Business Autos

Overseas customers are buying a slice of California car culture

The sales folks at World Motorsports of Torrance, K&N Engineering Inc. of Riverside and Injen Technology Co. of Pomona knew how popular their performance enhancing products can be with buyers in the U.S.

What they didn't know was just how interested buyers would be in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China, Vietnam, and even Mongolia. Turns out those foreign buyers were very eager for some California car culture.

"China has become one of our fastest growing markets," said Kevin Floody, international business manager for K&N, which makes high-performance air intake kits, air filters, oil filters and more.

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Ed Rossi, vice president of sales for Injen, talked about hearing Ferraris and other high performance cars racing along Beijing streets at 3 a.m (when there is no gridlock) or seeing 1960s-era American muscle cars on streets in the Middle East.

"Other parts of the world are reliving what we have been doing in the U.S. for the past 40 or 50 years," said Rossi, whose company also makes high-performance air intake systems.

Rossi said international sales for his company have grown from just 2% to 3% of their business three years ago to almost 25% today.

For World Motorsports, which makes high-performance parts for Mercedes vehicles, the biggest overseas customer has been Saudi Arabia.

"It represents a huge market for us because Mercedes-Benz is so popular over there," said Craig Paisley, who works in business development for World Motorsports.

The catalyst for all this is twofold. First, the global recession and a big slowdown in U.S. sales forced California's custom car parts companies to look for buyers in new markets.

Second, the California-based Specialty Equipment Market Assn. (SEMA) was working with the U.S. Commerce Department to match up member companies with potential customers overseas.

SEMA represents members of the $30-billion aftermarket automotive industry. Most of its members are headquartered in California.

SEMA and the Commerce Department have teamed up to take representatives of some member businesses to the Middle East and China. The next such trip, to China, will be made this fall.

Just last week SEMA was awarded the President's "'E' Award for Export Service by the Commerce Department at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., for "making a significant contribution to the expansion of U.S. exports."

Partial sales figures show that quarterly sales in China and the Middle East by SEMA companies have more than quintupled so far to nearly $5.7 million in the first quarter of this year from just $917,000 in the first quarter of 2012.

SEMA thinks it is a growth pace that will continue.

Companies like Injen Technology now feel that the SEMA-sponsored trips to China and other countries are practically mandatory.

"If we don’t go back we are shooting ourselves in the foot," Rossi said. "Now we have to feed this thing we've started over there."

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