat Danas Person of the Year Award and scholarship in his honor.

Despite these familiar roots, SEMA defines “restyling” as something very different than what we’re used to — lumping in audio and tint specialists, along with other aftermarket auto professionals, into the same category as auto upholstery. This has raised concerns among auto trimmers that PRO may not be focused enough on our craft to adequately address its needs.

Intrigued, we interviewed SEMA Public Relations Director Della Domingo to ask her to address these concerns:

1. There’s some talk within the auto upholstery industry about starting our own professional association. Is that necessary given that SEMA PRO aims to represent the interests of the restyling community — which SEMA defines as including the craft of auto upholstery?

Auto upholstery businesses will definitely benefit by being a part of the Professional Restylers Organization (PRO). With over 220 member companies, the PRO council is an influential group that addresses the business concerns of the restyling market – which, as you note, includes the auto upholstery industry.

In fact, many of the council’s current members are either directly involved with the auto upholstery market, or auto upholstery makes up a large percentage of their business.

Like all SEMA councils, PRO members work together to overcome industry challenges and collaborate to maximize opportunities within their market niche. SEMA councils tend to have greater success than groups operating independently because they have the added benefit of being able to utilize the association’s resources, such as legislative experts, automakers and group buying discounts.

2. The term “restylers” includes practically everyone in the aftermarket industry — from auto upholstery to audio installers and even those who tint windows and sell accessories. If we forgo starting our own association for joining SEMA PRO, how would we ensure that our craft isn’t lost in the shuffle?

Council members vote to determine who serves on the council’s select committee – The select committee is a small group of elected volunteers who’s job is to stay connected with the membership and advocate for programs and resources that best meet the members’ needs. In that sense, PRO initiatives are determined by its members.

As mentioned earlier, the auto upholstery market already has a strong presence in the council. However, the more auto upholstery companies there are on the council, the more their concerns will be addressed.

3. What explicit benefits do independent auto upholstery shops gain by joining SEMA PRO?

One example of an immediate benefit that new PRO members can begin utilizing is in regards to sales through dealerships. The council offers its members a comprehensive guidebook filled with valuable tips and best practices on how to establish and maintain successful dealer-direct sales and service. This is an area that many of our members have expressed interest in growing, and one in which offers great potential. The guidebook was introduced a few years ago and has been incredibly popular with the group. In fact, the manual was recently updated to be more current and relevant.

Another example of a PRO member benefit is the collateral materials that they can use to communicate with customers about aftermarket warranties. Warranty issues continue to be confusing for consumers. This confusion can lead to lost sales, so PRO has created collateral pieces that its members can distribute to customers. The pieces clearly explain the laws surrounding aftermarket warranties and help instill trust and confidence from consumers.

4. What successes can you point to that SEMA PRO has specifically accomplished for the auto upholstery community?

There are many significant programs that will benefit auto upholstery companies. One example has to do with OEM letters or service bulletins. Because SEMA has established relationships with OEMs and access to expert technicians, the association is able to help members navigate concerns in this area. PRO recently created an easy way for its members to tap into the association’s resources when they receive a service bulletin, thereby expediting any needed actions so that the potential impact on their businesses is kept to a minimum.

5. What are some issues / initiatives related to our industry that SEMA PRO is working on now that auto upholstery pros should be excited about and could help progress by joining?

As vehicles become more complex, it’s important that the industry maintains a high level of professionalism and expertise. One of the council’s priorities is establishing guidelines and best practices for seating and upholstery professionals. The group is working on developing a certification program attached to these best practices, so that employers can quickly and easily identify qualified workers, and consumers can feel confident and trust the service they receive.

6. What’s the process of registering for SEMA PRO? And how can one become an active, influential member?

It’s easy to get involved with PRO. Once a company joins SEMA, the company is able to add the PRO council on to their membership. As such, the company and all its employees are able to utilize all the resources and benefits of both the association and the council.

Members will also be able to participate in association and council events, which provide the best way for them to become actively involved. At networking events such as Town Hall meetings and council meetings, members can meet other members and voice their concerns.

It’s clear that PRO has the infrastructure, network and resources to address a lot of our industry’s business and legal needs. However, it’s not as focused on the preservation and promotion of our craft as many auto trimmers would like it to be. The question is, should we swell PRO’s ranks with auto trimmers who could help steer it towards our interests? Or should we start an entirely new organization to address our specific needs? Perhaps there’s room for both approaches?

What do you think? Tell us in the comments section below.

The Haartz Corporation

7 Responses

  1. Thanks, Nadeem, for writing this up in such detail. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought and effort into it.

    Indeed, one of the points that I have gathered in conversations with other auto upholsterers over the years is that SEMA focuses on restyling more than auto upholstery. I remember this being reflected in the articles we read in Auto Trim News when Nat Danas joined forces with SEMA and it became Auto Trim & Restyling News. There were more articles about ground effects, electronic accessories, etc. whereas before articles were mostly focused on cut and sew.

    That was about 30 years ago, and whatever feeling of being ‘left out’ remain among auto upholsterers can only be among the very few old guys like me (and the even fewer who actually read the magazine). There is a new generation that needs guidance, and we could all benefit from a trade association. As auto upholsterers, we could start our own, and if it somehow succeeded, it might be focused only on our unique skill set. But why reinvent the wheel? SEMA is a huge, well-managed organization. Imagine how much effort it would take to start and grow an auto upholsterers guild and keep it focused. Wouldn’t it be easier to hone a niche within an existing association?

