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Character Counts, Says 2005 Tire Dealer of the Year Paul Zurcher

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Character Counts, Says 2005 Tire Dealer of the Year Paul Zurcher

The term "living legend" is often misapplied. But not when it comes to Paul Zurcher.

He is the founder of Zurcher Tire Inc., one of the Midwest's most successful tire stores.

He also is the founder and head of Best-One Tire & Service, one of North America's largest and most profitable tire distribution networks. And he is a member of the Tire Industry Association's Tire Industry Hall of Fame.

Zurcher is universally respected as a true giant of the tire industry -- and not just because of his remarkable business success.

Zurcher is just as legendary for his big heart, the respect and affection that he showers upon his employees and customers, and his enthusiasm for sharing his blessings with others.

"Paul Zurcher makes dreams come true," says a long-time employee. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more fitting tribute to the 2005 Modern Tire Dealer Tire Dealer of the Year.

Twist of fate

Paul Zurcher came extremely close to never opening a tire shop – a few inches to be exact.

It was 1945 and Zurcher was trudging across Italy as part of an Army machine gun squad.

His unit came to the forward slope of a ridge overlooking a small village. Zurcher and his mates were ordered to enter the valley.

"The Germans let us get over that ridge but had their machine guns up on the roofs and in the second-story windows and they brought in their artillery," he says.

"It was a gruesome sight."

Zurcher and some other soldiers managed to take cover in a building. "But pretty soon a mortar shell dropped to the rear and another one dropped to the front. We knew where the next one was going to go. We had to get out."

Meanwhile, a German machine gun had been trained on the building's doorway.

"Our gunner went outside and was riddled with 40 bullets."

Zurcher, who was right behind him, got partly through the doorway when he was hit.

He sustained a bullet wound to his arm. A few inches over, he says, and it could have been his lung or his heart.

Following the injury, Zurcher was sent home to the United States. His next assignment? The Pacific Theater. But it wasn't to be.

"I went from Fort Meade, Md., to Indianapolis, Ind., by rail. When I got to Indianapolis, I found out that V-J Day had happened."

The war was now over, and "I had to make a decision as to what I was going to do." He decided to get a job at a service station in his hometown of Monroe, Ind.

The rest is tire industry history.

Humble origins

Zurcher, 81, the third of seven children, grew up during the Great Depression on a farm near Monroe, where he lives today.

"I was fortunate to have parents who had very high values," he says. He learned the worth of hard work at an early age.

"When we went to school we had to get up early in the morning and do chores. We'd have breakfast and then walk a mile-and-a-half to the country school. Then in the evening we'd walk back from school. If it was harvest time, we'd go back out and work. Then we'd come in when it got dark and have dinner as a family. "I was milking cows at six years old."

William and Eva Zurcher made sure their children "walked a pretty straight line," according to Paul. "They expected us to be well-behaved."

This moral discipline and work ethic would become the foundation of Zurcher's company and career.

"When I came back from the service, I could have gone back to school." (Zurcher was drafted before he finished high school.)

"I could have gone back to the farm. But I chose to work at a service station."

He supplemented his income by buying and selling used cars. "I'd buy them and clean them up. All you needed was to have a car and you could sell it because they were so scarce" as America shifted back from a war-time economy.

Soon he decided to go into business for himself. "I saw there was a need for someone to service cars and sell and repair farm tires. I didn't know anything but the farm and what I had learned when I worked at the service station. But I loved to be around people."

He found a single-bay service station in Monroe that had closed and borrowed $300 from a local bank to buy it. "I went in to the teller and said, 'I want to see the president of the bank.' He took me in and I said, 'I have a dream but I need $300.'

"He asked me some questions -- what my vision was, what my goal was -- and said to me, 'Son, you got it.' And I re-opened the station." The year was 1948. He married his wife, Betty, the following year.

Zurcher Tire started as a Mobil gas vendor. "I opened up at 7:30 a.m. and worked until 8:30 p.m. six days a week." His older brother, Vernon, would fill in for him when he wanted a night off.

"I soon began getting more business than I could handle. I had a brother-in-law, Weldon Nussbaum, who had just gotten married and was looking for a job." One of Zurcher's outside business ventures generated enough money to bring Weldon on payroll full-time.

