Ever wonder how an independent tire dealer beats the odds and continues to thrive for four generations and 100 years?
To hear Craig Lewis tell it, it comes down to a personality trait that runs through his family tree: stubbornness. That started with his great grandfather, Leon Lewis Sr., founder of what today is called Lewis General Tires Inc. in Rochester, N.Y.
“He was a pretty ambitious guy,” says Lewis, who became president and owner of the independent tire dealership in 2015. “The family legend is that my great grandfather walked barefoot from Dundee to Rochester looking for employment.”
That 50-mile hike in upstate New York resulted in Lewis, who was in his early 20s at the time, nabbing a job as an apprentice to a blacksmith.
It wasn’t long before Lewis longed for a job that could lead to more business opportunities. With an eye on the future of transportation and armed with an entrepreneurial spirit, he approached Rochester-based Hood Tire Co. Inc. for a job.
That switch paid off in a major way for Lewis. After four years working at Hood, the company sent him on a business trip to “The Tire Capital of the World,” Akron, Ohio. While there, Lewis’ knowledge and enthusiasm prompted executives at General Tire & Rubber Co. to urge him to explore starting his own tire dealership.
In 1919 the senior Lewis opened The General Tires Sales Co. Inc. The date of the grand opening is lost to history, as was the original name until recently, but the store was incorporated on Jan. 1, 1919, says Lewis.
“He was really good with people. That really helped him build solid business relationships, and that helped make the business more and more successful.”
Ten years later, the Great Depression started. The Economic Times reports that by 1930, 12 million people were out of work throughout the U.S., and 20,000 companies went bankrupt. Lewis’ tire dealership was not among them.“Again, he was pretty stubborn,” says Lewis of his great grandfather. “He wasn’t willing to give up, even when things got very hard.
“In a lot of ways, it was his people skills and his willingness to be innovative that helped him figure out how to make it through the Great Depression. He wasn’t going to let the business fail,” says Lewis. “He did what he had to do to keep going.”
That included recruiting two partners, one of which was his biggest competitor with a store located across the street. The other partner was someone outside the tire business, who came on as a financial partner. The business, for a time, became Scanlon-Lewis General Tires.
In 1954, Leon Lewis Sr. bought out his partners and returned the company name to Lewis General Tires.
“I think what made all the difference was that he was willing to do whatever it took to keep the company open and successful,” says Lewis. “That goes back to his stubbornness.”
A second generation leads the way
Lewis’ sons Leon Jr., Alan and Richard Sr. eagerly entered their father’s business sometime in the 1940s.
By 1950 Rochester was the 32nd largest city in the U.S. The Lewis General Tires location was close to the city’s major companies, including Xerox Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., Bausch & Lomb Inc. The University of Rochester and other major colleges also brought prosperity to the area. In fact, Rochester was so monied that its residents were chided in a book, “Smugtown USA,” written by G. Curtis Gerling and published in 1957.
As the City of Rochester prospered, so did Lewis General Tires. But there was some family drama, as three brothers out of six children born to the founder jockeyed for positions within the company. Richard became the president in 1963 and began buying out Leon over 10 years, says Lewis.
“He wasn’t the oldest son, so that created some contention. I think the good thing about having all those kids involved is that it was clear that the Lewis family was going to remain the owners. So that was another major hurdle we survived.”
Lewis says that the number of Lewis family members involved in the business was good fortune. “That way, if you have one person who gets involved and it doesn’t work out, you have someone else to put in that person’s place. I’ve talked to so many people these days who own businesses and have children and their children aren’t interested. That’s something of a theme of the modern era.”
When Richard Sr. became the sole owner of Lewis General Tires, he opted to move the company headquarters from downtown Rochester to the nearby suburb of Henrietta. At the time, the area was mainly farmland, but it soon became a major suburban hub that was close to the soon-to-be-built New York State Thruway and main highways. Henrietta was soon known as the hub of car dealerships in the area.
Lewis says the move was made to follow the suburban sprawl in Rochester. Almost as important, though, Richard wanted to combine the commercial, retail and retread parts of Lewis General Tires under one roof. He expanded into vehicle repair and maintenance in 1972. The third generation moves ahead
When Richard Lewis Jr., Craig’s father, bought the company in 1994, he had already worked there for 25 years. He hadn’t planned to take over the company, says Craig, but did so to keep the company in the family after his brothers, Steve and Jon, were sidelined by heart attacks. “He decided to accept the offer only to have the bank call in our line of credit on the first week he took over, says Lewis. “Time to call it quits? Much like Leon in the 1930s, the answer was ‘Hell no!’ My father scrambled to find a new banking relationship and put together a new management team to stop the bleeding.
“My father saved the company from ruin. I think he did it for two reasons. He had five kids at home to support, and he wanted to make his father proud.
“By the time Rich Sr. died in December of 1996, the company was stabilized and growing again.”
Richard Jr. worked at the company for 46 years before retiring in 2015. But the Lewis family members weren’t the only people who were long-time workers at Lewis General Tires. The company has an array of employees who started with the company 20 and 30 years ago. Recently, a 60-year employee retired.