    An even bigger problem that I see is one that I have often discussed with other auto upholsterers: Why don’t auto upholsterers see value in joining a trade association? We are the most mysterious of the automotive after-market service trades, and it is self-inflicted. Think about where you would go to get training on how to run a successful auto upholstery shop. Now think about where you would go to get training in how to run a successful auto repair shop or body shop. The mechanical and collision/repair trades have every kind of training, business consulting, buyers associations, etc. that one can think of. We have virtually nothing (except for The Hog Ring, thank you very much).

    Getting auto trimmers to put the time and effort into a trade association has always been a problem. Even when Nat Danas was working his butt off with NAATS. I’ve heard his stories, and I’ve talked to many other trimmers. I may change my theory (as I often do), but for now I think the reason it is so hard to get trimmers organized is that we have such a hard time keeping up with our own enterprises. If we only realized that being part of a trade association could make it easier and more profitable to run our businesses.

    The demand for auto upholstery and related services is huge. I take a sincere bow to Wyotech and the handful of vocational programs around the country, but we all know that an introductory training program can only take you so far. Once we’re out on our own, we struggle and flounder about trying to figure out how to make it work. Doesn’t it make sense for there to be a place where we can put out success and failure stories into a professional development association? Many trimmers have just closed their doors, sold everything off, and thrown the rest away with no one to pass all that knowledge onto. What a waste!

    So yes – I agree that would be good to have a look at SEMA PRO. We could do so much for this industry and for ourselves by getting organized.


  2. About the difference between restyling and auto upholstery . . .

    While customizing interiors, installing seat heaters, coolers, lumbar, etc. are indeed restyling jobs, there is one aspect of our craft that deserves recognition on the same level as automotive mechanics and body/collision. Interior restoration is what many shops do all day long. Restoring sagging headliners, repairing worn bolsters and other seat repairs, replacing damaged upholstery for insurance claims, these are jobs that we do to restore a vehicle’s interior to its original (or close to original) condition. Although not as glamorous as custom work, this is the kind of work that defines our craft. This is the ‘work in the trenches’ that let’s us see what the seat makers are up to and how to deal with new techniques, materials, and hardware.

    What else makes an auto upholsterer different from a restyler?


  3. As always, great points Jim. Thanks for your feedback.

    I completely agree that there’s a world of difference between auto upholstery and restyling. Whereas the former is an old world craft that takes years to learn and decades to master, the latter is an umbrella term for a range of trades and services within the aftermarket industry that are often far removed from what we do.

    Being lumped into the same category isn’t ideal, but the million-dollar question is: What are we going to do about it?

    I see 3 options:

    1. A group of future-minded auto upholsterers and suppliers collaborate to start and grow a craft association.

    2. We swell PRO’s ranks with auto upholsterers who help steer the council towards our interests.

    3. We do nothing.

    In a perfect world, we’d take up Option 1. In lieu of that, we take up Option 2. Sadly, we’re currently following Option 3, and we all know that’s not working so well.

    I couldn’t agree more, this problem is “self inflicted.” But based on discussions I’ve had with upholsterers on and off The Hog Ring, I believe most do see value in joining a craft association. However, just as you said, most are so busy running their shops and trying to make ends meet that they have no time to help start one.

    That’s why I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Option 2 is our best bet. It wouldn’t require as much of a time investment, plus we’d get immediate access to all of SEMA PRO’s resources.

    Like you said, “We could do so much for this industry and for ourselves by getting organized.”

  4. Yup . . . Option 3 seems to be the preferred choice for now. But we’ll keep working on it. Some things just take time.


  5. Retired… Nadeem If I Were Still In The Trim Industry Which Ive Been Retired For A Long Time But I Do My Best To Keep Up With The Problems Of Trimmers. The Main Goal Here Is To Have A Voice In Matters That Concern Auto Trimmers Not Body Kits Or Audio Or Tires And Wheels. You Need To Stay Updated On Fabrics And Vinyls And Leather And Machines And Threads Can You Imagine How Many Different Shades Of Tan There Are In Autombiles Of The Past 20 Years. Which None Of The Body People Or Window Tinter Or Audio Is Going To Care About. I Can See Going To SEMA Shows For Some Tips But Not All Because There Not Going To Be There. For Some Insurance Agents Close Dosent Cut It The Owner Wants It Just The Way It Is Suppose To Be. Which Leads Back To A Supplier Who Can Provide Original Fabrics Thread And Hardware. Then You Have To Consider 3d Printers And All The Benifits They Could Offer Shops If Done Legally. Theres A Host Of Things To Consider Here.Cusomizing Is One Thing But Originality Is Another Ball Game Completly. Can SEMA Offer All That Is Needed NAATS Seems Like A Beter Solution But Then There Must Be People To Run And Organize And Promote It And A Hoot Load Of Money From Good Ole Uncle Sam.

  6. All great points Edward. It makes me wonder why an upholstery supplier (or perhaps even a association of upholstery suppliers) hasn’t picked up where Nat Danas left off. After all, they’re the ones most privy to this information and it’s in their best interest to see upholstery shops flourish.

  7. Bruce Preston says:

    Still, takes some time to do so.

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