April 04, 1983 12:00 PM

When it comes to wheeling and dealing, you’ve got to take off your hubcap to Nancy Utley, 50. Then again, if you take it off, Nancy will peddle it for a tidy profit. Hub Cap Annie, she calls herself, and with that moniker and a shrewd business sense, she has parlayed a hobby into a used hubcap chain of 36 franchises that expects to gross about $6 million next year.

Annie comes from the build-a-better-mousetrap tradition. Four years ago she was your everyday housewife with four kids and selling real estate on the side in Memphis. Then her husband, George, a police captain, began bringing home hubcaps that he found on the roadsides. Annie was struck by the “artistry” of the caps. “People,” she says, “don’t recognize the originality and craftsmanship that goes into each one.” Soon Annie was building her own discography, shining up the hubcaps and using them as ashtrays, hors d’oeuvres platters, wall hangings, clocks and candy dishes. She and George even built a head-board for their bed out of rare hubcaps and the plastic grille of a 1980 Ford.

As with many hobbyists, Annie’s collection became a near obsession. One day she asked herself, “What can I do that nobody else does? Put hubcaps back where they belong. There’s a need for it, and it’s as easy as chicken pickin’ up corn.” In May 1981 she opened a store and began stocking up . on inventory. One night she and George staked out a nasty pothole in Memphis that proved to be a chrome mine. They collected 83 hubcaps and were off and rolling. She now buys them by the truckload from salvage yards, paying by the pound. She will even wade knee-deep in junkyard mud, poking through weeds and wrecked cars for her products. “Going to a junkyard to me,” she says, “is like other folks going to an antique store.”

Thanks to the crumbling state of America’s highways, there is a thriving market everywhere for replacement hubcaps, so it was no trouble at all for Annie to build her empire with the cooperation of like-minded entrepreneurs, whose franchises now stretch from Florida to Denver. Annie sells franchises for $20,000 a throw, plus 5 percent of gross sales. In Memphis she operates two shops, with the help of George—who is now retired—as well as the children and her mother. Five brothers and sisters and a clutch of cousins are also involved in the business. The Memphis outlets take in about $40,000 a month. Annie’s take-home pay from these stores and the franchises is $7,000 a month; the rest of the money goes back into the business. The profit on a single hubcap runs from 20 percent to 10,000 percent, depending, of course, on demand, and there’s plenty of that. People, explains Annie, lose their hubcaps because they don’t know how to put them on. “Most use their fists or shoes. They should straighten out the clips on the cover, center it on the wheel and tap it with a rubber mallet. That’s why rubber mallets were made.”

Hustling hubcaps may not be everybody’s idea of a challenging profession, but it is clear to Annie that it’s simply a matter of different spokes for different folks. “It’s the most fascinating business in the world,” she says. “It’s an occupation that has no rhyme or reason. But as the man said, ‘Find a need and fill it,’ and I did. In America, the dream is still possible.”

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