"As the business grew, we started to sell tires." The first brand Zurcher carried was Mobil.

His reputation was growing as well. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. soon approached Zurcher about buying directly from them. "The first year I was in business I sold about $4,000 worth of tires!"

Business continued to prosper. Zurcher decided that a bigger garage was in order.

"My dream was to have a three-bay service station. They were rare at that point in time.

"I found out there was one in Fort Wayne, Ind. I used to go there on Sunday afternoons and sit across the street and admire it and say, 'Some day I'm going to have one of those.'"

He began looking for possible locations for an expansion. "There was a house sitting on the corner and I started asking how much it would cost to move that house to another lot" to make room for a larger garage. "I contracted a company to put the house on wheels and move it down the street half-a-block."

He secured another loan and his dream of a three-bay shop soon became a reality.

The start of something big

Today, Monroe, Ind., has only 800 people, but it's more than twice as big as it was when Zurcher opened shop there in 1948.

Zurcher was lucky enough to be surrounded by larger communities. "If you went north six miles to Decatur, that was about 8,000 to 9,000 people. If you went south six miles to Berne, Ind., the population there was a little over 3,000. West to Bluffton, and you had about 9,000 people."

Decatur and Bluffton had independent tire dealers, plus farm equipment dealers and other service stations in the area also sold tires. But Zurcher Tire still managed to draw in customers from all over the region.

"I really think we worked harder," says Zurcher. "We said we had to give better service, we had to exceed customers' expectations and we had to build strong relationships. We felt we weren't in a position to advertise because we weren't big enough.

"But I wanted every customer to leave with a good feeling and their needs met. We depended on our customers to do our advertising for us in our early years."

It took some time, but after the three-bay garage was up and running, "we were in a position to give customers better service."

Buying from Firestone helped Zurcher Tire grow the farm tire side of its business "and we started to do more with large truck tires, which were (mainly) sold to farmers and small truck owners -- nothing to big fleets at this point." (Zurcher Tire now sells a wide range of consumer and commercial tires and also wholesales tires out of its Monroe location.)

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As the years progressed, Zurcher began looking ahead. "I said, 'If I can be successful at one, I can be successful at two.' I had a Firestone territory manager, Jim Wertenberger, who wanted to leave the company and go into business for himself."

Zurcher suggested they form a 50-50 partnership. They bought out a widow who owned a tire dealership in Huntington, Ind. It didn't take long for the newly acquired shop to start turning a profit.

Around the same time, Zurcher noticed that dual wheels for farm tractors were growing in popularity and decided he would make his own dual wheels. He bought rims from a manufacturer and hired a machine shop to make component parts. Then, during the winter months, he paid out-of-work farmers to assemble the parts into finished products.

Zurcher pitched the wheels at a Firestone dealer meeting "and the idea went over fantastically. We started buying rims by the semi load. This helped me make more money to do more expansions.

"Then as tractors got bigger, I had to make a choice: either get into (dual wheels) big-time, which would take away from the tire business," or get out of wheel fabricating.

"While this was going on in the early '60s, there were two oil jobbers in the county who wanted to retire and sell out to me, so I had that opportunity. I seriously debated leaving the tire business."

Zurcher was persuaded to stick with tires by a Firestone district manager, Ray Monteith, who offered him a sizeable bonus if Zurcher Tire bought $1 million worth of tires from the Akron, Ohio-based company during the next year. "My wife, Betty, and I talked it over and our decision was to expand the tire business."

By 1964, Zurcher Tire's annual sales had grown to $250,000. Ray Monteith left Firestone to become Zurcher's second partner two years later. "I learned a lot from Ray, both when he was at Firestone and after he came with me," says Zurcher. "He was very instrumental in our early growth."

Things were coming together for Zurcher -- and he was proving early skeptics wrong. "My dad had a lot of brothers and sisters and when they heard I was going into business they said to my parents, 'That son of yours is taking too much of a risk. This town is too small. It can't support a business.'

"After I went into business, they said, 'Advise him never to take any family into the business because that's trouble, too.' I guess I didn't listen very well," he says with a laugh. Three generations of Zurcher's family now work at Zurcher Tire.

By the mid-'60s, Zurcher was well-established. His holdings also included a former Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. store in Bluffton. In 1969, he expanded into Fort Wayne.

