Wheel sales: Roadside riches
Jim Blackburn Sr. is a man who doesn’t pass up an opportunity. And it was opportunity that took him from being an Archway cookie truck driver to the owner of a leading provider of new, used and refurbished OE wheels and hubcaps.
In the 1960s and ’70s, he often saw lost hubcaps and wheel covers along the roadsides of northeast Ohio. But he saw more than hubcaps. He saw opportunity.
“I would stop and pick up hubcaps I’d see at the side of the road,” he explains. “The business was founded around 1970, because that’s when I started selling them on the weekends at flea markets and swap meets. I opened the first actual store in 1985.”
That first location eventually became four locations, all in Macedonia, Ohio. Besides being strategically located near the metropolitan areas of Akron and Cleveland, the city of Macedonia is the Blackburn family’s hometown. Eventually, Jim Sr.’s sons Jimmy and Torrey joined the family business.
Both boys grew up working summers and weekends with their father. Jimmy came on full-time in 1993, followed by Torrey in 1996. Today Jimmy and Torrey are co-owners of Blackburn’s Hubcap & Wheel Inc.
The company has evolved into a wholesale operation that provides new, used and high-quality refurbished hubcaps and wheels. With fast shipping, Blackburn’s is a one-stop source for the wheel needs of any retailer repairing cars.
Jim Sr. says he’s retired, but he’s at the business nearly every day. He still stops for hubcaps and wheel covers along the roads.
All those hubcaps and wheels have added up over the years. Along with the need for additional space, Blackburn’s had to evolve with changing markets. The business had always been a retail operation, but now the company is mainly wholesale. To handle increasing volumes of inventory, the company moved into a new 155,000-square-foot building in 2010 just one mile away from the old location. The new facility has 7,000 square feet of office space.
How does a small retailer of hubcaps and wheels evolve into a wholesale enterprise? In Blackburn’s case, it had a lot to do with changes in the way people started to rely on their local tire and service center.
“Once upon a time we were 95% retail-oriented,” explains Jimmy. “When we changed our focus and became more wholesale oriented, we started to supply tire and service centers. That’s where the real change started to occur.”
Jimmy says that was in the early 1990s.
The industry evolved out of wheel covers into aluminum alloy wheels. After 1995, Cadillac had no hubcaps.
“There was a mind set change at that point where a retail customer was used to going to a hubcap center and buying a wheel cover, and they could just snap it on,” Jimmy explains. “Then as the market changed over to wheels, it became more involved. You have to put a tire on the wheel; and then it has to be mounted and balanced. So the focus started to change and the retail customer started to rely more on their tire and service center relationship.”
That relationship became a prime opportunity at Blackburn’s. Gradually they began to change focus and market to wholesale customers.
“(Tire and service centers) already have a captive audience with the retail customer,” says Jimmy. “Even though we changed our focus, there was a change in the industry also of how they would actually acquire this product.”
Over time, the Blackburn’s wholesale customers started to bring in repeat business. “We started picking up some tire centers and service centers and they called every day of the week,” says Torrey. “Then you build a relationship and they can start promoting that Blackburn’s can get you a wheel. Up to that point the service centers weren’t even promoting it as an add-on product.”
The company sells 100 wheels for every wheel cover. Many refurbished wheels in Blackburn’s inventory are OE wheels that were either rejected or are overruns. Its inventory also includes 25,000 antique and classic wheels.
Blackburn’s is currently in a state of transition. The company is firmly established as a leading regional provider of new, used and refurbished OE wheels. Now it is going national with that distribution of OE wheels.
To help make that happen, the company recently launched a revamped website (www.blackburnswheelfinder.com). The site features an improved Wheel Finder function.
The Blackburns have positioned their company over the years to cover a wide variety of wholesale and consumer applications. The word is spreading that tire dealerships can utilize Blackburn’s as a fast and thorough wheel source for customers’ needs. Blackburn’s gets 50% of its business within a 100-mile radius, so the biggest area of potential growth is nationally.
“We have our eyes way up in the sky,” says Todd Deranek, director of sales and marketing. “Now we’re in the process of going from a regional distributor to a national distributor.”
With big volume comes big customers, and taking care of them is a priority at Blackburn’s Hubcap & Wheel Inc., Macedonia, Ohio.
“We have a grading system,” says Jimmy Blackburn, who co-owns the business with his brother Torrey. “Our grading scale always runs one step above the industry. Our goal is that when they get a wheel from us, we’ve exceeded what their expectations are.”
In order to exceed expectations, Blackburn’s will take what may be called an A-grade wheel at other companies and rate it a B-grade wheel. It may have just a minor cosmetic flaw on it. In many cases it’s still going to be nicer than what the customer has on the car.
“When the customer gets it, we want them to be surprised so we always grade one step down,” explains Jimmy.
The business model at Blackburn’s includes maintaining a large inventory.
“If you’ve got a replacement wheel, we’ve already got it ready to go. We’ll send it to you, you do the changeover and send us back the damaged wheel,” says Jimmy.
The restoration that exceeds what can be done at Blackburn’s is sent to different vendors with certain specialties.
“If it’s chrome, painted, machined or polished, that will depend on where we get it restored,” he says.
To handle all that inventory, Blackburn’s not only needed a special facility, but also special racks to put the inventory on.
“We developed special racks that will hold as much as you put on them,” says Jimmy. “Being made of wood, they’re more forgiving to the wheel as opposed to a metal rack that could actually scratch or damage the wheel. At any given time, our inventory revolves around 100,000 wheels.”
3 top sellers at Blackburn’s Hubcap & Wheel
Wheel Delivered cost from Blackburn’s Suggested sell price OE list price
2006 Mazda 6 17-inch alloy $138.60 $198 $393
2011 Camaro 20-inch polished alloy $226.10 $389 $753
2010 Impala 17-inch alloy $138.60 $198 $718