On the eve of its 100th birthday, Free Service Tire Co. sold its retail, commercial and wholesale outlets to Monro Inc. What made the Wexler family sell after 99 years in business? Modern Tire Dealer asked CEO Lewis Wexler to answer that question. With the help of his son Lewis Wexler Jr., former president of Free Service Tire, and Tony Treadway, president of Creative Energy, he did just that. He also explained how a family heritage of hard work and entrepreneurship helped the tire dealership survive and thrive.
If you know a little about the Wexler family’s ancestry, then the story of the 99-year history of Free Service Tire Co. makes perfect sense. While the regional tire and auto service brand continues, Monro will carry the banner forward.
“In 1771, Mathias Wexler came from Germany as an indentured servant to a Pennsylvania family,” said Lewis Wexler Sr., the most recent chairman and CEO of Free Service Tire. “Within a few generations, the Wexlers were landowners and opening businesses. I guess hard work and business building is part of our DNA.”
Lewis Wexler’s grandfather operated an ice and coal business in Bristol, Tennessee, and his son, Dan Wexler Sr., began the Free Service Tire journey in 1919 by offering free roadside assistance to stranded motorists from his first store in nearby Johnson City.
Dan Wexler would grow the tire retailer brand to multiple locations across a 100-mile area of east Tennessee. “Knowing our customer’s needs in a changing market environment was our secret to success,” said Lewis Wexler. “As the Depression hit and more customers held on to their vehicles much longer, auto service became an offering.
“When the Japanese captured rubber plantations in the Pacific Rim, dad began offering tire retreading. When the government began secret construction in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for the Manhattan Project, dad signed a contract to provide tires for construction equipment at a top-secret site. It was at Oak Ridge where America built the atomic bomb.”
Post-war America saw the need for repairs to aging vehicles and an outlet for washing machines, refrigerators and radios for GIs returning from Europe and Asia. “We continued to build our business by selling a variety of products, and along the way we grew a healthy revolving credit business, enabling customers to purchase goods and pay through monthly installments. Then, the advent of credit cards saw us sell off our accounts receivables and go back to focusing on our core business of tires and vehicle service.”
Dan Wexler was still at the helm of the business in the early 1960s and offered his two sons, Dan Wexler Jr. and Lewis Wexler, a chance to enter the family business. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in the tire business, and my dad said I should try it by applying for a sales position with Goodyear. I quickly fell in love with the business, and in 1962 joined Free Service Tire along with my brother.”
Serving in a variety of roles and at different locations, Lewis honed his skills. “By the early ’70s, my dad offered me the president’s job and my brother transitioned into the company’s real estate business.”
Lewis continued to grow the commercial retreading and vehicle service business. He rose to national prominence as member of the board of directors of the Tire Retailers Association. He served as president of the Tennessee/Kentucky Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association, and in 2010 was inducted into the Tennessee Tire Dealers Association Hall of Fame.The next generation of Wexlers entered the business in the 1980s. Harrison worked part-time in the family business while attaining his undergraduate and MBA at the University of Tennessee (UT). “Harrison embraced the commercial truck business and went to work with us full time. Lewis Jr. attended UT and followed my path by first working for Goodyear before joining our firm. He loved the business and joined us by serving in multiple roles.
“Lewis Jr. had a tremendous acumen for finance and began a wholesale tire business that became successful and massive in scale, offering several different brands from warehouses in three states. Harrison continued to excel in the commercial business. My daughter, Susan, entered the business as part of our administration staff.”
In 2003, Free Service Tire transitioned from offering only Goodyear tires to a multi-brand strategy due to the growing number of imported vehicles and the need to provide tires at a variety of price points.
“The dynamic of a local tire dealer began to change,” said Lewis Sr. “Large big box retailers invaded our space. Then e-commerce entered the category.”
Lewis Jr’s contacts within the tire business brought him into contact with Monro, one of the biggest and fastest growing companies in the industry. “They, like us, were diversified into the retail, wholesale, and commercial segments of the market, so it was a perfect fit,” said the elder Wexler.
“It’s a great business that I have always loved. It is bittersweet to hand the keys to new ownership, but I’m convinced that it was the right decision at the right time to the right company.
“The secret to longevity is to stay close to your customer’s needs and the market environment. For us, it was time to move on to managing our real estate properties.” ■