Dealer of the Year: Walt Dealtrey's Vision Helped a City, Built a Business
In 1955, after four years working in Goodyear’s company stores, Walter Dealtrey Sr. decided to strike out on his own as an independent tire dealer. Willing to help one of its bright young prospects, Goodyear gave him a choice of four business locations.
Dealtrey picked the then-gritty steel town of Bethlehem. Pa.
It turned out to be a wise decision for him. But in the years since it has been an even more fortunate choice for Bethlehem.
Dealtrey opened a two-person retail outlet, Service Tire Store, with little more than a dream and $3,000 in borrowed money.
And thus began an almost unbelievable story of business success and dedicated community leadership.
Service Tire grew to five stores before Dealtrey sold them in 1980 to concentrate on his thriving commercial tire business, service Tire Truck Centers (STTC), now an 11-branch dealership serving all or part of four states.
Last year, STTC did more than $52 million in sales. This year it will do better.
As impressive as is this business growth, Dealtrey is best known in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley for his far-signed vision that helped save the area from economic disaster.
Dealtrey makes no such claim. He’s much too unassuming for that. But the record speaks for itself.
Bethlehem Mayor Ken Smith apologizes for “gushing” about Dealtrey.
“Walter is the epitome of what a community leader should be,” he says.
“He has had a hand in every phase of our economic development for the last 25 years. It’s not just his words though he’s a great salesman. He’s also a door.
“He’s a consensus-builder. He makes every project a partnership. He has the vision to conceive of ideas years ahead of their time and when the job gets done, he can convince others these ideas were really theirs.
“He never cares who gets the credit.”
It is this rare combination of business success and community involvement that led three independent judges in select Walter J. Dealtrey Sr. as Modern Tire Dealer magazine’s Tire Dealer of the Year from among more than 30 nominees.
Despite his ability to get things done, even when they are controversial, Dealtrey “wears” well.
His friendships…his marriage… his business relationships are long-time affairs.
Employees at his Service Tire Truck Centers regard him with almost fanatical loyalty.
From his beginning in business he has been sincerely concerned about the welfare of his employees. The whole atmosphere in the tire centers is one of idea-sharing, teamwork and trust.
It is reflected in STTC’s meticulous training programs, generous profit-sharing, system of internal communications and rewards for loyalty and performance.
For example, in 1980, when Dealtrey decided to devote full time to STTC’s retreading and commercial sales and sell his five retail stores, he turned down a quick and easy opportunity to sell tHem as a group.
Instead he offered to sell them to his store managers as a reward for their service and helped them arrange financing for their purchases.
Ask Ren Bennett, STTC president.
“I owe Walt a great deal,” says Bennett.
“I worked for Walt part-time 25 years ago changing tires in a retail store while 1 was in still in high school.
“I also worked for him as a retreader while I was in electronics school, but when I graduated in 1970 the electronics field was saturated.
“I entered the service and when I left the service I had no benefits and no job. Walt gave me the opportunity to go to work in his Bandag shop.
“Through the years I learned the business based on the ideals Walt Dealtrey instilled in me.”
Today Bennett is not only president of the dealership but, thanks to Dealtrey, he has a substantial and growing financial interest in the business.
Edward Betz, STTC vice president of operations, also started as a retreader in 1970. Dealtrey helped him earn his present post of vice president of operations.
Dealtrey’s son, Walter Jr., an STTC vice president, describes his father’s method of getting things done both at the dealership and in the community.
“Dad’s pretty smooth. He’ll come up with an idea nobody gets excited about.
“He’ll keep coming back to it from a little different angle and making suggestions until we realize it makes a lot of sense after all.”
Walter Jr. remembers his growing up years when his father spent long hours away from home, either at work and working on community affairs.
“He has always been just a natural leader who gets involved. So many times he just gets things done—and you hear about it afterwards.”
The younger Dealtrey remembers a strike of school teachers that went to arbitration.
At the final hearing they went around the table questioning the interests of those involved in negotiations.
Dealtrey was the only person without some sort of financial in the proceedings. He didn’t even have children in school at the time.
