Rough road to a bigger dealership
The road to a new and larger tire dealership was more like a bumpy roller coaster than a sleigh ride for Dan Boni Sr.
In the end, after a two-year struggle, he got the facility he wanted. Business has been growing extremely well since Boni Tire & Auto Service Inc. opened on Dec. 1, 2011.
But first Boni had to navigate a surprising and unexpected array of potholes to business ownership put in his path by the local township zoning board.
Like all entrepreneurs, Boni has the ability to see what others cannot. He saw potential in an abandoned paint store in an aging retail plaza in Flemington, a central New Jersey borough of about 4,500 residents.
The challenge was turning that space into the tire dealership of his dreams.
It seemed an attainable goal to Boni, who was not new to the tire business or even to owning and operating his own shop.
“I have loved to work on cars since I was very young. I started out at an auto parts store before I had my driver’s license,” Boni says.
He eventually joined a tire dealership in New Jersey as a tire changer. He worked his way up to lead mechanic, held positions in the office, finally becoming manager.
“I ran that store with passion, like it was my own,” Boni remembers. But success brought some unwelcome changes. “After years there the company grew greatly and then what I feared happened: quotas and commissions.”
Boni began looking for something different. He was soon offered an opportunity to run a brand new Vespia’s Goodyear location close to his home. He could not pass it up, and the store quickly became Goodyear’s number one location in terms of revenue and volume in the area.
Success turned Boni’s thoughts to opening his own business. “I always had in the back of my mind that I work hard and customers like me, so I must be able to do this myself and reap the benefits of my hard work.”
In 1999, he started his own store in East Amwell, N.J. “It was three bays, one tech and myself. We did great for 11 years but the shop wasn’t big enough. So I started my search for a new one,” Boni says.
After months of searching, Boni found the perfect location. Situated near a row of car dealerships in Flemington, N.J., it had the visibility he was looking for.
The new building totaled nearly 7,000 square feet, almost three times bigger than his 2,500-square-foot shop. With the larger space, he could buy greater volumes of tires and other products, enabling him to negotiate for better pricing he could pass on to his customers.
The owner of the plaza told him there should be no problem with zoning because the building used to be his paint store.
Flemington is located in the center of Raritan Township. The township zoning department gave him a form to complete, charged him $35 and told him he would need to appear before the zoning board to ask for a waiver. That didn’t sound difficult.
“Boy, was I wrong. I returned with the form and a check for $35. The woman took it, smiled and said someone would contact me for a hearing date.”
A few days later, he got the phone call. Boni was told he needed to hire an attorney and have an architect provide drawings because his business was a corporation. The board also wanted him to contact 45 people near the property to advise them of his plans.
That was the start of requirements from the Raritan Township zoning board that would eventually include costs for an attorney, architect, engineer, sound study, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, fees and permits.
“At the first meeting, they told me my plans were not what they wanted and now I need to get an engineer, too. So off I went to spend some more build-out/start-up capital. Three zoning board meetings, two years and $82,000 later I got my waiver,” says Boni, who had initially budgeted $10,000 for zoning fees and permits.
But he could not start construction yet. He said he had to wait and see if any of his neighbors were going to fight his approval. And as he expected, there were neighbors who opposed his plans.
The objections centered around noise and appearance. Boni addressed their concerns with an $8,000 sound study determining that the noise from the highway would be louder than noise from the shop. The plaza owner proposed a plan to use trees and fencing to shield the building from the neighbors’ view while serving as additional sound buffers. Also, the plaza owner promised to improve the landscaping, sidewalks, curbing and dumpster area for aesthetic purposes.
It took six months. “Finally, my build-out was a go,” he says.
Construction proceeded slowly due to the township’s permit process. The building was completed within four months. But the township put the brakes on the opening.
“Now I need to move the handicap bars in the bathroom three inches higher. I wanted them to give me final approval, and I would fix it. Nope. Three weeks later they showed up to give me the final inspection,” Dan recalls.
The township’s snail’s pace for scheduling inspections and making decisions was a constant frustration. But Boni kept his focus, his can-do attitude and his patience. The two-year process gave him ample time to design the ideal building.
There is 7,000 square feet of open space. The shop has six bays measuring 34 feet by 96 feet. The warehouse can accommodate two more cars when necessary. Boni carries Mastercraft, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Continental, General, Goodyear, Kelly, Kumho, Yokohama, Toyo, Bridgestone, Pirelli, Dunlop, Nokian and Nexen passenger and light truck tires and Carlisle for the farm equipment he services.