Four years later, he met a young man named Paul Weaver, who would go on to become one of his biggest partners as the head of Princeton, Ind.-based Southern Indiana Tire.

Weaver calls going into business with Zurcher "the greatest thing I've ever done."

He was working as a territory rep for General Tire & Rubber Co. when he approached Zurcher and Monteith. "I wanted to get involved with them on the ground level of a new store." He became a full partner within six months.

Since then, Southern Indiana Tire has grown to encompass 23 locations, making it the 57th largest independent tire dealership in North America on MTD’s “Top 100 Independent Tire Store Chains” list.

"I won't do anything without Paul," says Weaver. "He got me going. Paul gives you as much support as you want. He's always willing to talk. He's always willing to try new ideas. He's not a dictator.

"Paul is very honest. And he makes you feel good about yourself." In 1974, Zurcher formed a partnership with two more upstarts, Paul Swentzel and Don Schneider.

Swentzel and Schneider had decided to open a tire shop. The store would eventually evolve into S&S Firestone, now a 43-outlet chain based in Lexington, Ky., and the 24th largest independent tire dealership in North America. "We had a lot of desire and no money," says Swentzel.

Schneider, who had been a Firestone salesman, already knew Zurcher "and had a tremendous amount of respect for him. The three of us met and we went into business with each other."

Zurcher is a master businessman, according to Swentzel. "He's good with any kind of ratio -- production payroll, inventory turns, balance sheet issues. He's very good at benchmarking. He's good at building a business plan and getting everyone to buy into it.

"And he's a nice guy. He's a very good listener. He has a passion for his partners living up to their potential."

Another key partner, Ken Langhals, came on-board in 1977. Langhals, who runs Delphos, Ohio-based K&M Tire Inc., had been buying tires from Zurcher since 1970.

He wanted to boost his buying power, talked it over with Zurcher and they became partners.

Langhals says Zurcher has helped him become a better businessman. "You couldn't find a better partner or a better person to do business with."

Best-One, best yet

Zurcher's knack for attracting good partners and establishing successful relationships with them ultimately led to the creation of Best-One in 1999.

"We wanted to do something to harness and take advantage of what dad had built," says Mark Zurcher, vice president of Zurcher Tire and Best-One. "We had all (the ingredients), but it wasn't tied together in the best possible way.

"We knew that in terms of marketing and working with suppliers and being recognized by the consumer, we had to take some big steps. And we knew we needed some good, high-class people to make that happen."

Pete Glesing, a commercial tire specialist whom the Zurchers hired from Michelin North America Inc., and John Miller, a transplant from Goodyear, were called to play big roles in the program's development.

Both men had joined Paul after selling tires to him for several years. (Miller says Paul's reputation was such that he agreed to leave Goodyear and come to work for him before finalizing a salary!)

The Zurchers then started looking for partners. They've since become shareholders in each of the 250-plus Best-One locations. The amount they own varies from store to store. Sometimes stores have additional stockholders; all of them share in each outlet's profits. (Best-One stores are set up as individual corporations.)

Paul doesn't require prospects to meet sales or purchasing terms. "The requirement is that they have a dream."

He gets a great deal of satisfaction working with young people who want to open their own stores. "To see someone want to start a business and see that person so enthused and so excited -- you've helped make a difference in their life. It's the satisfaction of seeing someone else bloom. And to think that maybe what you started is the reason they have that opportunity... you had a little part in it, but they made it happen.

“Our group has been fortunate in drawing that caliber of people to our organization."

"We have people who come to us because of (our dad's) name and reputation -- just because of who he is," says Mark.

"There's a lot of 'we' and 'us' in Best-One, not a lot of 'me' and 'I,' and that's why it has worked," says Glesing. "One of Paul's greatest attributes is that he's really interested in what you have to say. He's willing to listen and let you try."

Zurcher lets Best-One partners run their stores as they see fit. He doesn't ask them to change their store names, but a lot of them have done so on their own accord.

"The Best-One concept does several things," says Mark. "It's a brand that we can bring to the consumer. We want to give them the idea that when they go into a Best-One store, they're going somewhere that's part of something big."

Best-One partners also enjoy greater buying power as part of the group. "If we're operating as a unit as opposed to a bunch of separate entities, that's a big advantage."

