On a busy street in Elkhart, Ind., sits a neat and tidy tire and automotive service shop known as Carter Tire Sales & Service. The waiting room is an attractive mix of comfortable chairs, fresh popcorn and hot coffee. Inspirational sayings decorate the walls.

It wasn’t always this way.

Patti Piscione is the owner of the business, which she purchased from her parents. Her father worked for Montgomery Ward as a tire buster and when it closed, he started his own tire business. His focus was the commercial side and his customers loved the personalized service he offered. Traffic was good and his business was successful.

At that time Piscione was already out of school and launching a successful corporate career at a staffing company. While it was never her aspiration to own the shop, when her father decided to retire, she wanted to keep his legacy going so she purchased the business. And, it was never her intention to actually run the shop. However, after five years of absentee ownership, without her father’s personal touch, she could see her investment dwindling. So she opted out of her corporate career and became immersed in the business as a shop owner.

One of Piscione’s first improvements was eliminating garage doors in front of the dealership to give the store a more welcoming appearance.

One of Piscione’s first improvements was eliminating garage doors in front of the dealership to give the store a more welcoming appearance.

Piscione immediately saw opportunity in expanding the retail side of the business and capitalizing on her father’s good will and strong name in the market.First impressions

She recalls when she first walked into the business. “We had just one building, the waiting area and service counter was one big room, filled to the brim with racks of tires.

“The front of the dealership featured two steel garage doors which were not very attractive or efficient. The customer waiting area did have a water cooler — with a dead moth floating on top. A rack with dirty uniforms was in the corner and a couch was available for customer comfort... when our guys were not sleeping on it during lunch time. Coffee behind the service desk was stale and it was a generally messy area. Finally, an ash tray on the table in the waiting room was overflowing.

“I was disheartened, to say the least.”

Continuing, Piscione says, “The amazing thing was that we had a Mercedes SUV in the lot waiting for service. So evidently, the condition of the shop didn’t offend high-end customers. I saw hope in that.”

One step at a time

Once Piscione was acclimated to the tire business flow, she began to make improvements. The overhead steel doors were the first to go. Then, she renovated the waiting room into the comfortable environment one sees today.They had a significant commercial business, but getting trucks in and out of the parking lot and bay areas was difficult. So she purchased a laundromat next door to consolidate all of the commercial business into that building. That move also helped with traffic flow for the big trucks.

With the physical layout of the business improved, Piscione still had to learn about tires and how to run a tire shop. “There was definitely something missing,” she recalls. “I knew I needed to find a source for information. And then I heard about the 20 Group from Joe Feller of Heinold & Feller in Valparaiso, Ind. He encouraged me to attend a meeting.”

Three years ago Piscione visited a Dealer Strategic Planning (DSP) 20 Group meeting hosted by Chris Tolleson of 49 Tire in Richland, Miss., and discovered that everything she didn’t know about the tire business could be learned by linking up with a peer group of experienced dealers. Piscione’s reaction was pretty common.

“I was blown away by the expertise in the room. And, even though the members of this group had much more experience in the business, they still had questions to discuss with each other. Selling tires and service is a constantly evolving business. It is so helpful to have a cadre of knowledgeable friends to help me with everyday challenges.”

Early on, Piscione learned that slim margins on tires were a constant battle for tire dealers and her group immediately recommended that she start expanding the service side of her business. The group helped her identify the correct equipment to offer alignments, brakes, shocks, oil changes, and suspension services that add profitability to any tire operation. In fact, Feller came to her business and helped her place the alignment racks and lifts for maximum utility.Before her 20 Group membership, Piscione’s business was “old school,” writing invoices by hand and generally operating just the way Piscione’s dad had operated. In the 20 Group meetings, Piscione learned about which point-of-sale system would be most beneficial to automate her operation. A couple of members from Tyler, Texas — Rheanne Goolsbee and Martha Holley of Goolsbee Tire — helped her with posting inventory on the new POS system.

Dealership owner Patti Piscione credits her dedicated crew with being responsible for a large part of the success of Carter Tire Sales & Service in Elkhart, Ind.

Dealership owner Patti Piscione credits her dedicated crew with being responsible for a large part of the success of Carter Tire Sales & Service in Elkhart, Ind.

Still being a novice at service, Piscione also received good advice from Gary and Becky Townsend, GT Tire, Pataskala, Ohio, on how to train her staff to grow the service side of her business. “It was overwhelming, the amount of personal help I received from my 20 Group friends,” says Piscione. “They wanted me to be successful and they invested their own time and travel to help me turn the business around.”Family affair

Piscione’s husband, Ed, is a CPA and helps with the financial side of the business. Ed generally accompanies Piscione to her 20 Group meetings, which are held three times a year. Mid-year, Patti and Ed hosted her 20 Group comrades for their summer meeting.

The group meetings include a store visit where teams are formed to examine the exterior, website, interior, work flow, and processes and employees. “It is extremely beneficial to have 20 experts looking at your business and then making recommendations for improvement,” says Piscione. “While everyone was generally impressed by the look and feel of my business, there was plenty of room for improvement in the work flow area.”

Piscione’s layout, having two separate buildings, required technicians to walk back and forth between shops to retrieve filters and fluids. The groups suggested ways of consolidating the inventory and minimizing the tech time. The group examining her interior design also suggested a change in the shop layout to enable Piscione to add two bays without major construction. “It’s amazing how fresh eyes can look at an operation and see immediately how improvements can be made,” Piscione explains.

Another suggestion made by the group was pretty simple. In order to attract more service business, they suggested that she change the name of her business to “Carter Tire & Automotive Repair.” As people drove by the business, the current name of Carter Tire reinforced the idea that she ran a “tire shop” instead of a full service business.

“My engagement in the 20 Group has absolutely transformed my business,” explains Piscione. “When I joined DSP, my net profit was actually in the red. Last year, I almost achieved our group’s goal of 10% net profit. Now, this year has been a challenge with two strong competitors moving in just a half mile away. And the business environment has been pretty depressed in the Elkhart area. However, at the last meeting I discovered it seems that business all over the U.S. has been fairly challenging. So, I am not disheartened.

“As the business environment softened this year, it was easy for my employees to become discouraged,” she adds. “A great part of my success also is in the wonderful staff here at Carter Tire. They have supported me through thick and thin and always embrace the changes that I am making to improve the business.”

In order to keep everyone informed, Piscione holds routine staff meetings. And as you walk throughout her shop, one can see hand-written, inspirational posters on the walls that help keep spirits up. “And, we pray a lot!”

Piscione’s deep faith is one of the most positive elements of her business. “I believe that with continual improvement in the business and staff motivation, we’ll come through this storm stronger than before.”    ■

Pat Brown is a Dealer Strategic Planning Inc. (DSP) 20 Group facilitator. Formed in 2007, DSP launched the first 20 Group established specifically for the retail tire and service industry. DSP offers tire and automotive service dealers the opportunity to share best practices, benchmark against the industry, and improve their financial performance. From its initial startup with one group and 20 members, DSP has grown the business to seven groups, and currently has more than 100 independent tire dealers as members. Modern Tire Dealer parent company Bobit Business Media (BBM) acquired DSP from its owner and founder, Norman Gaither, in January 2016. For more information, see www.dsp-20group.com or contact Brown at (419) 420-5915 or pat@dsp-20group.com.

To read more articles from Pat Brown, see:

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Train Potential Leaders: Say No to My Way, No Way and Any WayFacts, Figuring and Finger Pointing: As a Manager, Try to Rely on 'Just the Facts'

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