W-, V-, Y- and Z-rated tires have accounted for 80% of the over-the-counter business at Butler Bros. Tire Co. Inc. for more than 20 years. The dealership, which goes to market as Butler Tires and Wheels or just Butler Tire, stocks very few H-rated tires (which make up 19% of the sales) and keeps no S- or T-rated tires (only 1% of sales) in inventory at any of its four stores, all located in Georgia.
A glance at the parking lot of the Alpharetta store shows why. The Bentley, Land Rover, five BMWs and two Mercedes there are “a normal day’s business” at any Butler Tire location. “This is what we’re seeing day in and day out,” says Craig Dobrin, vice president of operations and son of the company founder.
Just how exclusive are the vehicles that come to a Butler Tire store? The dealership recently serviced a Bentley Bentayga, a $300,000 sport utility vehicle introduced to the market in 2016. “It’s the third one we’ve had; most people don’t know what it is,” says Dobrin. He equates servicing the Bentayga to putting four tires on a daily driver like a Camry. “It’s a part of who we are, it’s in our DNA.”
Dani Freedman, marketing director and a nephew of the company’s owners, describes Butler Tire customers as “75% ultra-high performance driving enthusiasts and 25% who strive to be.” But passion for driving does not necessarily translate into knowledge of tires. Enthusiasts and aspiring enthusiasts need the expertise of a tire shop as much as the drivers of four- cylinder family sedans.Freedman says the company began seeing a trend of new vehicles equipped with UHP tires a couple of years ago. “But not every person who drives a BMW M4 is going to take it to the track or take it through the mountains, although the vehicle is capable of that.
“To be able to look at the way somebody drives and offer them the best driving experience according to their driving style is something the industry should focus on versus putting on a tire that is spec’d for the vehicle. We focus more on the driving style at Butler.”
Butler Tire employees are not paid on commission, which helps them focus on selling a product that fits their customers’ driving styles as well as their vehicles. Rather than pushing tires stocked in their warehouse, the company’s employees base their recommendations on driving style, how the vehicle is used, and whether it’s a primary or secondary vehicle.
Says Dobrin: “It’s never a commission-driven decision. That does not happen in our organization. It’s always in the best interest of the customer.”
Based on the rating on the tire’s sidewall, almost everything on a passenger car these days is an ultra-high performance tire, according to Dobrin.
“We separate it a little further by the driver and the needs of that driver. Most of our focus is matching the driver with the best possible product. In a lot of cases, the driver may be driving an ultra-high performance car but doesn’t drive the car like an ultra-high performance car, so we’ll put him into an all-season or something a little less performance-oriented.
“But as a clinical definition, I would say 99% of our tire market space right now is UHP.”
Gary Port, vice president of sales, says Butler Tire considers a UHP tire to be one that “will not let you down when you have the urge to put your foot down. A tire designed specifically to exceed the limits of the vehicle’s performance while still offering ride quality and comfort under normal driving conditions. These are tires with very specific tire compounds that are designed to perform under extreme conditions with very specific duties to offer the best grip and handling and braking while traveling at high speeds.”
Consumers tend to focus on how well a UHP tire performs in the corners or at high speed, which is important, but many forget that braking distance is just as, if not more, important, according to Port. “If you can stop your vehicle even two or three seconds faster than any other brand, that could be the difference between life and death in some cases. That also relates to later braking into corners on track day, building even more confidence in your tires. You’re shaving off seconds on the track and saving lives off the track. It’s a win-win.”Higher expectations for ride quality
Improvements in the ride quality of UHP tires have raised customer expectations, says Freedman.
“Back in the day when you used to get into a 25 or 30 profile tire, the ride quality was just tragic. But nowadays the tire manufacturers have figured out how to manufacture a low-profile tire and maintain that ride quality. To add to this, vehicle manufacturers have also improved the suspension on their high performance vehicles such that when you run a low-profile tire, the suspension is able to still function as the factory intended it to.
“We have customers who drive luxury high performance vehicles like a Mercedes s550 who take off a set of factory 20-inch wheels and put on aftermarket 22-inch wheels with a reduced sidewall tire or UHP tire,” says Freedman. “They say they don’t feel the effects of a low-profile tire, and that’s due to the manufacturers investing more time and doing more research into maintaining ride quality in a low profile.”
But there’s more to satisfying customers than the quality of the tire. Dobrin credits his employees’ ability to sell a tire that is best suited to a customer’s driving style.