His motivation was simply to settle the dispute so the community could move on.
It’s hard to find anyone in Bethlehem –or in the surrounding Lehigh Valley region –who doesn’t know Walter Dealtrey at least by name.
He’s not a native, however.
Dealtrey was born in Miami and grew up in a Plainfield, N.J., apartment above the Garden Tea Room run by his parents, William and Rose Dealtrey.
His father wanted young Walter to become a chef like himself. But following Walter’s graduation from high school in 1946, in the waning days of World War II, young Dealtrey entered the service.
He was trained as a crypto analyst, a specialist in breaking codes, and was assigned duty in post-war Japan.
But he wound up in Alaska instead –as a clerk/typist.
When he left the service in 1948 Dealtrey intended to enter Syracuse University, but was too late to enrol that year and decided to start his education at Union Junior College in Cranford, N.J.
In must have been fate became there he met Joan Tunner, his future wife.
What attracted him to her?
“She was the smartest and prettiest girl in my class,” he says.
That was nearly 50 years ago.
Besides their son, Walter Jr., the Dealtreys have two daughters: Dale Elizabeth, a Presbyterian minister in Chatham, N.J., and Ellen, an attorney in Salt Lake City.
Following his interim studies at Union Junior College, Dealtrey moved on to Syracuse where he earned a marketing degree in 1952.
He got several job offers, including bids from IBM and Sears and Roebuck, but decided on Goodyear because he liked the interviewer.
“I knew nothing about tires,” says Dealtrey, “but they put me in the retail training program in the Philadelphia District where I spent four years learning the business.”
He was managing a Goodyear store in Philadelphia when, at his request, Goodyear helped him start on his own.
Goodyear is still his primary brand.
Dealtrey was among the last independent dealers in the country to continue selling Goodyear brand tires exclusively. Now STTC also sells Bridgestone. Firestone and Yokohama truck tires.
Of the areas Goodyear offered him in 1955. Dealtrey chose to enter the retail tire
business in Bethlehem, figuring that was Goodyear’s weakest of the available market areas.
He was right. His Service Tire Store did about $130,000 in sales the first year.
From the beginning, Dealtrey was meticulous in his planning and insisted on providing outstanding service to customers.
He ran the dealership “by the book,” even when funds were tight. Even in the early days, he began developing the training and safety programs which today are among the most comprehensive in the industry.
Dealtrey’s hard work paid off. He expanded his retail dealership to five stores. “A lot for this market at the time,” he recalls.
But he foresaw limited growth potential in the retail tire market. So when a trucking company friend talked about the potential of the then-developing Bandag retread process. Dealtrey envisioned it as the opportunity he was seeking.
In 1961, he started a small retread shop behind one of his retail stores, retreading six to eight truck tires a day.
To learn the process, Dealtrey himself went to Bandag’s Master Craftsman Retread School at Bandag headquarters in Muscatine, Iowa.
By 1967 he had opened his first commercial Service Tire Truck Center while still operating the retail stores. He ran both dealerships for 14 years relying on Ron Bennett to help with STTC.
Bennett is another story typical of Dealtrey’s rapport with people.
He had spotted Bennett’s potential when Bennett was a route truck driver and got him involved in the retreading operations.
Thus he began giving Bennett a series of opportunities that led to his climb to STTC’s presidency.
By the mid-1960s Dealtrey was convinced that Bandag was clearly the best system at the time.
He has never wavered from his strong support of Bandag over the years.
Though Dealtrey won’t discuss it, Service Tire Truck Centers was reportedly asked to join a number of large Bandag commercial dealers who earlier this year agreed to be purchased by a group headed by financier Robert Kohlberg.
Speculation was that these dealership would eventually be taken public, thus making them available to the highest bidder.
To protect against that, Bandag stepped in and purchased the dealers.
Dealtrey will say only that STTC was never involved in this dealer group. He also says he would never consider anything that would jeopardize the future of his loyal employees, a veiled reference to the uncertainly of a public offering of stock that would include STTC.
The word “service” in the names of both Dealtrey’s retail and commercial dealerships is no accident.