The Zurchers have set up a real estate company to handle Best-One properties. "Most people who lease you something want a five- or 10-year lease," says Paul. "For what they want in rent, we can own that real estate and pay it off in anywhere from seven to 15 years. And we give (Best-One partners) a chance to be investors in that real estate."

The Zurchers do not dictate pricing to Best-One partners. "They're given authority, but with that authority comes responsibility, says Paul. At annual meetings we review the past year's performance, we look at strengths and weaknesses and we determine if that store is living up to its potential."

He tells partners, "You and I are in a relationship that I value very much. You have your needs and wants and we have our needs and wants. If your needs and wants are not being met or our needs and wants are not being met, let's sit down, talk about it and see if we can come up with a win-win solution.

"Sometimes people go down a course that's a lose-lose road. When that happens, you have to change their thinking. We try to work something out."

"Paul will never admit this, but he has great patience," says Miller.

He also has great judgment, according to Glesing. "Paul has found a lot of good people who don't need a whole lot of direction. They have that entrepreneurial spirit. They have a clear sense of where they need to go."

The Zurchers are continually adding to the Best-One program. They implemented a strategy earlier this year that will help the group maintain its high standards as it grows.

"We're trying to build more tools that will be of greater benefit to our existing partners and new partners who will come along," says Miller.

The Zurchers do not have an annual sign-up goal for Best-One. And there are no plans to take it national.

"You set that goal and you start chasing it and all of a sudden you're forgetting the principles that got you where you are," explains Miller. "The priority is to remain a healthy, profitable business." Best One also is the fourth largest retreader in the U.S., with 16 plants and daily production of more than 1,970 medium truck retreads, according to MTD research.

Best-One's sales hit $650 million in 2004, a record for the group.

A family affair

Paul Zurcher has seen a multitude of changes since he sold his first tire more than 55 years ago.

"One of them would be the quality of the product," he says. "You can go back to my early years in the business and if someone drove on gravel roads, you were continually adjusting tires for impact breaks.

"Another thing that has changed immensely is the size of the tire dealer. It's gone the trend of the farmer. It used to be a 40-acre farm was a big one. Today if you don't have 600 acres" you're not considered big.

Zurcher Tire also carries more labels. It sells Bridgestone, Firestone, Dayton, Mastercraft, Goodyear, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Yokohama and Titan brand products. In addition, all Best-One retread shops are affiliated with Bandag Inc.

One thing that hasn't changed is the need for good leadership, says Zurcher. "If you look at why people follow leaders, the first thing is they want direction. They want to work for a company that has a game plan. They're looking for security, too.

"The second thing is trust. Trust is the glue that holds any organization together. If you're going to build relationships that are lasting they have to be built on trust.

"The third thing is hope -- the feeling that this is going to be a good place to work at and the company is going to continue to grow.

"The next thing -- and this is a word that isn't used much today -is compassion. People want to be treated with love, honor, dignity and respect.

"You learn from other leaders," says Zurcher, who adds he has increased his knowledge of the industry by participating in numerous dealer councils over the years.

"Right now I chair Bridgestone/Firestone's ag tire dealer council. You learn from your (peers)."

Zurcher says he puts a premium on having a can-do attitude. "I like people with enthusiasm. And if the interest is there, I think encouragement is a powerful tool.

"Our two sons, Larry and Mark, started working when they were in the eighth grade. When Larry was in college and starting to think about what he was going to do when he got out, we sat down and he asked me if there would be a place for him in the organization. We talked and before he went back to school that weekend, I let him know that if this was the thing he wanted more than anything else, we would love to have him."

After graduating and then working at a major accounting firm, Larry joined the family business. As the company's CFO, he oversees Zurcher Tire and Best-One's finances.

Mark had more of an interest in management. "He worked through high school and was very eager to learn." He now helps chart Zurcher Tire and Best-One's strategy and growth. (Paul and Betty's daughter, Colleen, runs her own group therapy business.)

"One of the great joys is to see your children become better at things than you are and for your grandchildren to come along and be better yet." Some of Paul's grandchildren work in the family business.

"I've been working here since I was a little girl," says Lindsey Zurcher-Beer, 26. She now manages Zurcher Tire's retail store in Monroe. "A lot of people say they couldn't work in a family business. It's a privilege to be part of the family business! We have a lot of great models to learn from."

