Ron Coleman was already a seasoned businessman when some people approached him about being part of a camshaft company. But as a savvy entrepreneur, he couldn’t help but scratch his head. “Of all things,” he wondered, “how many people need a camshaft? He figured not that many, “because every car that’s on the street right now already has one.”
A lesser entrepreneur might have ended the conversation and gone on his way. But Coleman realized there was more to it. “They said it wasn’t that kind of cam,” he says. “It’s not a need, it’s a want.” The argument was persuasive: They wanted to make cams that would get vehicles to perform in special ways, for speed, for power, for durability. As in, for example, racing. “An engine doesn’t really care whether it goes in a drag race car, an oval track car, a NASCAR,” he says. “It can go in a boat. It can go off-road. It can go anywhere you want it to. We have other industrial uses, but probably we’re most famous for our racing.”
A camshaft is the heart of the engine. “It’s probably the sole part that’s most important in giving you horsepower,” Coleman says. “We’ve taken a scientific approach. People have been working for years to make cams better. What we’ve been able to do is find ways or tools or properties to make them even better than the people who came before us.”
The group that made it happen was, he says, a small group of people. “We all brought a skill,” he says. “Not everybody brought all the skills. My skills sometimes were the least important and someone else’s the most important. It varied from day to day, week to week, year to year whose skills were most important. But you had to have people who could step up and handle the risk and the problems.”
Coleman built up those skills with his involvement in some 30 businesses over the years. Having helmed Competition Cams for 40 years, he understands how the engine of entrepreneurship runs. “You work together and you have to be a risk taker,” he says. “You have to be willing to be married to your business. A lot of people clock out at five and they leave everything there. You don’t clock out. To be a real entrepreneur you have to have the spirit, the commitment, and the support to get where you need to go.”
Coleman’s influences begin with his father, who he says wanted to start a business but World War II and the Korean War intervened, and by the time he could have done it, he had a family to support and couldn’t take the risk. He was a successful manager for a life insurance company and inspired his son.
For Coleman, the other people who shaped his success as an entrepreneur are on the other end of the spectrum: those who failed. “You learn more from people who fail, or from your own failures, than you do from the people who’ve been successful. If you observe and watch, you’ll see the seeds of destruction being sown in a lot of areas. You see if you can mitigate those and make yours not quite as risky.”
Inside Memphis Business: What kind of people do you look for?
Ron Coleman: We’ve never paid minimum wage for anybody coming into our business. We have a program where we try to take people who maybe didn’t finish high school but have some mechanical ability, and we try to train them and bring them along so that they’re able to step up in the world.
IMB: Where do you manufacture?
RC: For the most part, right here in Memphis. Some people say, “I didn’t know there were any manufacturers. This is a distribution point.” Well it is, but the truth is, there’s a lot of manufacturing that specializes and can be done here. We’ve moved a lot of our equipment from other places to Memphis and we find it to be a very hospitable place for that.
IMB: Why is Memphis a good place for entrepreneurs?
RC: What Memphis possibly has done differently than other cities is we’ve been maybe a little better at nurturing those people who had that kernel of an idea that needed to be encouraged to grow, because I think people everywhere have ideas but sometimes they don’t have the right community to help them. I think it’s got more to do with the community than it does simply with just being in one particular place.
IMB: What’s your most notable achievement?
RC: I’ve been able to pull up a lot of people as I went up. I’m very proud of the fact that there are people who may not have ever had an opportunity to be middle class or better in their life without the fact that I was successful enough to bring them up. If I can help bring two or three people up and those two or three can help bring two or three up, eventually we improve our whole community.
IMB: What’s the best cam there is?
RC: The best cam is the one that we’ll make tomorrow. We got the best there is today, but the best cams are going to be the ones we make tomorrow, the next day, or the day after that.