The dealership also is a NAPA Car Care Center. And his full-service shop provides auto repairs and preventative maintenance for every major vehicle system.
The rest of the building is designed around his customers. The office is 25 feet by 40 feet and features a “beautiful” waiting room, Boni says proudly.
“There’s a widescreen television with cable and DVD player, two separate work stations with free Wi-Fi, an X-Box for kiddies of all ages, and complimentary coffee and beverages. The tropically themed bathroom is large, clean, and inviting,” he adds.
Internet posts about his business indicate his customers are thrilled. Wrote one: “The showroom is as warm and comfortable as the attitude you receive from the staff. The coffee center is clean and well stocked; the atmosphere makes you want to return for more repairs. It’s like being at home. An inviting place to have your vehicle serviced, or new tires put on the autos. Glad that Dan is back with fine deals, great services, and an outstanding place to sit and wait.”
Boni spent about half a million dollars in renovations and new equipment, including an alignment machine.
After receiving approval to begin construction in February 2011, he had to vacate the building he leased for his dealership in East Amwell. Although the renovation itself took just four months, the township’s slow permit process meant six more months before he could open. He had no shop and no income for 10 months.
“What I don’t understand is why these township people treat you so badly,” Boni says. “They go to the public and say we don’t want big-box stores. We want small businesses, then they beat small business into submission. Don’t they understand only big-box stores have the money to go toe-to-toe with them? Then they wonder why so many [small businesses] fail. It’s probably not the fault of the businesses, it’s that they have exhausted their start-up capital before they even open the door.”
His suggestions for other tire dealers renovating an existing space? “When hiring an attorney, ask and ask again if he is good at small business law. Second, find an architect that you feel comfortable with. I hired one who knew nothing about commercial build-outs and then took my money and gave me nothing I could use. I found an engineer who helped me through the process; he was a lifesaver.”
The ultimate credit goes to his family. “I thank my wife, Lori, and sons Dan Jr. and Brandon for helping me through the struggles,” he says. Lori is co-owner of the shop. Dan Jr. and Brandon work as technicians.
The dealership sells brands of tires and offers a full range of automotive services such as alignments, brake work, shocks and struts, air conditioning and much more. It is part of the NAPA Auto Care program.
“I would think long and hard if I would do this again, but I learned a lot about how difficult it is to start a new business from scratch,” says Boni. “I have a new respect for someone who has. Also, now I know why these large companies buy up the little guys: We do all the hard work; they just come in with money and buy us.”
He adds, “If you’re going to do this, be prepared for the unexpected. In my case it worked out. Go into other shops and talk to the owners and ask what they know.”
Ask owners like Boni, whose experience proves it is possible to overcome the obstacles to establishing a business. Which is exactly what all entrepreneurs do, challenge after challenge, opportunity after opportunity, day after day.
“I’m finally happy to be in business. My old customers are returning, and I am bringing in lots of new ones, too. I hired five technicians and an office administrator,” says Boni.
In December 2011, his first month of operations, revenues were over $100,000, double his expectations. Boni says now there is no looking back. “My future is bright. Dan, Brandon and my wife are with me and I hope in a few years to let go of the reins and let my sons run the business. I will be able to work a couple days a week, travel and have fun with life.” ■
Ask now, save later: Words of advice for building a new tire store
Dan Boni Sr., owner of Boni Tire & Auto Service Inc. in Flemington, N.J., filed for a zoning waiver to convert an abandoned paint store in a retail plaza to a tire shop in December 2009. The process took two years. To meet the requirements of the township zoning board, Boni needed the services of an attorney, architect and engineer.
Finding qualified professionals with the appropriate expertise is difficult. “Help yourself by asking tons of questions even if you think you’re being overly demanding. It will save you from wasting a lot of money in the long run,” says Boni.
If he did it over again, Boni would pose a variety of questions to potential attorneys, architects and engineers he was considering:
• Do the attorney and architect know the rules and regulations related to commercial businesses and codes?
• Does the attorney specialize in business real estate?
• Does the attorney deal regularly with the township where the property or building is located?
• Does the architect have professional connections with an engineer if one is needed?
• Do the architect and engineer have up-to-date knowledge of commercial codes and build-out procedures?
• What is the policy of the architect and engineer regarding additional charges if the zoning board rejects their proposals?
• Do your attorney, architect and engineer personally know any of the people serving on planning and zoning boards?
• What is the payment schedule for the attorney, architect and engineer’s fees as the work is being done? Arrange to hold the last payment until final plans are approved.
Finally, he suggests getting quotes from at least three construction companies. “Do not take the lowest bid because that may cost you more in the long run. Get references.”