Cover Story

MTD's 2015 Tire Dealer of the Year Ricky Benton: ‘It’s all good’

Consumers demand options, and Ricky Benton says there’s a place for Tier 1 tires as well as Tier 4 tires. “You’ve got to have all facets of the business. You need all price points to be successful.”

Consumers demand options, and Ricky Benton says there’s a place for Tier 1 tires as well as Tier 4 tires. “You’ve got to have all facets of the business. You need all price points to be successful.”

Ricky Benton knew he wanted to be his own boss. Growing up on a farm, he was accustomed to a hard day’s work. By the time he graduated from West Columbus High School in 1973, he had cashed paychecks from a sewing factory, a tire retread shop and a plywood mill.

Married while still a junior in high school, Benton built a home for his bride Dianne next door to his parents’ home in Cerro Gordo, N.C. By the time he was 21, the Bentons opened a service station and operated Cego Service Center as a team, selling fuel, servicing automobiles and repairing tires in what was then a town of about 300 people.

When they opened the doors to that service station in 1976, they had two young sons: Ricky Jr. (who goes by Rick) was 4 and Ryan was 11 months old. The baby of the family, Jeremy, didn’t come along until a few years later. The boys grew up alongside their parents at work.

“We did anything to make a living,” Benton says. Dianne pumped gas while he changed tires. He washed the exterior of cars and she cleaned the interior. He took off tires, she put them back on. He eventually bought a wrecker, and when he’d pick up a car at night, she’d roll out of bed to help him unhitch it so he could hit the road again.

This original Black’s Tire store remains in operation in Whiteville, N.C. The company’s founder, W. Crowell Black, is pictured at the far right in this photo from the 1950s.
This original Black’s Tire store remains in operation in Whiteville, N.C. The company’s founder, W. Crowell Black, is pictured at the far right in this photo from the 1950s.
Benton has maintained that do-anything attitude throughout his career, and as owner and president of Black’s Tire Service Inc., he expects the same from the 525 people he employs.

Benton and the Black’s Tire family are delivering on those expectations. Black’s Tire has grown from a single store in 1981 when Benton joined the company to eight stores in 1996 when he purchased the business to the current 36 retail/commercial outlets in North and South Carolina. In addition to those retail stores, which sell everything from wheelbarrow tires to off-the-road tires, he’s also added tire wholesaling, retreading, equipment distribution and racing to the business portfolio.

This jack-of-all-trades is Modern Tire Dealer’s 2015 Tire Dealer of the Year.

A hands-on, accessible leader

While operating his hometown service station, Benton bought oil from W. Crowell Black, the founder and namesake of Black’s Tire 14 miles to the east in Whiteville, N.C. Eventually Black and his son, W. Donald “Buddy” Black, lured Benton to work for them in the tire business.

Ricky Benton has retired the ruffled shirt, bow tie and jacket of his teen years, and prefers jeans and a polo shirt.
Ricky Benton has retired the ruffled shirt, bow tie and jacket of his teen years, and prefers jeans and a polo shirt.
“When I was at the station, Mr. Black had a bunch of stations, but I did better than everyone else. I paid my bills on time,” Benton says. “The thing about it is you don’t have to be the biggest. You’ve just got to try to be the best. And the best is completely by service.”

Benton believes service and his work ethic set him apart in 1981 when he went to work at the original Black’s Tire store. He believes those traits are what count in business today.

Dianne Benton says her husband “always had that desire to succeed and work really hard to make sure it does succeed.”

Benton is not a typical executive. He wears blue jeans and a polo shirt to work most days and rarely spends time sitting behind a desk. He prefers to be in the shop, or in his pickup on the road to visit a shop. Even though his smartphone is never out of reach — except when he goes to church — he still prefers to write notes on his hand. He doesn’t like to type. And employees say if he rolls up to a store on a busy day, he’ll have his hands dirty in a matter of minutes.

