Commercial Trendsetters: Kris and Keith Schnipke
It’s a philosophy that has fueled the growth of their business, Schnipke Brothers Tire, over the last 19 years.
Through hard work, a willingness to go above and beyond customers’ expectations and the ability to capitalize on opportunities that others miss, the brothers have built their once-tiny operation into a thriving dealership that has become the “go-to” source in its area for new commercial truck and farm tires, emergency roadside and in-the-field service, and more.
“Keith and Kris are both hard-working individuals,” says Ken Langhals, CEO of K&M Tire, which supplies tires to them. “They are always willing to go above and beyond to accomplish their goals and get the job done right. They have a passion for the tire business, they have the creativity and imagination to see how to do things better, and they want to be fair and always do the right thing for their customers and suppliers.”
‘From the ground up’
Kris and Keith’s interest in tires dates back to their high school days, when they mounted passenger and light truck tires on relatives and friends’ cars and pickup trucks inside their family’s shop, using second-hand equipment, during the evening and on weekends.
“We were the only place around where you get your tires done at 7 o’clock at night,” says Keith.
The venture was more of a hobby than a money maker, he admits. But it opened the brothers’ eyes to the possibility of selling tires for a living instead of pursuing a full-time career in farming, which is the dominant vocation in the brothers’ small hometown of Kalida, Ohio. (Kris and Keith, along with three other siblings, grew up on a farm, which is still owned by their mother and sits directly across the road from their dealership.)
At the time, their older brother, Kevin, was working at K&M Tire Inc. in nearby Delphos, Ohio. Keith and Kris joined him and proceeded to learn the tire business “from the ground up,” says Keith. “I worked there for about 20 years. I did everything from maintenance work to service trucks and working in the warehouse. I also sold tires on the road and ran a route truck.”
Kris, who is a few years younger than Keith, worked at K&M Tire for more than a decade, handling an equally wide range of duties. “It was a great place to work and learn,” he says.
As the brothers honed their craft, their thoughts gradually turned to entrepreneurship. “We said, ‘We have the experience. We know what we’re doing. We should open our own dealership,’” says Keith. “We knew that if we were ever going to make the leap, now was the time.”
Kris and Keith discussed the idea with Langhals, plus other members of K&M Tire’s management team, “and gained their blessing, which was important for us. We had their support.”
In 2001, Schnipke Brothers Tire was incorporated – and the hard work of parlaying the brothers’ experience into a successful, self-directed business began.
Lean, mean and growing
Keith and Kris started working out of a small shop that their father had built several years earlier. “Our ‘office’ was a desk that was right in the middle of our work area,” says Keith. “If you were mounting a tire and the phone rang, you would have to stop what you were doing to answer the phone.”
“That would never work nowadays,” says Kris with a laugh.
The brothers started selling and servicing passenger and light truck tires. They soon added medium truck and farm tires to their line-up.
At first, their biggest challenge was “letting people know we were here and what we could do,” says Keith. Their fiercest competitors were small gas stations that sold tires and performed basic tire service work – a business model that they say has fallen by the wayside.
“A lot of our original competitors have come and gone,” says Kris. “Some others that have stayed in business now send customers to our store.”
Kris and Keith began knocking on doors and getting the word out to their friends and neighbors. “If we saw a guy who had a truck in his driveway, we stopped and talked to him,” says Kris. “If we saw a farm that had a couple of grain trucks, we stopped in and talked to the owner of the farm.”
The brothers ran a lean operation, often performing roadside service calls in the middle of the night by themselves.
“It takes a lot of time and elbow grease to build a business from scratch,” says Keith. “You have to be willing to not only put in the time, but also to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy.”
Word-of-mouth gradually spread and business began to snowball. Keith and Kris started to add employees and reinvest in their operation.
As their reputation grew, new business followed.
Even though their store is located on a two-lane country road, miles away from a major highway, long-haul truck drivers began to find the dealership. And local fleets became more receptive to doing business with them.
“Being out in the country wasn’t a hindrance,” says Keith. “It was a plus. In an area like this, you know everybody by name. If you fix a tire for a farmer or a local truck driver at night or on the weekend, he’ll tell his wife, his kids and his grand kids, and he will send everybody he knows here. We promote a personal feel and give our customers honest recommendations and service.”
This approach isn’t flashy, according to Kris, but it works.
“Base hits win ballgames,” he says. “Every once in a while, you hit a home run. But base hits allow you to grow and expand. We made a lot of base hits.”
Although commercial tire sales have grown to comprise more than 50% of their overall business, Keith and Kris limit the commercial tire-related services they offer, opting to concentrate on what they do best.
They don’t offer Department of Transportation inspections. They don’t perform truck engine, brake or suspension system work. They don’t manufacture their own retreads. (However, they can source retreads from a local producer, upon request.)
They do, however, fix nail-hole punctures. They also perform spin balancing and run two service trucks.
And the brothers still roll up their sleeves when the situation warrants it.
“If there’s a big job, we’ll go out with our service techs,” says Kris. “It wasn’t all that long ago when both of us went out on a Sunday morning and put a tire on a big piece of farm machinery. Many of our customers have our personal cell numbers. When they need our help, we go.”Several years ago, they started offering powder coated wheels from nearby Unverferth Manufacturing in response to growing demand from commercial customers. “We used to think that fleets and truck drivers never cared about how their wheels looked,” says Keith. “But now they do. Powder coated wheels look better and are much more durable. We stock around 100 wheels at any given time.”
Rim polishing has been another successful add-on. “It’s allowed us to meet so many new customers,” Keith says.