Jon Zurcher, 24, who also works the retail counter, has been helping out at the dealership since his early teens. "I worked in the warehouse. I'd help load and unload trucks. After that I spent time working in the bays."

He enjoys his current position. "I love interacting with customers. You're not just selling tires; you're taking care of people's needs."

Tina Zurcher, 26, who holds a law degree, handles legal work for Zurcher Tire and Best-One, working with her mom and Larry's wife, Susan. (Tina and Jon are siblings.) "We try to solve problems before they start," she says. "We can field a lot of things quickly." Tina's husband, Mike Podszywalow, also works for Zurcher Tire.

The grandchildren look up to Paul. "He doesn't miss a beat," says Jon. "He's on the ball with everything that's going on. He's never too busy to help -- even if he's rolling tires into a bay or getting used tires out of the way."

"We have big shoes to fill and a lot of expectations to meet," says Lindsey. "But we've been raised to be confident, optimistic people. It's the positive people who make things happen, and I think that's something I learned from my grandfather."

"You see how he lives and what he does and you feel like you should do your best," says Tina.

Paul's wife of 56 years, Betty, now age 77, worked at Zurcher Tire until recently. "Betty has definitely been a vital part" of the company's success, he says. "Back when our children were small, she devoted her time to the family. That was the most important thing.

"Once all the children were in school, she came to me and said, 'I'd like to spend some time at the store.'" Over the years, she has helped with various administrative duties.

"We look at our children and grandchildren and they've done nothing but make us proud," says Paul. "And those things just don't happen. Betty has been a tremendous influence on our children and grandchildren. She marches at the head of our hit parade."

Other family members work for Paul as well, including Mark's wife, Vickie, who works in the office at company headquarters, and Colleen's husband, Brendan McGauran, who is in charge of Zurcher Tire's computer system. The love and respect they have for Paul is palpable. Paul's employees hold him in similar esteem. Most of them have been with him for years and more than 10 of Zurcher Tire's employees have retired from the company after many years of service.

Paul's concern for his employees doesn't end when they finish their careers. He provides his workers with a 100% company-funded pension.

Highly respected

Drive around Monroe with Paul and you'll see him receive plenty of smiles and waves from people. He's a well-known figure in the town and also in surrounding communities.

Paul doesn't seek the attention. He's a humble man who likes to put the spotlight on other people. In fact, he downplays all the good things he does for the area's residents and institutions. But he talks excitedly about the importance of serving others.

After Paul got his business off the ground in the late '40s, "I decided that I had to set my goals in five categories: the spiritual, the family, the mental, the physical and the financial. That's how I labeled them.

"I realized the importance of someone in business being involved in the community. I was a volunteer fireman. I helped get a Lion's Club started. Betty and I were very involved in the church." They still are. Paul has been a Sunday school teacher for more than 50 years!

Paul has a strong faith, which he applies to the rest of his life. He doesn’t brag about it. But other people love to discuss the topic.

"Paul is very much ‘other-oriented’ and interested in other people's success," says Daryl Martin, director of Swiss Village Retirement Community, a senior citizen's home in Berne, Ind. Paul is co-chair of a fund development program that will hopefully raise $6 million for a health center at Swiss Village. He's been on the facility's board of directors since 1990.

"Paul is one of those people you're just very fortunate to encounter in life. He's a model you don't frequently see. He's very charitable. He wants to use his resources to help others.

"I have the highest regard for the man. It's a privilege to know him."

Marvin Baird, executive director of Adams County Memorial Hospital in Decatur, also has worked with Paul on various projects.

A couple of years ago, Adams County, which owns the hospital, had to make a decision about the facility's future. Several options were open, including selling it. Paul led a group that studied those options. They made a recommendation to the county that a new hospital was needed and that it should remain under the county's ownership. The new hospital - an impressive, state-of-the-art facility -- was completed two months ago.

"I've been here 15 or 16 years but have been in this business well over 50 years," says Baird. "I've never worked with a man who is as sincere and community-minded. He's taught me a great deal about working with people. There's so much a person can learn from him. I wish I'd met him 30 years ago."

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Paul is a major contributor to Taylor University, a liberal arts college based in Upland, Ind. He was on a steering committee for a $75 million capital campaign, the largest that Taylor University had ever embarked upon. "Paul provided leadership and encouragement and was a major participant financially," says Dr. Jay Kesler, Taylor's president emeritus. The school reached its goal.