Black’s Tire operates 36 retail and commercial stores, including this shop on Bordeaux Park Drive in Fayetteville, N.C. Manager Mike King says when owner Ricky Benton walks in the door, he tells customers he’s King’s helper for the day.
Black’s Tire operates 36 retail and commercial stores, including this shop on Bordeaux Park Drive in Fayetteville, N.C. Manager Mike King says when owner Ricky Benton walks in the door, he tells customers he’s King’s helper for the day.
Jonathan Ransom manages one of the company’s busiest stores on the south side of Fayetteville, N.C. The Gillespie Street location offers both passenger and commercial service, with about 75% of the business being commercial work. With so many big rigs on site, truck tire changes often are done on an outdoor pad.

During a busy day one of the store’s new hires noticed a man he didn’t recognize changing a truck tire on that outdoor pad. He told Ransom, who peeked outside the door. “That’s the guy who signs your check. I think he’s just helping out.”

There’s a sense of urgency in everything Benton does. Just as he won’t stand by and watch a customer wait for the next technician if he can do the job himself, Benton is not one to delay an improvement in the shop that makes the workers more efficient, says Ransom.

Some Black’s Tire dealerships are trying a new approach to showroom tire displays, arranging the tires by application rather than brand.
Some Black’s Tire dealerships are trying a new approach to showroom tire displays, arranging the tires by application rather than brand.

It’s not uncommon for Ransom to arrive at work in the morning and have trucks backed up onto the street needing a repair. The congestion can continue throughout the day, so one day he, Benton and Keith Noble, the regional retail manager, stood in the parking lot to try to find a solution. There was room to add a second pad on the side of the building. Three days later a cement truck was on site.

“I can see how he’s invested back into the store, (whether) it’s space, equipment, service trucks, anything that we need,” Ransom says. “I could go on and on about the stuff that’s been added on to this location since I’ve been here. He’s making it more functional.

“He wants us to utilize what we have and take care of it, of course, but if there’s a need to get the business, and not just get the business but service the business, we get it. We can have every business in town, but if we can’t service them they’re not going to be happy. And I think that’s why we get the equipment that we have. We don’t want to have a guy come in and buy new tires and have a vibration because we can’t balance them properly.”

This is a store where those investments clearly are paying off. Ransom says the business “probably does four to five times more than it did, maybe six times more than what it did eight years ago,” when Black’s Tire acquired the shop from Briggs & Sons Tire. The growth has come despite another dealer opening a store down the street.

Black’s Tire rallies its employees with yearly slogans, but this message is constant, and it adorns the front door of every store.
Black’s Tire rallies its employees with yearly slogans, but this message is constant, and it adorns the front door of every store.

Making winners out of losers

If television needed another reality makeover show, Benton and Black’s Tire would offer plenty of good lessons. Of the 36 stores in North and South Carolina, the company has built only one from the ground up, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The other 35 locations have come from acquisitions or buildings Benton has bought and renovated.

“Most of the time I try to take losers and make them a winner,” Benton says.

Turning losers into winners means there’s no uniform design or size or layout for a Black’s Tire store. Some are big, some are small. One of the newest stores is in Loris, S.C., and it occupies a former Chrysler dealership. Its showroom is at least twice as large as other Black’s Tire stores.

Larry Hewett is a retired school administrator who now works for Black’s Tire taking photos and helping with public relations efforts. He remembers walking into the defunct car dealership with Benton. “The store looked real junky. But it’s a beautiful facility now.

“The way he can walk into a place and look at it and see in his eye what it needs to be, where he’s going to put this and that — it just blows my mind how he’s able to do that.”

Others talk about Benton’s eye for detail. He can drop in a store and immediately spot a problem or inefficiency. In a Fayetteville store he rerouted the traffic flow from the shop to the service writer to the front counter by cutting a new doorway through a solid block wall and moving the break room. He’s known for moving equipment in the shop and re-arranging the front counter. In every instance, employees say the moves have made their jobs easier.

The BTS Academy, the dealership’s training center, was built in 2014. It’s the focus of Ricky Benton’s philosophy that a company must invest in and train its people. Benton calls it “the best thing our company has ever done.”
The BTS Academy, the dealership’s training center, was built in 2014. It’s the focus of Ricky Benton’s philosophy that a company must invest in and train its people. Benton calls it “the best thing our company has ever done.”

