JEGS started out in borrowed space in gas stations. Today, it generates $200 million in annual revenue.
It employs 350 people and sells high-performance auto parts all over the world, but Jegs started 50 years ago all because a teenager wanted to make his car go faster.
Jeg Coughlin Sr. was just 17 when he souped up a 1936 Ford and began racing it at local tracks. After he’d had some success in the first few months, people started asking him to tweak their cars to go faster.
And so, Jegs was born in 1958, first operating in borrowed space in gas stations, then moving to a rented building on Bonham Avenue in Columbus. It had two employees and a novice owner.
“I taught myself. There were no books at that point,” Coughlin said.
Jegs closed when Coughlin Sr. left for France to fulfill Air National Guard duties. Upon his return, Jegs reopened in 1960 on 11th Avenue, a location that still serves as one of Jegs’ retail stores. In 1999, a 250,000-square-foot building that serves as the company headquarters was opened in Delaware.
At first, Jegs sold and installed products ordered in from far-flung manufacturers. Shipping delays and the problems they caused spurred Coughlin to stock items – and Jegs’ retail store was born. Within 15 years, Jegs was bringing in $25 million per year in sales.
Today, the Jegs empire speeds off in many directions, generating $200 million in annual revenue, according to company information. The company’s parts business, which serves hobbyists and the racing industry, includes the sprawling complex in Delaware that features a warehouse, two retail stores, a mail-order business and online sales.
“Over the years, this has been one of the finest things I’ve put together,” Coughlin Sr. said, in reference to the Jegs enterprise.
Racing also remains a key element, as the Jegs racing teams are populated with three generations of Coughlins.
Jeff Burk, editor and publisher of Drag Racing Online, an Internet magazine based in St. Louis, Mo., has known the Coughlin family for most of his 40 years in the industry.
“Jeg started out as a racer and started a speed shop to support his racing,” Burk said. “As the sport grew, the speed shop did, and it mushroomed into what you see today.”
Burk said Coughlin has always had the reputation of being a good racer and a straightforward businessman.
Today, Jegs is run by Coughlin’s four sons – Jeg Jr., John, Troy and Mike – who split time between racing and the parts business.
Between the store and the racing team, the Jegs name has become well-known in some circles, but it was just part of life for the four boys.
“It was a lifestyle and no big deal,” Jeg Jr. said, “but as I got older, my friends would say, ‘Your dad is the race-car driver.’”
Jeg Jr. started working summers at the store after eighth grade and has done a bit of everything since, from stocking shelves to writing advertisements and accounting.
“The four of us (sons) always wanted to learn the business,” Jeg Jr. said. “My dad and my mom had a freak-of-nature way of subliminally coaching their kids into adulthood and working together.”
The Coughlins aren’t the only ones who are passionate about cars and racing. Their customers helped the company weather the recession by squeezing their budgets in other areas to continue spending on an important hobby.
Sales have actually increased this year, as customers try to make their cars look better, run faster and perform more efficiently, said Terry McMullen, assistant manager at the Jegs store on 11th Avenue.
“It makes you feel better to go work on your car,” he said. “Someone might not make a house payment, but they’ll go race.”
Jegs did feel the sting of the recession, Jeg Jr. said, but recent sales figures suggest “better things to come.”
“We’ve only had a couple years out of 50 that growth was not positive,” he said.
The family-run company continues to grow, and as it does, its operations are expected to continue to expand. Work to double the size of the 12,000-square-foot 11th Avenue retail store won’t begin until 2011. McMullen said the Delaware location is becoming too small and most likely will be developed further.
“It’s a great problem to have,” McMullen said.
Even the Jegs catalog is growing. It lists only a third of the merchandise Jegs sells and would be too big to mail if everything was included. Every two months, an updated catalog is sent to 1.3 million people on the mailing list, McMullen said.
But like any business, Jegs faces competition.
“It’s a big industry, and we’re a piece of that,” Jeg Jr. said. “There are hundreds of competitors.”
Burk said Jegs and Summit Racing, based in Akron, are the “big dogs” of the aftermarket auto-parts business.
“Nobody knows who is better because they don’t talk about it,” Burk said.
Summit Racing officials declined to comment.
“They do exactly the same thing, but we’re more customer-oriented, that’s what our customers tell us,” McMullen said.
McMullen said people come from Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee for Jegs’ products. Jegs also supplies other stores such as Advance Auto Parts and AutoZone.
John Holt, owner of John Holt Race Cars, has long been a customer of Jegs. He first started buying from them in 1967, but he increased his purchases after 1978 when his business of building drag racers began.
John Holt Race Cars moved to its current 17th Avenue location in 1995, and the proximity to Jegs’ 11th Avenue location tightened their relationship.
“They take care of us with pricing and keeping items in stock because we’re a big buyer,” Holt said. When in need of something that’s difficult to find, Jegs “will bend over backward to get us the part.”
The nature of the business means the Coughlins see some of their customers at races they attend or compete in. For Jeg Jr., that’s one of the best parts of the job and something that’s likely to continue.
“With our third generation,” he said, “we’ll see the business go beyond my lifespan.”