“If a BMW M4 has 5,000 miles on it and the tires are completely worn, that’s evidence the car’s been on the track or driven harder than a daily driver would be. Most likely we’re going to put the driver into something where grip and performance come first. If we get the same model in here 10 minutes later and it has 20,000 miles on it and the tires have just worn out, we’re going to recommend something focused more on ride comfort.”
Customer satisfaction truly is about matching the driving style, the customer and the vehicle to the product, according to Dobrin. “It’s not ‘X, Y and Z sizes fit this vehicle, this is what we have in stock in the correct speed and load ratings, and you need to pick one of these.’ It never comes down to that, it’s always about making sure it’s the best fit, figuratively and literally.” Expertise in the shop
The quality of the shop’s equipment is important, but a technician’s expertise has a greater influence on the customer’s experience. “The length of time we’ve employed a technician is in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 years on average,” says Dobrin. “So it comes with experience and retaining these guys long enough that they’ve seen every possible scenario.”
Butler Tire’s technicians learn on super-performance cars. “They all learn to drive a Ferrari first. If you can drive a Ferrari, you can also drive a Hyundai or a Toyota or a Kia. So part of our training process is getting a BMW in here with a 20x11-inch wheel that’s a forward face-mounted wheel,” says Dobrin. “Every single technician of the 40-plus guys we have in the technical department could mount that with their eyes closed.”
From retreading to UHP
Butler Tire was founded in 1959 by the Butler Brothers — Joe and L.D. — as a gas station and service center. In 1979, the company was purchased by Alan Dobrin, who is the chief operating officer, and Mel Dobrin, president.
Butler Tire employs about 100 people at stores in Marietta, Buckhead, Alpharetta and Austell. The company does not offer underhood services, instead focusing solely on brakes, wheels, tires, suspension and alignments.
Its roots, however, lie in retreading.
“We used to manufacture our own retreads in-house for about 25 years. That was our entry into UHP,” says Craig Dobrin. “We were a much cheaper alternative at the time. All these high-end tires that were on American muscle cars were $300-$400; we had an alternative at about half the price, with about 90% of the performance.”When retreading was no longer profitable, the company shifted its specialty to UHP tires, where it could provide “the best possible product for the customer at any price point.”
Today, Butler Tire’s primary tire brands are Michelin, Pirelli and Toyo, with the Michelin brand being the top seller. “We sell more Michelin out of our stores than any of the other brands,” says Freedman. “They understand UHP, we feel, better than any other tire manufacturer on the market.”
The dealership also offers some entry-level tires.“Guys who love wheels and are not concerned with performance would rather have a beautiful set of wheels and entry-level tires than not have wheels and tires at all,” says Freedman.
“So sometimes we’ll utilize those entry-level tire brands in order to be within the customer’s budget and get people rolling out the door.”
Tire sales make up about 50% of the dealership’s revenues; the rest comes from wheel sales, undercar services and commercial sales (the company also sells truck tires and runs a fleet of six service trucks out of its Marietta location). The company has approximately 6,000 tires and 4,000 wheels in its inventory.
“The tires pay the bills; the wheel stuff is sort of the gravy,” says Dobrin. “Plus sizing is a huge, huge part of our business. Most customers are looking for cosmetic and performance upgrades, which is how we end up selling wheels.”It starts with wheels
Butler Tire is known for having the largest in-stock inventory of custom wheels in Atlanta, if not all of the southeast region of the United States, according to Freedman. “We find that your average consumer is not always focused on the performance of the tire but rather they care about mileage, warranty, trial period of the tire and the ride. A large portion of our customers are focused primarily on aesthetics. For us, marketing wheels and tires is much more effective than marketing tires.”
Butler Tire’s custom wheels are priced anywhere from $200 to $2,500 per wheel. “When you’re playing in that sort of bespoke game, clients order custom wheels that could take four to six weeks to make because each one is custom made for their vehicle in a specific size and finish,” says Dobrin.
“Through years of experience and understanding our customers, we are able to predict what our clients will gravitate toward. We pre-order these wheels so that the customer doesn’t have to wait for the product. The product is right here, it’s in stock, and we can in most cases install it while they watch.”
The company draws customers from hundreds of miles away because they know they are going to get the best customer service out there, according to Dobrin.
“Every single person who works in the company is passionate about what they do. We are not order takers. We care about the driver experience. We care about our customers. If they come back, it’s to praise us or to purchase.” ■