This story is the latest in MTD’s exclusive series of articles about how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting independent tire dealers. Stay tuned to www.moderntiredealer.com for more.

Sullivan Tire's Chrystian Soto dons a mask and gloves while handling tires.

Sullivan Tire's Chrystian Soto dons a mask and gloves while handling tires.

As automakers shut down production lines and new car sales take a nose dive, Sullivan Tire Co. Inc. sees an opportunity. Paul Sullivan says it’s a perfect time for tire dealers to talk to consumers about the importance of maintaining their vehicles. “I don’t think people have the appetite to buy new automobiles. That behooves us in the aftermarket to be out there with pertinent messaging about the upkeep of their automobile,” says Sullivan, vice president of marketing for the nation’s 13th largest independent tire dealership.

The dealership remains aggressive in its digital marketing on Google and social media platforms. It’s also using its database of customer contact information to reach out to consumers, and also sending reminders to those consumers who have made appointments through the company’s call center.

As of early April, that marketing has helped Sullivan Tire maintain most of its business, even in the retail end. The company has 73 retail outlets in New England, and Sullivan says retail sales were down about 12%. “The automotive (service) at retail is sustaining itself. It’s tires that seem to be off,” he says.

“I think people are home and they’re saying ‘let’s fix what absolutely needs to be fixed,’ and they’ll run those tires down a few more 32nds.”

To serve customers safely, Sullivan Tire is offering curbside check-in service. Customers can pull into the Sullivan Tire & Auto Service parking lot, call the store, and an associate will come out and take the keys. If the customer needs a ride, the tire dealer offers a ride via Lyft at no charge. Another Lyft driver can pick up the vehicle owner once the repairs are complete. The company also is offering a limited vehicle pick up and drop off service at most of its locations.

“We want to make it easier for people because we know people have a lot of pressure on them,” Sullivan says.

That same message applies to employees. Sullivan says the tire dealership is working to support its 1,300 employees.

“Stay close to your employees, your management. Caring about their pressures that they may have I think goes a long, long way today. I think it’s a responsibility that all business owners have.”

Sullivan Tire is providing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, with a reminder to employees to use them any time they enter a customer's vehicle.

Sullivan Tire is providing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, with a reminder to employees to use them any time they enter a customer's vehicle.

He says even though the Sullivan Tire human resources team is working remotely, they’re fully staffed and accessible to employees at any time. “We’re here to help them because we certainly know they’re helping us each and every day. It works in tandem,” Sullivan says.

Sports marketing

The efforts to stay engaged with customers come as one of Sullivan Tire’s biggest and most enduring marketing efforts has ground to a near halt. The tire dealership is heavily tied to its local sports teams, and just as the coronavirus began disrupting life across the U.S. and in New England, it brought the sports world to a stop.

Sullivan says it represents a “significant amount” of the company’s advertising.

“We have hockey and it’s playoff time. We have the Celtics and it’s toward the end of the season. And it’s the beginning of the Boston Red Sox season. What happens to the schedule and how much they abbreviate it remains to be seen. I know we have a lot of money committed to those three arenas, so whether we redeploy it or put it back into the budget to help out other areas, we’ll see.”

For the month of April, Sullivan says the cost of ads that were to air on television during sporting events amounted to $170,000. (That doesn’t include signage costs.)

Optimistic for the future

With 73 retail stores, 15 commercial outlets, 16 distribution points and three retreading plants, Sullivan Tire is already one of the largest, most diverse independent tire dealerships in the U.S. The company serves everyone from consumers and fleet customers to the off-the-road industry.

“We’re trying to serve the customer in any capacity in which they feel they need help,” says Sullivan.

And he sees no end to the company’s growth pattern.

“We’re in a great spot post coronavirus to continue our growth path,” he says. “We will be growing this company, and we’ll grow it very smartly not taking on a lot of debt.”

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