5 Minutes With Jesse Greening
Like many car builders, Jesse Greening inherited an interest in hot rods from his father, Jeff. The two of them worked on and built cars as a hobby and part-time business while Jesse was growing up in central Michigan, and then ventured south in the late-’90s to start Greening Auto Company – a name borrowed from a Buick and Oldsmobile dealership once owned by Jesse’s great-grandfather.
The Greenings made their mark early, earning a Ridler Award for one of their first builds, a ’33 Ford built with upholstery maestro Paul Atkins. The Cullman, Alabama-based shop has been on an upward trajectory ever since, with a long line of attention-grabbing and award-winning rides, including a second Ridler Award winner and multiple Top 12 honors from Goodguys. Jesse even received the Goodguys Trendsetter Award back in 2006. The business has diversified by offering CNC-machined parts and wheels, a service that includes designing and building many custom components for other top shops around the country.
We caught up with Jesse recently to discuss his influences, business philosophy, road trips, and perspective on the hobby.
Goodguys Gazette: What car builders did you admire growing up?
Jesse Greening: Boyd, Pete & Jake’s, Alloway – all those guys. Getting to meet some of those guys after we got started was pretty cool.
GG: When did you know you wanted to build cars for a living?
Greening: I was probably in my second year in college, living next door to home in Michigan. Dad was hauling milk; he owned his own route. He had an opportunity to grow the route, which would have meant me joining the business. Or he could sell the route. We’d been working on cars out back in the garage my whole life. He said, “what do you want to do?” It didn’t take me long. I said, “I want to work on cars.” It was kind of a no-brainer for me. He ended up selling the route and we moved south.
GG: What was the best business advice you received after opening the shop?
Greening: Do your best to keep yourself cash heavy. It helps you prepare. That’s pretty universal, no matter what business you’re in.
GG: One of your shop’s first builds won the Ridler Award in 2000. Was it hard to live up to expectations after such a big win right away?
Greening: That was actually pretty stressful. You had all this excitement of going in and winning an award like that, and then you’re like, “oh gosh, now we’ve got to maintain this!” It’s self-imposed pressure. I followed through with what Dad always taught me – just keep your nose down and work your ass off.
GG: What early successes reinforced that you could do this long-term?
Greening: The equipment was the big thing. When we were finally able to get some CNC equipment and I was able to make some of my own parts. That was a milestone. That opened a lot of doors and broadened the horizon.
GG: What percentage of the business is machining parts versus car building now?
Greening: We’re probably 60/40 right now – 60-percent car building, 40-percent parts. I keep trying to nudge it the other way, and I’m my own worst enemy at that. I still love doing the cars. Somebody will approach me with something new and exciting and next thing I know we’re still at that same percentage. But that keeps the passion in there.
GG: You build a lot of parts for other shops – shops that might compete against you for prestigious awards. Does that feel odd?
Greening: It’s actually something I’m very proud of. Some of the notable cars I’ve built parts for that I’ve gone up against, they’ve won. And that’s a good feeling, too, because I had a hand in that. That’s one thing I’ve always felt good about with our hobby – I feel like every time I haven’t won a notable award I was trying for, I’ve lost to something I should have lost to.
GG: What have been your shop’s keys to success?
Greening: Working hard and staying humble.
GG: What is your favorite part of a build project?
Greening: Probably laying out the plan in the beginning. And then when it’s seen for the first time, to see others’ reactions. We don’t have that luxury because we’ve been looking at it for so long.
GG: You and your father have done a lot of road tours, both Goodguys and others. What’s your favorite part about road trips?
Greening: It’s the camaraderie with the people. And testing your own abilities. We’re putting all these components together. You plan it, execute it, and then go out and test it, so that’s the fun part. We’ve learned a ton.
GG: What’s Next for Greening Auto Company?
Greening: We just moved into a new building, which is substantially larger. We built it from scratch, and I acted as general contractor, which let me have control. What’s on the horizon for us is growth, trying to get that percentage up on the machining side of the business. We’d also like to focus on building more cars for ourselves to test, tune, use, sell.
GG: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in hot rodding in recent years?
Greening: The use of them. People are using them more – they’re not just showing them. I think that’s a big positive.
GG: What trends would you like to see in hot rodding?
Greening: I’m still a big fan of hot rods – ’30s and ’40s cars. I would like to see those cars coming back. I think I would like to see a little bit of a trend and an appreciation back to that era. I know some builders doing some really cool stuff with a few of them, so hopefully that will help boost the number of them we see.