Christopher Sondles grew up with a father and a brother who shared his passion for restoring classic ’57 Chevrolets. Now he’s making a living with that boyhood hobby – and loving it.
The company he founded a decade ago, Woody’s Hot Rodz LLC, broke the $1 million mark for gross sales last year. It’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune, was named 2012 Pro Builder of the Year by Car Craft Magazine and made the covers of 12 national hot rod magazines.
“It’s been a fun ride,” said Sondles, who earned his BSBA in marketing at YSU in 1996. “Every day we get paid to do what a lot of guys do on weekends when they get home from their regular jobs.”
Sondles was born and raised in the Youngstown area, his father employed as an autoworker at the General Motors Lordstown Complex. For 30 years he built new Chevrolets by day and spent evenings refurbishing old ones with his two sons by his side. “I was about 13 when I started thinking that I could have a pretty good life if I could make a living doing what my dad did for a hobby,” Sondles said.
He was a high school sophomore when he had the opportunity to get some career advice from Harry Hibler, then publisher of Hot Rod Magazine. Hibler was in town covering the Hot Rod Super Nationals, a classic car show that drew thousands to the Mahoning Valley in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the Sondles family was there showing off their newly-restored ’57 Chevy station wagon.
The publisher advised Sondles to take speech, writing, marketing and business classes and to find work in the classic car industry as soon as possible. Sondles took his tips to heart. He went to work for a classic car parts distributor in Florida after high school and enrolled at a community college there. Later he landed a gig writing a monthly column for a hot rod magazine, and the income helped pay his way through school when he moved back home and finished his degree at YSU.
Eugene Sekares, a YSU marketing professor at the time, made a lifelong impression on Sondles with a slogan he scrawled on the blackboard at the start of every class. “Every day, he would write “Repetition Builds Reputation,” Sondles recalled. “Those words made such an impression on me – they have shaped all of my sales and guided my business.”
After graduating from YSU’s Williamson College of Business Administration, he accepted a position as promotions director for SoffSeal in Cincinnati, a maker of weather stripping and other trim for classic cars. Within six years he had advanced through the management ranks to executive vice president.
Sondles credits a former college roommate for giving him the financial backing and encouragement to start his own business in July 2003. He bought the first ’57 Chevy he restored from an old family friend named Woody – hence, the company name. And he drew on his writing expertise to help build the company’s national reputation – along with a customer base of celebrities with deep pockets – by writing a series of 65 technical columns for three major national hot rod magazines.
Headquartered in Bright, Ind., 25 minutes west of Cincinnati, Woody’s Hot Rodz started as a one-man classic car restoration company, with Sondles doing all the work. Now, it employs nine. Two years ago he added a new car division that sells brand new 1957 and 1955 Chevy replicas, complete with fully-warranted GM engines, as well as steel chassis and steel car bodies for do-it-yourselfers.
Sondles said the new ’57 and ’55 replicas sell for between $85,000 and $125,000, and the company sold 66 in its first two years. The new vehicle, chassis and body division has grown to comprise about half the company’s business, and overall sales are on track to surpass last year’s sales volume by 25 to 30 percent.
“My biggest fear at this point is not when we’ll sell the next car,” said Sondles. “I’m thinking ahead to what happens when we sell 100 cars a year. Our production has to keep up with that. It’s not how are we going to get the business, it’s what will we do with it all?”
Sondles, his wife, Faith, and his parents all live in Indiana now. His brother Todd, another YSU grad who earned his baccalaureate in engineering in 1992, also owns a business related to classic cars, a manufacturing company that makes LED lighting systems for old cars in Graham, N.C.
(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Spring 2013.)