Texas dealer brings 'em in for tires and banks on suspension work
When you're talking with Jerry White about how to market suspension, alignment and balancing work, you'd better have a tape recorder handy. White, owner of White Tire Supply Inc. in Beaumont, Texas, has a lot to say and he makes every word count.
Going straight to the heart of it, White says it is more profitable to sell steering and suspension work than it is to sell tires. Does that mean he is no longer a tire dealer? "It would be flat wrong to say that," says White. "I am a professional independent tire dealer, but how I go about being a successful independent tire dealer has changed.
"Take tire balancing for instance. Tire balancing has very nearly reached commodity status. My longtime tire customers expect me to balance their tires so we do it. But the advertised price in newspapers all across this country range from $30 to $40 for four-wheel balancing. That leaves precious little room to maneuver on price and margin.
"Similarly, nationally advertised alignment specials regularly appear with prices in a range from $49.95 to $59.95," he says. "An honest alignment rack salesman will tell you that you can no longer make money aligning a vehicle. Rather, you will make money replacing defective under-car parts."
Is that a bad thing? "No," says White, "it just means that dealers are going to have to focus more on the suspension side of their under-car business."
"My business is increasing even though the population of Beaumont is not and some of my competition has gone out of business."
White says he prepared himself for change and moved along with it. "Margins are about 50% on steering and suspension work; almost nothing is below 50%. But on the tire side of the ledger margins are in the 15% to 30% range."
White says tires represent 49% of his total sales, while suspension work and brakes represent 40%. The balance is made up in engine repair service, oil changes, etc. "You can see where I'm placing my priorities," he says.
"We are moving into a whole new field of sophisticated ride and handling computer controlled suspensions. The revolution in these new suspension systems is already in its early stages on such cars as Cadillac and its StabiliTrak system and Mercedes Benz's CVRSS (continuously variable road-sensing suspension system).
"Servicing these systems will require highly trained technicians and expensive tools and equipment. Technicians will no longer be able to set the toe and let it go," he says. "The new breed of handling control devices will measure such forces as yaw, pitch and roll and interact with the suspension and brakes to compensate for driver error.
"This means that tire dealers won't be hiring any more low-wage people. They will be hiring well-schooled technicians who are willing and able to perform this kind of service."
In his 47 years in the business, White says he has seen nothing get simpler. But the basics never change.
"When I attended the Bear Safety Service School in Rock Island, Ill., in 1951, we were taught the basic principles of alignment. Those basic principles are still intact today and in that context nothing has changed.
"When a car is properly aligned and driven at freeway speeds with no crosswind it should go 2/10ths of a mile at 60 mph in the same lane, no hands on the steering wheel. That's what Bear taught us half a century ago. To my way of thinking, alignment and suspension work must be completed to that level of performance."
That's why White has a standing order for all his technicians. "Every car and light truck that goes through our system must be put on the alignment rack, the gauges must be put on each wheel and all angles checked. Nothing goes out of here until we're sure that every wheel has a common centerline and runs parallel to the other wheels."
The idea, according to White, is to make alignment work more appealing to the customer. "After all," he says, "they just spent big buck on tires and maybe wheels. It's my job to make certain they realize 60,000 or 70,000 miles out of their investment. To do that, I have to put their vehicle on my alignment rack.
"We love to take people right over to their car and show them what we're doing," he says. "We take the mystery out of it by showing them the 3D graphics on our alignment machine. A graphic printout from the top down shows the vehicle owner if thrust angle, wheel offset and wheel setback is improperly set. A front view shows positive or negative camber, toe-in and toe-out. The customer literally gets the picture and that makes the job of selling this kind of work easier.
"I see kids coming in here with wild wheel offsets. The center of the wheel is lined up at the extreme outer edge of the wheel well. That leaves the unsupported inner edge of the wheel exposed to damage because of the geometry. It also puts an undue burden on suspension parts."
A student of the game, White says one of the most overlooked areas in suspension work today is ride height. "A sagging spring forces the steering linkage and the chassis components to operate out of their normal operating range. In turn, this accelerates wear on all of these parts, promotes excessive tire wear and a rough ride."
The longtime Texas tire dealer knows how to talk to his customers. Better, he knows how to keep them happy and safe. "I like to use analogies," he says. "Trying to drive a car when the ride height is too low (weak springs) is like walking with your heels two-feet apart. Everything is hanging out in the middle. Your joints are operating out of position and you are experiencing physical pain.
"Understand that a sagging spring has more consequences than a rough ride. Alignment angles are drastically changed. That's why we're replacing more springs these days.
"Many times in the recent past struts and shocks were replaced which had failed early because weak springs had reduced the effective stroke rate of the pistons inside the shock. But because the old springs were left untouched, the issue went unresolved."
Future looks bright
"All new cars are lighter than they have ever been," says White. "So are their wheels, their tires and their suspension components. That means that when a car hits a pothole, all of that energy is conveyed straight into the suspension. We see plenty of steering linkage damage. We see bent wheels, bent or broken tie rod ends, idler arms, drag links and steering racks. The list continues.
"Maybe the biggest plus for under-car work is that people don't come in asking for prices on a lower tie rod end or a ball joint. This kind of work isn't talked about much and prices aren't set by national advertising. That means a tire dealer can work on better margins."
Take air conditioning work, for example. "It gets hot here, so when a customer's air conditioning fails, he doesn't ask me how much it's going to cost, he asks me if his car will be ready at 5 p.m. and smiles when he picks it up. Air conditioning work is much more profitable than selling tires.
"It's about time the public started giving more credit to the automotive technicians who work on their vehicles," says White. "We have spent enormous amounts of time learning how to repair new suspension systems, we have spent enormous amounts of money on new equipment and we do the job right the first time."
Service bay tips
White has a number of service bay practices that he uses at his 13-bay dealership.
* "When the odometer reads 50,000 miles it is time to pay particular attention to ride height," says White. "It's no different than going to the doctor. When you get to a certain age, you add to the list of things that need checked."
* "While I have the customer up close to his vehicle, I show him his weak springs and the shiny places where the compression bumpers are bottoming out. Since these are the suspension parts that keep the control arms from banging into the frame, it's important for him to know what's going on. Bottoming out is something his vehicle should not be doing, and again it's my job to fix it."
* White communicates with his customers in a way they don't resent. "Look," he says, "if tire buying is considered a negative purchase, paying for suspension, alignment or balancing work is worse. It's a lot different than buying a wide screen, digital TV set."
* White points out that if the pulleys and belts under the hood are out of alignment, the motorist will feel a vibration. "An alternator belt that is out of alignment puts an end thrust on the bearings because it is trying to operate sideways.
"Going a step further, balancing should include more than just tires and wheels. It involves a lot more than dynamically balancing a tire and wheel and hanging some weight.... Any rotating part in the engine or drive train can be out of balance and the customer can't tell us what's wrong. It's our job to locate the imbalance or alignment problem and correct it."
Well... Jerry White has more to say, but you get the picture. Suffice it to say that being the consummate automotive service professional is important, and mandatory at White Tire Supply.
"Another part of the secret," he says, "is being able to adapt to change. Dad told me to be honest, to be ready for the unexpected and to work hard enough to make the bell ring on the cash register. I still hear the music half a century later."