Despite stores that aren’t cut from a cookie cutter, Black’s Tire stores still have a look. Blue and gold paint are the standard on the outside, while the inside look is focused on the counter, which is wrapped in shiny sheets of metal. When the floors need replaced they’re covered in black and white tiles. Electronic signs hang on the wall and display prices for services, as well as photos showing the company’s community events and sponsorships.

“It would be nice to have every location look exactly the same, but that is expensive,” Benton says. “We take what we have and make it as attractive as possible and market with our people and name in the markets.”

He sees no point in building a perfect looking store on what a developer calls a perfect location. “You can have X number of car counts and X number of people, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work,” Benton says. “Tires ain’t pretty and service ain’t pretty, but service is all you’ve got.”

Serving and training the... competition?

Service isn’t just a guideline or a suggestion at Black’s Tire. It’s the rule. Employees who don’t accept that, or understand it, don’t last long.

Lloyd Hobbs has spent the last 14 years of his 32-year tire career with Black’s Tire. He manages one of the company’s three stores in Lumberton, N.C., and says the business boils down to one thing: relationships.

“The majority of people like to trade or do business with people they like, people they trust,” Hobbs says. “It’s sort of like going to the doctor: ‘What’s wrong? Sit down. Tell me about it.’”

Ricky Benton says his wife Dianne “has been the backbone of everything we’ve done.” She says the two of them have different skills. “He knew how to do what he was best at, and I knew how to do what I was best at, and never the two did meet.”
Ricky Benton says his wife Dianne “has been the backbone of everything we’ve done.” She says the two of them have different skills. “He knew how to do what he was best at, and I knew how to do what I was best at, and never the two did meet.”

That treatment works not just with consumers, but also with his big box competitors. There’s a Sam’s Club in town, and a Walmart in the tire store’s backyard. Hobbs says both send him business, even calling and asking if Black’s Tire can step in to help a consumer.

“It’s a good relationship,” Hobbs says, noting he benefits in other ways, too. “If they screw something up, I fix it.”

Making friends with the competition, including big box retailers, is a tough pill for some dealers to swallow. Benton doesn’t even call them competitors.

“They’re not our competitors, we’re partners. We help each other. We want them to survive,” says Benton. “I’m in the wholesale business. My best customers are the stores next to us. I believe in helping the small independent tire dealer.”

For Benton, helping those dealers means more than selling them tires. It even means training them. In April 2014 Black’s Tire opened the BTS Academy, a training center adjacent to the company’s corporate office in Whiteville. More than a classroom, the 38,000-square-foot center includes a front counter and showroom complete with tire displays and parts shelves to show new and old employees how best to approach a customer and talk with them. Another room of the training center is a fully equipped shop designed for more hands-on training. A conference room and sit-down classroom provide more meeting and testing space, and an on-site kitchen gives Benton the means to cook for a crowd and avoid the hassle, and expense, of taking a room full of students to a restaurant for lunch.

Freddy Norris, left, shows Ricky Benton a torn-up tractor tire owned by a customer who couldn’t afford a new tire. So Norris sold him a used tire at minimal cost. Norris manages the original Black’s Tire store in Whiteville, N.C., and is the first manager Benton ever hired.
Freddy Norris, left, shows Ricky Benton a torn-up tractor tire owned by a customer who couldn’t afford a new tire. So Norris sold him a used tire at minimal cost. Norris manages the original Black’s Tire store in Whiteville, N.C., and is the first manager Benton ever hired.

“It’s an hour there, an hour back, and then you lose them,” he says. Providing food on site keeps the momentum going, plus it’s another way to show he’s invested in the people in the room.

Benton calls the training center “the best thing our company has ever done.” He won’t say how much he’s invested in it, but he sees it as an essential part of business. “If you don’t train and try to stay on top of it, you’ll be left behind. You’ve got to continue to get better in the field or you’ll be out of business.”

While Black’s Tire certainly uses the center to train its own people, when vendors come in to show how best to use a piece of equipment, the dealership invites other tire dealers or technicians from repair shops to attend. “They support me,” Benton says. “The more you support somebody, hopefully they support you.”