Service and reliability have been their trademarks and the reason STTC sales have more than doubled every six years of the dealership’s existence.
Though Dealtrey is reluctant to discuss numbers, he concedes that STTC’s retreading operations are among the largest of any independent retreader in the country.
STTC commercial centers are now in locations from Harrisburg, Pa., on the west to the Scranton area in the north to as far south as Seaford in southern Delaware. The newest facility is in Netcong, N.J., where STTC purchased the White Brothers Tire Service just a few months ago.
The loyalty of STTC customers over this large area is uncommon. Even during a change of suppliers, large STTC accounts chose to remain with the dealership rather than with their tire brand.
Customers most frequently mention the courtesy and professionalism of STTC employees.
And that’s no accident.
STTC budgets more than $50,000 a year for training, not counting the time lost by employees who attend the courses.
Human relations are also important.
Every new STTC employee is assigned a big brother or big sister from among the dealership’s current employees. The newcomer has weekly discussions with a supervisor and monthly evaluations for the first three months he or she is on the job.
The dealership remembers each employee’s first anniversary with the company with a small gift. There’s also an annual Employee Appreciation Day with a meal and refreshments for everyone.
The 11 branch managers get together twice a year for three-day meetings to discuss communications and refine their people skills.
“Walking around time” is a top priority. This gives supervisors the opportunity to chat with all employees. And there’s a monthly “Doughnut Day” when all employees get together informally.
Pay checks are distributed personally by mangers, providing another automatic contact. A generous profit sharing program and excellent medical benefits are part of the compensation package.
Each year an extensive Employee Attitude Survey form is distributed. Honest answers and complaints are solicited to determine what STTC’s 300-plus employees think of their jobs, their bosses and the dealership in general.
Each of these forms is reviewed by Dealtrey personally.
Employees rate suppliers, too, and the results are often as surprising as they are revealing. Mangers take these comments seriously.
Safety is another priority. These are safety committees and a Safe Worker Award Program with $50 U.S. savings bonds as rewards for safe performance.
Every service technician gets a one-day safety refresher course annually.
There are manuals spelling out every aspect of work procedures – two pages of instructions, for example, on exactly how on-the-road repair calls are to be handled.
There is a seat belt policy, an accident reporting procedure, etc. all specifically spelled out.
New truck drivers take a course taught at a community college. And all new service technicians take get a week of training regardless of their previous experience.
Teamwork, customer relations and professionalism are constantly emphasized. It’s such attention to detail that has helped Dealtrey and his staff build STTC’s reputation.
And it’s Dealtrey’s attention to community affairs that has built a reputation of a different kind.
To document much of it, you must depend on others because Dealtrey tends to brush off some far-sighted achievements as fortunate timing, etc.
But many in the community – such as Mayor Smith—don’t agree.
As a young Jaycee – the organization named him Young Man of the Year in 1961 –Dealtrey was a leader among those concerned about Bethlehem’s ineffective and inefficient (some say corrupt) municipal government.
The city had a “weak mayor” system and many of its affairs were run by city council committees. Political patronage was rampant.
This led to periodic financial breakdowns. There were even instances where the community’s major employer, Bethlehem Steel, helped bail out the city.
Dealtrey and his fellow Jaycees set out to reform the system.
The Jaycees bucked an entrenched three-to-one Democratic majority that had run the city for years and supported the status quo.
But the reformers prevailed and pushed through approval of a strong mayor system and municipal reform. Dealtrey was elected to a four-year term on city council to help implement the reforms.
Today community leaders don’t like to think about what would have happened to Bethlehem had the old city government system continued after Bethlehem Steel was no longer financially able to come to the aid of the community.
An even more fortunate development was the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park (LVIP) system spearheaded by Dealtrey, who served as the group’s unpaid president for 20 years.
Concerned that the area was too dependent on the steel industry, Dealtrey and others created a Chamber of Commerce project to entire high-tech and light industry to the region.
The LVIP project sponsored pioneer efforts to convince local government leaders to pay for the extension of city services to undeveloped industrial park areas to attract tenants and jobs.