"He's an example of the old Norman Vincent Peale idea of 'the power of positive thinking.'" And Paul puts words into action, according to Kesler. "He's a pace-setter."

Paul also has been active with the local 4-H Club and contributed to the construction of a community sports complex.

Paul is often asked to speak to Rotary Clubs, schools, churches and other organizations. The groups usually ask him to speak about leadership.

"One of the things I'm very conscious of is not to leave the impression that I'm better than anyone else," he says. "God knows I make a lot of mistakes."

But it's clear that Paul's personal life and professional life are based on sound morals.

"Does character count? You bet it does. If it doesn't, then nothing else counts."

A lot of companies go astray and ultimately self-destruct "because their leaders haven't been people of character or integrity or truth," he says.

"Our son, Larry, after he graduated with his MBA, went to work for Arthur Andersen" for two years. The Chicago, Ill.-based accounting firm - whose motto once was "Think straight, talk straight" -- became embroiled in the Enron scandal many years later.

"It was one of the most respected companies in the world. And look at what happened to them. Arthur Andersen compromised its integrity. It didn't have a set of core values.

"If you study the lives of people who make power their goal, make money their goal and make popularity their goal - they reach those goals and they're not happy. It doesn't bring them that joy, that satisfaction.

"I believe there's a life beyond this life. The spiritual is the foundation." Despite all that he's accomplished, Paul believes he has more work to do. "If we were doing this for the money, we could sell out. I get contacted continually. But if you were to do that, then you'd turn your back on all those people who helped you get to where you are.

"I love what I'm doing. I'll retire when I cease to enjoy what I'm doing. Oh, there are problems along the way. There are times my wife will say to me, 'Why do you do it? You don't have to.' But there's a challenge in coming up with solutions to problems.

"I love to study the lives of great people and you know, if you go to the Bible and the giants of history -- many of those people made their greatest contributions to life after the age of 65, 70, 75, even 80! I don't think I'll ever retire."

That's not only good news for Zurcher Tire, Best-One and the people who make up those organizations. That's good news for everyone who makes a living as an independent tire dealer.

All-star roster: Zurcher joins elite list

Paul Zurcher is the 13th winner of Modern Tire Dealer's Tire Dealer of the Year award. He will receive an etched plaque commemorating the honor and a framed portrait.

A check for $1,000 will be sent to the charity of his choice: the planned oncology unit at Adams County Memorial Hospital in Decatur, Ind.

Paul was chosen by the following independent judges:

* Anne and Russ Evans of Hebron, Conn.-based tire importer/exporter Tyres 2000 Ltd.;

* Saul Ludwig, long-time author of MTD's Ludwig Report and a managing director with KeyBanc Capital Markets, a division of Cleveland, Ohio-based McDonald Investments Inc.;

* Dick Morgan of Morgan Marketing Solutions in Dallas, Texas;

* Larry Morgan, 2001 Tire Dealer of the Year, former Tire Industry Association president and founder of Morgan Tire & Auto Inc.

* Tom Gegax, 1998 Tire Dealer of the Year, founder of Team Tires Plus Ltd., owner of Gegax Management Systems and regular contributor to MTD.

Last year's Tire Dealer of the Year winners were Bob and Juanita Purcell of Potosi, Mo.-based Purcell Tire & Rubber Co. Other Tire Dealer of the Year recipients include John Marshall, Grismer Tire Co., Dayton, Ohio (2003); Tom Raben, Raben Tire Co., Evansville, Ind. (2002); Les Schwab, Les Schwab Tire Centers, Prineville, Ore. (2000); and Raynal Pearson, Pearson Tire Co., Richfield, Utah (1999).

Our first five Tire Dealer of the Year winners were Barry Steinberg, Direct Tire & Auto Service, Watertown, Mass. (1993); Jerry Bauer, Bauer Built Inc., Durand, Wis. (1994); Tony Troilo, Rosson & Troilo Motor Co., Brandy Station, Va. (1995); David Stringer, Stringer Tire Co., Jackson, Fla. (1996); and Walt Dealtrey Sr., Service Tire Truck Centers, Bethlehem, Pa. (1997).

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