The BTS family

Benton takes that supporting role seriously, with his customers as well as his employees. “A business is no better than the people you surround yourself with,” he says. His wife Dianne is at his side — he likes to introduce her as “the boss” — and their three sons are leading different segments of the business. Oldest son Rick, 42, is the company’s tire buyer and vice president of purchasing and marketing. Ryan, 39, is vice president of retail sales and operations, and Jeremy, 34, is vice president of commercial sales and manufacturing. (It took a family meeting, and a final ruling by Dianne, to decide on each of the boys’ titles. No one at Black’s Tire has a title printed on a business card. Meeting one employee after another, the question that stumped nearly every employee was, “What’s your title?”

 The retail portion of the company’s training center features a sales counter, tire display and parts shelves. Benton says his vendors are supportive of the facility and also offer on-site training and tips. Black’s Tire also uses the space for new employee orientation.
 The retail portion of the company’s training center features a sales counter, tire display and parts shelves. Benton says his vendors are supportive of the facility and also offer on-site training and tips. Black’s Tire also uses the space for new employee orientation.

The three oldest of the couple’s eight grandchildren are in high school, and those boys are working in the tire business, too. During the summer they delivered tires one day and cleaned up a weedy lot the next. Dianne says her husband expects a lot from their kids, telling them, “‘You’ve got something to prove.’ Don’t ask people to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.”

But Benton’s family is much larger than his official family tree. All jokes about “Carolina cousins” aside — and the people at Black’s Tire make plenty of those jokes — a visit to Black’s Tire feels like a family reunion. There are married couples working for the company, as well as fathers and sons and brothers and sisters. High school classmates and childhood friends work together, too. And even those who join the company on their own quickly find themselves in the family business. They talk about the BTS family, and many wear black rubber wristbands showing this motto: The BTS Way. The culture might be Benton’s greatest achievement. “You don’t have to be blood to be related,” he says.

William Blake has worked for Black’s Tire the last four years, and is the production manager at Carolina Retread, the company’s retread shop in Clarkton, N.C. Soon after he started he heard about the BTS family culture.

“That’s the way Ricky operates. That’s the way Miss Dianne operates. That’s the way his sons operate. That’s the way his company operates. No doubt it plays into their success. People in this company know the Bentons care about them.”

Store managers talk about how any call from Benton involves questions not just about business, but about their families, and their employees’ families. When he learns of employees who hit a rough patch, he helps them anonymously. He’ll take a couple hundred dollar bills from his wallet, hand the cash to the manager and tell them to pass it to the employee later in the day. He doesn’t want the worker to know the help is coming from him.

As part of its commercial truck division, Black’s Tire operates a 24-hour road service. Answering road calls is a rite of passage for employees learning the tire business.
As part of its commercial truck division, Black’s Tire operates a 24-hour road service. Answering road calls is a rite of passage for employees learning the tire business.

Benton’s goodwill overflows and has become contagious at Black’s Tire. A year ago Oliver Castrejon’s house was destroyed in a fire. When Benton arrived at the scene to check on Castrejon and his two young children, the man was burying his dog. Benton asked Castrejon to take a seat in his pickup truck. He said he had no idea what he was going to do. Benton told him to go to Myrtle Beach and get a hotel for the night, and they’d figure something out in the morning. That’s when the BTS family sprang into action. Another employee, Stuart Clark, had just moved into a new house and was planning to rent his former home. He opened it up to Castrejon instead. A local furniture store and others in the community helped to furnish the home, and the BTS family rummaged through their own closets to provide the essentials, including furnishings, clothing and toys for Castrejon’s children. They stocked the kitchen with groceries. After spending a single night in a hotel, Castrejon and his children had a new place to live, and they remain there today.

“Everybody just went in together,” Benton says.

‘The only model I know’

Benton no longer owns the service station where he got his start, but he’s built Black’s Tire to operate in much the same fashion. Just as he and Dianne added bits and pieces to their original business to survive, Black’s Tire covers the landscape of the tire industry.