Today, there are five industrial parks in the Bethlehem area on more than 1,250 acres. The LVIP system has attracted more than 300 light industrial, distribution, high-tech and other companies as tenants, bringing with them nearly 15,000 jobs, more than $280 million in payrolls and nearly $10 million in taxes annually.
From the beginning there have been restrictions to ensure tenants built attractive buildings set on grassy areas along tree-lined streets. This five-stage LVIP system is the second-largest industrial park project in Pennsylvania.
It contributed greatly to the creation of a cleaner, more attractive community.
And it came just in time.
As the steel industry declined, Bethlehem Steel closed its local mills and the Lehigh Valley lost more than 20,000 jobs.
Thanks in large part to the LVIP program. Bethlehem has not only survived this below, but has prospered.
Good jobs were available. Unemployment is low. The air was cleaner. The city’s population has remained stable at about 72,000.
Quite a contrast from cities like Johnstown, Pa., where population dropped to 35,000 from 58,000 when the steel mills closed.
A grateful LVIP authority recently sent Walt and Joan Dealtrey on a trip to Scotland to say “thank you.”
This project is ongoing. There’s only about 60 areas left in the last stage of LVIP and the staff is now working to set aside still another area, Dealtrey says.
And now Dealtrey is an active supporter and missionary for an extension of this idea, a Regional Economic Development Corporation dedicated to combining the efforts of 15 government entities into one group working to attract more companies and jobs to the Lehigh Valley.
With the influx of companies came traffic congestion.
So, in the early 1980s, Dealtrey helped organize the 1-78 Association, pointing out that the Lehigh Valley was the most heavily populated area in the U.S. not served by an interstate highway.
As the 1-78 Association chairman, Dealtrey helped push through construction of a 38-mile link to the interstate system.
The project was controversial and perhaps not the best thing for a businessman to promote.
But Dealtrey believed it was good for the area.
For five years he persisted, lobbied, built a consensus and finally pushed through the half-billion-dollar project, the largest public capital investment in the history of the area.
Today, even most of those who first opposed the 1-78 idea concede it has been essential to growth in the valley.
And most agree it was Dealtrey’s persistence that made 1-78 possible.
Even his business success and community recognition are only a part of Dealtrey’s life.
He has long been active in the 3,000 member First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem where he has served as an elder.
Dealtrey has also been a member of Bethlehem’s nationally known “world class” 120-voice Bach Choir which has even sung as part of the internationally known annual music festival in Salzburg, Austria.
Dealtrey is also on avid tennis player and golfer in the summer and a skier in the winner.
The Dealtreys socialize with a long standing group of old friends.
Years ago a newspaper photographer snapped a picture of the group at an outing and was amazed to discover not a single couple there had been married less than 25 years and most in the party had known each other far longer than that.
The photo ran with the caption “Pillars of the Community.”
Loyalty and stability.
Occasionally Dealtrey does emerge as a showman and promoter.
Six years ago to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary the Dealtreys threw a party that will long be remembered in Bethlehem.
They took over the ballroom of the Hotel Bethlehem and invited their friends to a black the opera ball.
Waiters and waitresses, costumed from the Mozart era, served dinner white a group of violinists imported from as far away as Philadelphia and New York played music from the opera.
And on a huge screen, whose border was built to resemble the stage of an opera house, pictures of six of the world’s great opera houses were shown while music from six of the world’s best-known operas were performed, one during each course of the meal.
Thus the Dealtreys showed off another of their interests. They annually buy seven-performance subscription tickets to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Though as chairman of Service Tire Truck Centers, Dealtrey is not as active in day-to-day dealings as he once was, he is still heavily involved in planning and training and in company promotions.
And he still thinks in terms of growth as shown by the recent acquisition on the New Jersey commercial dealership.
At 69, he has no thoughts of retiring.
As Modern Tire Dealer magazine’s fifth Tire Dealer of the Year. Dealtrey demonstrates once again here are many different methods of running a business that gains national recognition.
Over the years he has worked just as hard for his community, his employees and his friends as he has for himself.
And the payoff has been spectacular!