For many years one of the nation’s most successful hubcap retailers had a very bumpy ride. Today Jane Withers, aka Hub Cap Annie, is rolling along with no potholes in sight. But her true story reads like pulp fiction with more ups and downs than a seesaw.
A well-read, college-educated nurse and top pharmaceutical salesperson, Withers turned to drugs, alcohol and crime, finally hitting rock bottom before pulling herself up and turning her life around. Now a successful business owner and community leader, she currently has more than 80,000 hubcaps in her inventory. A lot of Withers’ success comes from working with local insurance companies and her many community and business connections. Founding president of the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Withers was appointed to the Governor’s Economic Development Council and the Denver Chamber of Commerce Leadership Roundtable.
What made her a success? Withers says, half joking, that fear of slipping into her past addictions was her greatest motivator. But the success of her hubcap business goes beyond that. Withers is never satisfied with status quo. “I need to try something different all the time,” she says. “I’m now taking Internet classes so I can expand the business.”
Withers turned to hubcaps in 1982. She was the top salesperson at Wyeth Laboratories in Arkansas when they asked her sell amphetamines. Afraid of slipping into her past drug addiction, she took the advice of a co-worker and bought into a hubcap franchise for $8,000. She borrowed money for capital from a cookie millionaire, an elderly friend in Florida, and a pediatrician because the banks turned her down. So with about $12,000, a U-Haul truck filled with hubcaps, and a dream of making a new life, Withers headed out to Denver to make her fortune in hubcaps.
It was hard for a single woman with no friends in the area to get going. Withers used to visit local junkyards to find the best hubcaps. “I’d go to the salvage yard, pop the hubcaps off the wheels, get dog poop in my hair, and gouge my legs from the wires that held together the hubcaps. I’d think to myself, ‘I have two college degrees and I’m doing this?'”
But her determination soon paid off. The business began booming and Withers became well known in the community. Determined to make even more money, she began buying stolen hubcaps. “I quit smoking, drinking and doing drugs, but I didn’t do the work that was required to fix the inside of me to stop all these compulsions,” she says of her mistake. “I traded one addiction for another.” A police sting operation led to her arrest and bad publicity. To avoid a prison sentence, Withers took a plea bargain. Her store was closed and she was back to ground zero. “It was all very humbling,” she says.
But she refused to give up. “I had to make it happen,” she says. With the support of some locals (not everyone was supportive), she slowly rebuilt her business. She started going to Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy. She began working with the community and as part of her comeback was invited to travel to Mexico City with the mayor to investigate business opportunities. She bought a building that used to be an old Hudson dealership in the ’40s, and it’s been uphill from there. “I finally have a healthy business, now that I have a healthy mind,” says Withers.
Her new motivation – to stay clean and stay ethical – led her to fresh thoughts about how to run the business. “The most important business lessons I’ve learned are to be ethical, treat all your customers with courtesy, and be ‘up’ for your employees,” she explains. “Before I didn’t realize that when I was down, my employees would get down. Now if I’m worried or in a bad mood, I get away from the store and confide in friends outside my business.”
The road ahead for Hub Cap Annie looks newly paved. Withers now owns the name Hub Cap Annie in 22 states, in case she wants to franchise. She was invited to join an International Women’s Forum, a panel of distinguished stateswomen including Pat Schroeder and Sandra Day O’Connor, and she’s taking computer courses so she can expand her business over the Internet. Just to make sure there are fewer potholes ahead, Withers recently joined the Colorado Speakers Association to polish her speaking skills and is thinking about writing a book. Who says you can’t change your life?