“We don’t specialize. We try to serve,” Dianne Benton says.

Black’s Tire Service Inc. is the umbrella company for four business divisions: Black’s Tire & Auto (retail), BTS Tire & Wheel Distributors (wholesale), Black’s Commercial Sales and Carolina Retread. Benton additionally owns Ricky Benton Racing (RBR) Enterprises.

Covering all the bases is a necessity, Benton says. “It’s dependent on the marketing area of where you’re at. I don’t stay in a place that’s got a million people. I couldn’t survive with only passenger tires. We’re just a different model. I don’t know if it’s the best model, but it’s the only model I know.”

Harry Lyons wraps a retreaded tire at Carolina Retread, where production has grown significantly since Black’s Tire acquired a retread business in 2007, from seven tires a day to 225.
Harry Lyons wraps a retreaded tire at Carolina Retread, where production has grown significantly since Black’s Tire acquired a retread business in 2007, from seven tires a day to 225.

Business is tough, Benton says. Even though he clearly thrives on the thrill and satisfaction of serving people, whether they are his customers or his employees, he’s humble and thankful that he’s survived.

“I worry every day. When you’ve got to pay people on Thursday night, have you got enough money to make sure you’re covered? You’ve got to pay your bills. You’ve got to take care of your people. It’s a daily struggle.”

Staying on top of federal and state regulations is critical, and so many of the business’ toughest problems are out of the Bentons’ control. Insurance is a particularly sore subject.

Black’s Tire provides a pre-tax health insurance plan for its employees, and the Affordable Care Act dictates that the company can’t deduct more than 9.5% of an employee’s wages to cover its share of the insurance. So if there are two employees earning the same wage, and one is a hard worker and reliable, and the other calls off work often and thus doesn’t earn as much, Black’s Tire is left to pay the balance of the insurance cost for that lower-performing employee.

The Bentons are talking about how they need to get more active in lobbying their lawmakers about these kinds of struggles. But adding that to the to-do list is tough, and it becomes one more thing to balance.

“If you’re running a family business, you’ve got to keep it going day-to-day,” Benton says. “If you don’t stay on it day-to-day, you lose it.

“That’s probably what’s wrong with people like us. We’re just sitting here trying to keep it going. Whatever the compliance is, we deal with it. Lots of our problems are out of our control.”

They have identified one solution. The Bentons already are telling their eight grandchildren, who range in ages from 2 to 17, someone is going to need to attend law school. They’re hoping another grandchild considers accounting.

A graduate of the Southern School of Hard Knocks

The third generation of Bentons is in the wings, but for now Benton and his three sons are leading the way. Dianne attributes the company’s growth to the couple’s children. “We would have never grown like we have if they hadn’t been here helping us. They’ve been real good about helping find people, and Ryan’s real good about finding locations. They’ve helped us grow.” The company’s store count has more than quadrupled since the oldest son, Rick, graduated from college and joined the business. Daily production at the retread shop, which son Jeremy oversees, has increased more than 3,000% since the company acquired it and moved into a new location.

Going to and graduating from college has been the one requirement for each of the Benton boys. Neither of their parents went to college — Benton jokes he graduated from the Southern School of Hard Knocks. Dianne took some computer classes after high school.

“Our main goal in life was all three of our children would have college degrees, and before they could come work for the company full time, they had to finish college. And they did,” she says. “That was some of our accomplishment, too.”

It’s common for parents to dream of a better life for their children. But at the same time Black’s Tire employees recognize how Benton has built up the company, and they respect the fact he gives others the opportunity to move up the ladder.

David Holmes manages the store in Loris, S.C., and has been with Black’s Tire for almost 16 years. “A lot of his management never went to college,” he says. “They’re just hardworking people.”

Benton doesn’t recruit employees from other tire stores or any other competitor. He prefers to train from the ground up, even bringing in people who know nothing about the tire industry. Keith Noble spent 20 years working for Coca-Cola Co. when he finally got tired of corporate life. At family holiday gatherings (Benton and Noble’s wife are related) the two men would talk about business, and Benton often asked Noble to consider joining the family business.