“There is a lot of knowledge here,” says Lewis. “And even with any kind of family dramas, we have all worked hard to keep the business at the forefront. Its success is everyone’s goal. We always put the company first.”
Today, Lewis General Tires carries many brands of consumer, commercial, farm, industrial and OTR tires. It also offers general automotive repair services, including brake replacement, oil changes and wheel alignments. It is also a Goodyear Authorized Retreader.
“I first started talking to Goodyear five or six years ago,” says Lewis. “There were no authorized Goodyear tire retreaders in upstate New York. They had a massive void and we filled it. Since then, that part of our business has just grown and grown.”
The dealership’s just-off-the-Thruway location means easy access for commercial customers. Its suburban locale on one of the busiest streets in the county allows private customers from throughout the county and beyond to easily find and use the company’s services.
“We are fortunate because these larger and larger truck owners would not want to go into the city to have them serviced,” says Lewis. “It’s much easier for them to come here and have everything they need at one location.”
That was of prime importance to Richard Lewis and his team as they led the company through hard times, specifically when the Great Recession hit in 2008.
“In my opinion the biggest hurdle of the Great Recession was margin erosion,” says Craig Lewis. “Costs rose faster that we could pass them on to our customers. It seems like we were getting price increases on a nearly monthly basis from the manufacturers. At the same time the market was shrinking, so competition got stiff and everything became price driven as customers tried to cut cost.”
Richard Lewis Jr. decided cutting prices further wasn’t the answer. Instead he battled back by delivering fast, superior service and charging accordingly.
The recession also led to some hard times for Rochester overall. Rochester’s “Big Three” employers — Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb — greatly downsized. That reduction in employees and services began even before the recession due to poor business plans, reported The Democrat & Chronicle newspaper.
What has helped Rochester bounce back is a number of “innovative start-ups and high-tech companies” plus private and statement investment, reported The Democrat & Chronicle.
“Losing those big employers was hard, but I think it made the community even more resilient,” says Lewis. “Now the risk is spread out. When Kodak went through hard times, it impacted the whole community. Now if a company has hard times, the impact is not felt as widely. This new model distributes risk and makes it easier for the community to thrive.” The latest generation
Perhaps no one was more surprised than Craig Lewis when his father agreed to sell him the dealership in 2015.
There was little doubt Craig would do a stellar job leading the company. He worked for the dealership as a tire changer, technician, credit manager and department manager for a decade while earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University at Albany in New York.
Richard Lewis Jr. had consistently told Craig he wouldn’t sell him the business because family companies were too complicated and brought too many headaches. But in 2015, the elder Lewis relented. He wanted future family members to have the business, says Lewis.
Chris Lewis, Craig’s brother, runs the retread facility. Tim McInerney, who is married to Craig’s younger sister Kasey, is commercial account manager.
Craig Lewis’ challenges have involved the tire business, not family, he says. One involves technology. Although online tire purchases are sprouting, Craig Lewis hasn’t led the company into that area. “We don’t do any shipping or online sales,” he says, noting 80% of the business is commercial and 20% is retail. “We just don’t position ourselves for those kinds of sales.”
You’ll still find Lewis General Tires has a solid online presence, though.
“Our primary focus in regard to the internet is visibility. We work very closely with an online reputation management firm to make sure when the public starts their search for tires or automotive service that they find us on page one and that they are able to see feedback from our existing customers. Our most recent initiative is ReviewTube, a video review application. So although we do not sell tires directly online, we do use the internet as a primary marketing tool.”
A larger challenge to Lewis is the popularity of low-cost Chinese-made tires, which raises concerns about competing on price. “Our biggest concern is that low-cost (truck) tires from China compete with retreading. The perception is, ‘Why buy a retread when you can get a new tire for near the same price?’ I would (argue) our Goodyear retreads are better than most any Chinese tire.”
Yet Lewis stresses that while he watches price, he isn’t obsessed by it.
“We try to price appropriately,” says Lewis, who markets the Dunlop, Continental, General, Goodyear, Mastercraft, Kelly, BFGoodrich, Bridgestone, Cooper, Firestone, Michelin and Uniroyal brands. “But we have never advertised or gone to market or tried to represent that we are the absolute cheapest option. Our goal is not to be the cheapest. Our goal is to provide the best service. And then if we happen to be a little bit more expensive than the guy down the road, our service is the reason. That’s why our customers continue to come to us. We provide value.”
The company has increased its revenue by 37% since 2015, says Lewis.
“To compete these days, you have to build your business around a few key programs. Although vendor relationships can be complicated, Goodyear continues to impress me with both their products, programs and people. Although the first 100 years was largely about our relationship with General Tire, and we have no plans to change our name and discontinue our relationship with the General and Continental brands, the second 100 years I am sure will be about our growing relationship with Goodyear. The key is to choose a few programs and commit to them and ignore the rest.” ■
Nancy Dunham is an automotive journalist based in Washington, D.C.