Give Joe Labon a vehicle — a Ferrari or a Mercedes-Benz passenger van or even an old Chevy Caprice — and he'll find a way to soup it up, trick it out or simply make it more fun to drive.
He loves cars. Always has. When he was 15 years old, a buddy asked him to install a stereo system into a Chevy S10 pickup truck. The project went so well that the other kids at Springstead High School asked for help with their own cars, and Labon started a small business out of his parents' driveway and garage in Spring Hill.
Over the last decade and a half, Labon has built an ambitious Orlando-based company called Ultimate Auto, and his core clientele has shifted from a bunch of Hernando County teenagers earning minimum wage to some of the most recognizable athletes in the United States. Ken Griffey Jr., Dwight Howard and Vince Carter have sent multiple cars to Labon's shop, and up to 90 percent of last season's Orlando Magic players also have been customers.
"It's amazing," Magic guard Jameer Nelson says. "I can give him a car and say, 'Joe, make it look good.' And, automatically, he knows exactly what I want."
But having so many pro athletes as customers has left Labon vulnerable in a way he didn't envision years ago.
The ongoing NBA lockout, now three months old and counting, has curtailed business. With the stagnant economy already close to another recession, the lockout presents another obstacle for Labon and his 30 full-time employees.
Most established superstars have enough money in the bank to afford custom-car projects. Yet some of the more risk-averse players stopped spending early last season as the lockout and the specter of lost paychecks already was looming on the horizon. Others began curbing their spending toward the end of last season.
"Pretty much all of them tell me that they'll be surprised if they play this season, which will not be good for me," Labon says. "A couple of months? Most of them can survive that. But a season? There's going to be a lot of guys who are going to be hurting."
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The one-two punch of the reeling economy and the lockout has arrived at the moment Labon is expanding his business. Ultimate Auto recently relocated to the old McNamara Pontiac-Isuzu dealership at the intersection of West Colonial Drive and North Orange Blossom Trail.
At 50,000 square feet, the facility is so spacious that Labon and his employees now can do under one roof any kind of custom work a client wants. That includes relatively simple jobs such as installing a new sound system, adding a new coat of paint or outfitting a car with new wheels and tires. But the workers also can supercharge an engine or radically transform a vehicle's body and interior.
"Joe Labon is to customizing cars as what Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were to basketball," says former Magic player and current Magic community ambassador Nick Anderson, who has sent at least 10 cars to Labon's shop since 1996.
"The guy, he's got 'it.' I'll just put it plain and simple: He has the magic touch."
Former Magic forward Rashard Lewis also loves Labon's work. Lewis recently sent his dark-violet Dodge Challenger SRT8 to Ultimate Auto. Lewis wanted tires that measure 24 inches in diameter and 15 inches in width. But to accommodate those abnormally large tires, the body of the car needs to be widened.
To do that, Labon's employees are spreading clay on the car's existing panels and are shaping that clay to replicate a Dodge Challenger's shape. In essence, they are widening the car from the front fender to the rear fender. Moldings will be created around the clay, and those moldings will be used to form new fiberglass or carbon-fiber panels.
Labon would not disclose the cost of that project.
Equally intricate is the work he does with Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, which can seat up to 12 people when the vans leave a dealership.
The Ultimate Auto crew is working on a lavish van assignment for a customer Labon would not name.
The customer wants the van's bench seating ripped out and new seats put in to fit up to 16 total people, including the driver.
The project will cost $75,000 in labor and materials on top of the $50,000 the customer already spent at a Mercedes dealership. But when it's finished, the van will have a high-definition television, hardwood floors, Internet access, satellite TV, a refrigerator, a microwave oven and a top-notch sound system.
Exotic cars like Ferraris create additional challenges for Labon's workmen.
If a client wants extensive custom work done to a Ferrari, the crew often has to disassemble the entire vehicle and, eventually, put it back together. It's complicated — so complicated that it would take up to four times longer to complete work on a Ferrari than it would to produce a similar result for a Chevy Camaro.
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But Labon, a 38-year-old married father of one, doesn't shy away from complex challenges.
He never has.
When Labon was a 15-year-old high-school student, a buddy named Rich Roach received some stereo equipment from a relative, but Roach didn't have the money or the expertise to get it professionally installed into his pickup truck.
So he turned to Labon, because Labon understood electronics.
Labon gutted the dashboard, installed the radio and CD system, put in a speaker above the radio, placed speakers in the doors and built a custom speaker box and an amplifier behind the seats.
Everything worked perfectly.
And although he didn't know it then, Labon had found his calling.
He moved to Orlando with hardly any money when he was 21 years old. He found a job at a store called Ultimate Audio and, a few years later, bought out the owner.
In the years since, the company has expanded its services to do much more than install sound systems, prompting Labon to rename the company Ultimate Auto.
"He's truly come from zero," Roach says.
Ray Forsythe, a former UCF offensive lineman who played briefly for the Cincinnati Bengals, knows Labon well. Forsythe worked as the general sales manager at two Orlando-area car dealerships and often recommended Labon's shop.
Forsythe marvels that Labon has an uncanny ability to visualize the finished product.
"I used to nickname him 'Albert Einstein' because you'd see his eyes light up when you explained what the client wants," Forsythe recalls.
Labon usually responds with three simple words: "I got it."
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About a year ago, Labon decided his business needed a much larger facility or needed to scale back. The stores he had, one on South Orange Blossom Trail and another in Ocala, just didn't have enough room to handle all the work.
Labon chose to expand. He selected the vacant building once occupied by McNamara Pontiac-Isuzu.
That building, which looks old and outdated on the outside, now houses some of the coolest vehicles in Central Florida. On a recent day, there were 30 on the shop floor, including a Ferrari, a Range Rover, two Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans and a BMW.
Most had Florida license plates. Others had Alabama, California and New York plates and eventually will be shipped hundreds of miles to their owners.
Labon estimated that 16 of the 30 cars belonged to current and former players from Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA.
Labon, a low-key guy with glasses, looks like he could be somebody's accountant.
He doesn't do much advertising — at least not yet. He relies on word of mouth.
"Because of their age and their lifestyle, cars are Priority One for a lot of those guys," Labon says. "They like their toys, and that's the one toy they like. They're always wanting something new."
Especially in the midst of a season.
The players, coaches and athletic-training staff all park their cars in the same garage inside Amway Center. Since they park in adjacent spaces, players see teammates' latest Labon-customized rides — from Gilbert Arenas' mammoth van to Nelson's pride and joy, a late-1980s Caprice.
Nelson loves to hang out at Ultimate Auto just to see what other people have done to their cars, SUVs and trucks. He also considers Labon a personal friend.
But Nelson is realistic about how the lockout could affect Labon's business. If there are no games, there will be no paychecks. And if there are no paychecks, there will be less discretionary spending.
"You have to protect yourself and cut back on some of the things that you were doing," Nelson says. "Everybody likes a nice car. But with the lockout, can you wait to make your car nicer? Yeah, you can wait. Some guys should wait."
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