In the spring of 2007 Noble finally made the jump. “I tell all the mechanics you’ve forgotten more about this than I’ll ever know.” But Benton knew Noble’s talents, and he works as a regional retail manager.

It’s hard to be more of an entry-level employee than Kyle Bias was when he joined Black’s Tire. He was about to turn 16 and in trouble at school. His punishment from the principal included answering the telephone, and one day Benton called and asked to speak to someone from the school’s shop program. Bias transferred the call but nobody picked up, so he started to take a message. Benton was looking for a young guy to help clean up the shop, someone who might be interested in learning the trade after school.

“I said, ‘I think I know someone,’” Bias says. He met Benton after school and started work the same day.

“I first started out helping cleaning, sweeping. I didn’t know anything about a tire, but I knew I could clean and straighten up, so I did it to the best of my knowledge.”

One day Bias was the only person in the shop with a driver’s license, so he drove the crew to respond to a commercial service call. “That’s how I started learning how to change tires.” First he watched, then he got to help, and eventually he answered those calls on his own. “I loved it.”

He learned to do other things in the shop, and later got the chance to learn the counter side of the business. He became the manager of the store in Shalotte, N.C., in 2011.

When talking to new or potential employees, Rick Benton repeats a refrain that sounds like something his dad might say. “It’s what you want to make out of it. It’s all up to you.”

While some tire dealers specialize in certain segments of the tire industry, Black’s Tire casts a wide net with a goal of serving every kind of customer. The company even operates a store on the U.S. Army base at Fort Bragg, N.C.
While some tire dealers specialize in certain segments of the tire industry, Black’s Tire casts a wide net with a goal of serving every kind of customer. The company even operates a store on the U.S. Army base at Fort Bragg, N.C.

‘The most traumatic year’

Benton says many employees take that advice to heart. Some take it to the extreme.

Kenny Bullard had another job offer in 1988 to work at the Georgia Pacific plywood plant where Benton had once worked. Bullard was going to make $6.99 an hour, plus a 15-cent shift differential. His job offer is framed and hanging on the wall of Benton’s office. Bullard came to work for Benton instead. “He worked with me for 25 years. He was district manager. He was the best manager this company’s ever had. He’s the one who helped me build this story.”

Bullard tracked every expense at every store he managed, organizing receipts into white business envelopes and marking them with the store number. Benton keeps a box of those envelopes underneath his desk, and says he wouldn’t part with the box for a million dollars.

To anyone else, it looks like papers ready for the recycling bin. To Benton, it means much more than that.

“Kenny Bullard is the BTS Way,” he says.

Bullard died of pancreatic cancer on May 3, 2014. The two had been best friends since they were young boys. Bullard worked hard and was loyal, even throughout his illness. He wasn’t happy when store managers who reported to him were trying to keep things from him and lighten his load during his illness. He arranged meetings with employees who weren’t performing. He didn’t want cancer to get in the way of the business he loved. Before he died he asked his friends to be pallbearers, and to wear Black’s Tire shirts at his funeral.

“I’ve got a bunch of those kind of guys,” Benton says. “He was the leader... he was my main one.

“Everyone owns this (business). It’s not me. Money’s just paper, it’s just the vehicle. It just gets you the toys. It’s about having something together. It’s not about the money.”

One of Bullard’s work shirts is framed and hangs in the BTS Academy training center. A large banner with Bullard’s picture hangs on the wall. In Benton’s office a round medallion sits on a shelf, and it’s inscribed with these words: “May the work I have done speak for me.” Delia Bullard, who also works for Black’s Tire, took it out of her husband’s casket and gave it to Benton.

Losing Bullard was just the beginning of “the most traumatic year” for Benton. His “favorite aunt” died in October, and his 84-year-old father, Valery J. Benton Jr., better known as “Boss Man” at Black’s Tire, died in January. The elder Benton helped make deliveries to stores, and referred to a seat on a sofa in the hallway as his office.