“We even do rims for other dealers who sell truck tires,” adds Kris. “They bring the wheels to us and we run them through our system.”
Owner-operators with one or two trucks make up the majority of Schnipke Brothers Tire’s commercial customer base.
“Most of our customers are people we’ve known for years,” says Keith. “Owner-operators are a lot more focused on having a personal relationship with their dealer.”
The dealership’s top truck tire brands are Roadmaster and Firestone. “We can get anything that K&M Tire carries,” says Kris.
The company offers truck tires for a wide range of applications, from long-haul to mixed service.
For most customers, a tire’s up-front price is not the most critical consideration, Keith adds. “People will forget what a tire costs, if they like it and they like the service you provide. If they don’t like the product — and don’t like how you treated them — they will remember the cost forever.”
“Our customers will drop off their trucks at night and tell us, ‘Whatever you feel is needed, do it,’” says Kris.
Schnipke Brothers Tire’s reputation for excellence enabled it to displace another dealer to win a contract at a local Landstar terminal, which runs 20 trucks. “We go there every week,” says Keith. “It’s more volume for us.”
Both Keith and Kris concede that customer expectations have grown over the years.
“They want you to do more for them,” says Kris. “It’s more of a ‘one-stop shop’ approach.”
In response, the brothers are thinking about adding wheel alignment for tractor-trailers, but will continue to evaluate the market before investing in the necessary equipment to offer that service. “You also need someone who is specifically trained to perform alignments,” says Keith.
Schnipke Brothers Tire currently employs 10 people, half of which are family, including Kris’ daughter-in-law, Chelsea Schnipke, who handles the company’s marketing, social media and accounting; Keith’s sons, Alex and Andrew Schnipke, who perform tire service work, operate service trucks and tend to the sales counter; and a cousin, Cory Schnipke, who also runs a service truck and works the dealership’s sales counter.
Each employee tends to his or her own set of responsibilities but also knows what their fellow employees are working on, according to Keith. “Every day we have lunch together, anywhere from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., inside our garage,” he says. “We sit around the table and talk with one another – not only about business issues, but also about what they might need from a personal point of view.”
Keith and Kris try to cross-train their employees and create an individualized career path for each worker.
Operating in a sparsely populated area, the dealership’s biggest human resource challenge has been finding new employees. “We’ll talk to high school or neighbor kids and will give them an opportunity to work after school, cleaning up the shop and stuff like that,” says Kris. “Then, if they’re interested, we’ll move them into changing car tires and then truck tires. We try to lead them.”
A few who quit to work elsewhere have returned to the dealership. “They’re always welcome to come back to us.”
Investing in facilities and equipment has helped with employee retention, according to Keith. In recent years, the dealership has added new truck and farm tire changing and balancing equipment. Because of that, “we can now do more tires in a day. And it’s less wear-and-tear on our employees.”
The company also doubled the size of its facility, which represented a substantial, six-figure investment. “We needed more room for work and inventory,” says Kris. “And it has been good for our employees. Our people represent us. Whatever they do is a reflection on us. We want them to be happy. And we want to give them what they need to make our customers happy.”
Keith and Kris are big believers in creating goodwill among customers, too. They are members of the chamber of commerce in Kalida, where Chelsea serves as vice president.
They also donate to Relay for Life, a fund raising event for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, and are proud donors to the United Way of Putnam County to help support local service agencies. In addition, they support local 4-H members with fair projects and animals, and they recently made a sizeable donation to help defray the construction of 4 Seasons Park in Kalida.
“We try to sponsor events, but we also attend events to show our faces and let people know that we’re part of the community,” says Keith.
Last year, for the first time, Schnipke Brothers Tire, with K&M Tire’s help, brought the Bridgestone Corp.-sponsored Bigfoot monster truck to the Kalida Heritage Days Festival, an annual summertime event, as well as the Putnam (Ohio) County Fair, which draws thousands of people.
The dealership also sponsored a Bigfoot “car crush” event that saw the rig roll over used vehicles in dramatic fashion.
“We brought a bunch of old cars to the site,” says Kris. Hundreds of people attended the event. “Our name was all over it. You wouldn’t believe how many people came up to us and thanked us. It was pretty neat.”
K&M Tire has been an outstanding resource, according to Kris and Keith. “Anything we ask for, they come through for us,” says Keith. “They’re willing to work with us on just about anything we want to do.”
Support takes the form of assisting with events and sponsorships, providing advantageous terms on pricing, helping the dealership forecast inventory needs and more.
Schnipke Brothers Tire has been a member of K&M Tire’s Big 3 associate dealer program for more than a decade.
“If there’s a deal coming up, they make sure we know about it,” says Kris. “They will tell us if rebates are coming up so we can buy ahead, which can make a big difference. If we need help with advertising, they will tell us what’s available.
“K&M Tire works hand-in-hand with us. We keep an open line of communication with them at all times. If I needed 24 truck tires this afternoon, they would be there. I don’t think you’ll find any partner that’s better.”
Ready for more
Keith and Kris intend to build their business locally rather than expanding into larger, more densely populated communities.
“We understand our customers,” says Kris. “And we’d rather succeed on our own merits. We don’t want to throw other dealerships under the bus, even if they compete against us.”
While the brothers are reticent to divulge their dealership’s total annual sales, they report that its revenue grew nearly 20% from 2018 to 2019, “which is very good for us,” says Keith.
“We tell people, ‘We like to make money.’ But we also like to take care of our customers, first and foremost. That’s what it’s all about.” ■