Some might take those losses as a sign to let go of work a little, and spend a few more afternoons with family at the lake house or more days driving the classic cars he loves. But Benton doesn’t see it that way. “I spend time with all the people I love.” And he’s referring not only to his wife and children, but also to his entire BTS family.

‘You can’t outgrow your people’

Larry Allen is among those who have worked with Benton the longest. He’ll mark 26 years with Black’s Tire in January 2016, and he manages a store in Lumberton, N.C. It was the company’s fourth location.

“I remember at our first annual meeting, there were 14 or 15 people there, and that was with our wives,” Allen says. “But Ricky told us to keep working. We put our faith in him. He said you work hard and I’ll take care of the rest. And I’ve never been out of a job or missed a paycheck. I’ve never asked him for a raise.

“If Ricky tells you something you can take it to the bank.”

In 2014 the North Carolina Tire Dealers Association named Benton its first Tire Dealer of the Year. The group recognized him for his business success, his charitable work and his support of the industry. And Benton immediately pushed all of that praise onto the Black’s Tire team. The association’s Executive Director, Reece Hester, says Black’s Tire is the largest independent tire dealer in its statewide membership.

Hester remembers Benton’s acceptance speech well, and that he stood at the podium without any prepared remarks.

“It wasn’t so much about Black’s Tire Service, but more about the people around him and the stories associated with those people,” Hester says. “When a person is speaking with Ricky, you quickly realize he is humble to his beginnings and hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from. Ricky credits his family for the successes acquired by Black’s, and family includes all who work with him.”

There are opportunities for Benton’s business to grow. At the beginning of August, the company opened its fourth warehouse, about halfway between the Virginia state line and Charlotte, N.C., in Statesville, N.C. “I hope he waits a couple of months until he does the next big thing,” says his wife.

Right now the retail business is confined to the Carolinas. Will it cross the line into Virginia or another nearby state? Benton isn’t saying. He’ll consider “whatever opportunity might arise.”

“You ever hear of BB&T?” Benton asks, referring to Branch Bank and Trust. “You’ve got to have a good banker. Good vendors. You’ve got to have so many things. You can have all the brick and mortar you want. If you don’t have the people it ain’t nothing. You can’t outgrow your people.”

The company’s real growth potential may be in retreading. Black’s Tire acquired the retread operation as part of its purchase of Briggs & Sons Tire in February 2007, and moved the operation to a new shop — a former window and doors factory in Clarkton, N.C. — in late 2009. That first year-plus of production at Carolina Retread included a lot of growth, from seven tires a day to 69.

The move to Clarkton came at the same time Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. was looking for ways to expand its retreading operations. Benton is a longtime Goodyear dealer, and with his penchant for loyalty and building relationships, he and Patrick Demianenko, Goodyear’s business development manager for retreading, put a deal together.

The 50,000-square-foot space now is running at full capacity, producing 225 retreaded tires a day.

Ashley Parnell has spent the last five years of his decade’s worth of employment with Black’s Tire at the retread shop. It’s “hot and nasty” work, he says. “It ain’t a gravy job. I’m on my second T-shirt of the day and it’s not quite noon.” Still, he calls it “a good atmosphere to work in,” because of the Bentons. “They treat their employees like their own.

“Any good boss man has high expectations if he wants to stay in business. If he was nonchalant you’d be closing the doors in six months,” Parnell says. “In the past two years we’ve increased our production by 35% to 37% just by taking on new customers and growing this side of the commercial business. On average we’ve been up 10% to 17% this year over last year’s business.”

The southerner’s sport of racing has gotten too big, and too expensive, for Ricky Benton to compete all season, but the No. 92 truck runs in at least eight races each season. “It’s a way to do marketing,” he says.
The southerner’s sport of racing has gotten too big, and too expensive, for Ricky Benton to compete all season, but the No. 92 truck runs in at least eight races each season. “It’s a way to do marketing,” he says.

A childhood love of racing

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Benton ended up wheeling and dealing tires. As a kid he raced go-karts, but had to give it up when he and Dianne married and started a family. But racing never really left him.

In the early 1990s he got back into the sport, but not as a driver. He formed RBR Enterprises and built a race shop next to his home in Cerro Gordo, N.C. Initially he ran in the NASCAR Late Model Stock Series, winning the regional and track championship in 1998, the USAR ProCup Series championship in 2002 and having his driver win Rookie of the Year in 2004 and 2008. In 2010 his team moved up to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and runs the No. 92 truck.

Crew chief Michael Hester says the team is working its way back up the ladder in the truck series. So far this season they’ve run in the top 10 at some point in every race, and finished sixth at Daytona and seventh at Kentucky.

But even though Benton loves racing, and sees its marketing power and benefits in other segments of his business, he says it’s become a much more expensive sport to compete in. As a result his team is competing only part-time. To run a full season of 22 races would require an investment of at least $2.5 million. “So I run as cheap and economically as I can afford. We might run eight or 10 races.”

Even as a part-time racer he’s had success, and in 2014 he was inducted into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame. The honor also recognized his work to support other racers with donations or equipment.

Matt Cox, a young driver who recently lost his father, is the latest racer to get Benton’s support. Cox’s car is in Benton’s race shop, and Black’s Tire is among the logos on its shell, even though he’s not officially part of Benton’s race team. “I help him some,” Benton says shyly.

Ricky Benton and Black’s Tire are long-time supporters of the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina. The agency’s CEO and President Gary Faircloth, pictured, says the caring and contributions from the Black’s Tire family are priceless to the children served.
Ricky Benton and Black’s Tire are long-time supporters of the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina. The agency’s CEO and President Gary Faircloth, pictured, says the caring and contributions from the Black’s Tire family are priceless to the children served.

Making a difference

Clearly, helping others is the rule for Benton, and not the exception. Nowhere is that more evident than in his partnership with the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina, a not-for-profit organization that serves children who don’t have functional families to support them. Many of the children are abused and move onto the Boys and Girls Homes campus in Lake Waccamaw, 12 miles from the Black’s Tire headquarters in Whiteville. The children live in homes on the campus and go to school there.

Black’s Tire began its support of the Boys and Girls Homes long before Benton ever worked a day there. The tire dealership’s founder served on the charity’s original board of directors. Benton has continued, and expanded, the business’ support.

In 2002 Black’s Tire hosted its first charity golf tournament to benefit the Boys and Girls Homes, and the inaugural event raised $6,000. A year later its donation doubled. The third year the donation doubled again. The company has given more than a half-million dollars to the organization since that first golf event.

For years the company paired the annual golf scramble with a stock car race in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The company invites its tire suppliers and other vendors to participate, and every Black’s Tire store advertised the event and sought participants and sponsors. There was golfing on Friday and racing on Saturday one weekend each June.

But since Benton’s race team moved up from stock cars to trucks, there’s no longer a race nearby at the right time of year to coordinate the two events. So in 2014 Black’s Tire switched things up a bit. The group is still golfing on Friday (this year’s tournament was held Sept. 11 in Myrtle Beach), but the second day is now a Black’s Tire Family Day, and it’s held on the Boys and Girls Homes campus. Described as a miniature state fair, the day-long event includes food, games and contests for the company’s employees and their families. Children from the Boys and Girls Homes are the company’s special guests.

Gary Faircloth, CEO and president of the Boys and Girls Homes, says the agency has no better friend or advocate than the Bentons. “Financially, and from a standpoint of passion and commitment, we don’t have anybody with a stronger commitment to what we’re doing.”

The Boys and Girls Homes honored Benton’s philanthropy in 2013 after it remodeled an old building on its grounds and named it the Ricky and Dianne Benton Community Hitching Post.

“We did this as a surprise to him,” says Faircloth. “He would not have asked to have his name on anything. He’s a very humble guy. He doesn’t need the recognition, it’s the feeling that he has and the pride and the emotion.

“We could all model ourselves after people like Ricky and Dianne. They’re making a difference, and it’s not just them, but their company.”

Benton isn’t comfortable with such rosy words, or so much attention. He says he’s just doing his part. “I ain’t worth a nickel at nothing. I just try to do a little bit.”

And to steal the phrase Benton uses more than any other, “It’s all good.”   ■

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