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Off-road outfitters: Desert Rat provides everything for the hardy adventurer, from lift kits to GPS systems. But tires remain the company’s foundation

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Off-road outfitters:  Desert Rat provides everything for the hardy adventurer, from lift kits to GPS systems. But tires remain the company’s foundation

While stunning in its beauty, the Arizona desert can test the hardiest of creatures. The terrain is rugged, water is scarce and the sun beats down mercilessly.

It takes a unique person to hop in an old Jeep and spend hours, sometimes days, exploring such an unforgiving environment. And it takes a different type of tire dealer to supply these adventurers with the hardware and expertise needed to make their wild excursions possible.

Desert Rat Truck Centers, a spin-off of Jack Furrier’s Western Tire Centers Inc., caters exclusively to off-roaders, rock crawlers and other four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.

In Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque, N.M., where it also has a store, Desert Rat has become the “go to” destination for people who want to modify their 4x4s. (There are seven Desert Rat stores in all.)

While Desert Rat sells a staggering array of off-road accessories -- from lights and winches to higher ticket items like Hemi engines and GPS navigation systems -- tires remain the company’s main draw.

“The tire is what leads customers in here,” says Tim Furrier, Desert Rat’s general manager of retail operations.

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Big tickets

“As a rule, (off-road enthusiasts) want to do something to increase their vehicles’ off-road capability,” says Desert Rat founder Mike Furrier. “The only way to do that is to put tires on them.”

However, customers who visit Desert Rat stores with the sole intention of buying a set of tires sometimes don’t leave until they’ve spent thousands of dollars on other items to enhance their vehicles.

“Our customer either wants to buy tires and wheels or he wants to buy a suspension kit,” says Mike. “The reason he wants to buy a suspension kit is because he wants to put on bigger tires and wheels.”

Tires, wheels and suspensions, he explains, “are the foundation of the off-road business.” They also make up the foundation of Desert Rat’s business. The average ticket for tire/wheel/suspension installation at Desert Rat is $3,500 to $4,000. But tickets often go much higher.

Tim remembers a customer who came in to buy a carburetor for his Jeep; the man wound up spending $50,000 to have the entire vehicle rebuilt.

Another customer who shopped Desert Rat for a CB radio set ended up buying $10,000 in additional accessories. “It’s amazing how these things escalate!”

Desert Rat is operated as its own entity. It doesn’t publicize its affiliation with Western Tire, which was started by Tim and Mike’s father, Jack Furrier, in 1963. Western Tire is one of the largest independent tire dealerships in Arizona,

Two other brothers -- Rick and Sean -- work on the Western Tire side, which Jack still oversees. Another brother, Jeff, heads up Western Tire’s UPRacing division.

But Desert Rat’s sales are counted under the Western Tire umbrella, and last year, it comprised a significant amount of the parent company’s $31 million total sales -- not bad for a company that started almost by accident.

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Desert gamblers

Desert Rat was launched in 1975 at the suggestion of famous off-road tire marketer Dick Cepek, a long-time friend of the Furrier family.

“I worked for my dad at that point while I was in college,” says Mike. “I wasn’t a real fan of selling tires retail, even though I grew up in the business. I was looking for something else, but I didn’t know what that was.”

He and Jack were talking with Cepek one day and told him they were thinking about expanding into wholesale.

“Off-roading would hardly qualify as an industry at that time,” says Mike. “The aftermarket distribution of those kinds of pieces was almost non-existent. Dick said, ‘Hey, you guys live out in the desert. You should be able to sell this stuff!’ We had already been selling the fundamental pieces of the business: tires and wheels.”

During the mid-1970s, the dedicated off-road light truck tire segment was in its infancy, at best.

“There were only three or four light truck tires that qualified as off-road tires in those days and one or two sizes. There were only a half-dozen vehicles you could even put these things on.

“My dad (told Cepek) ‘We’re running a tire business. I’m not really interested in the four-wheel-drive business -- but Mike here is looking for something to do!’

“At that point, I wasn’t a four-wheel-drive enthusiast. I was a sports car guy. I didn’t know a lot about it besides tires and wheels… but I didn’t have a better plan at the time either.”

The Furriers bought some items from Cepek and set up an off-road store inside the showroom of an existing Western Tire location in Tucson. “I started learning about the business on my own.”

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Because the off-road segment was so new, there was no blueprint to follow. In a roundabout way, this proved to be a blessing for Mike and his new start-up. “You couldn’t make many mistakes unless you spent a lot of money foolishly.

“You didn’t have massive competitors. The magazines weren’t full of mail-order guys. There wasn’t a four-wheel-drive store on every corner like there is today in some markets.”

Within a year, Desert Rat began advertising tires and wheels in publications that catered to the hobby.

“We were unique in that we had a connection to a real retail business, Western Tire. We actually had inventory available. And we could take credit cards, which nobody else did at the time. The business took off.”

Mike closed the initial Desert Rat boutique to concentrate on mail order. In 1980, the Furriers decided it was time to get back into retail and opened a full-fledged shop in Tucson.

In 1983, they bought the assets of a company in Phoenix called Giant Off-Road, which had a large retail and mail-order business. The acquisition gave Desert Rat a warehouse and a retail outlet in Albuquerque.

Expansion continued through 2000, when Desert Rat bought Dick Cepek’s assets in Arizona. “They had three locations in Phoenix and one in Tucson. That got us up to seven Desert Rat stores.”

The Furriers are quick to point out why Desert Rat not only has grown but also has boosted its profits year after year.

“Because we’re from the tire industry, we understand the customer service game better than a lot of people,” says Tim. “The tire industry is so customer service-oriented; it’s made Desert Rat a better business. We’ll do anything to please a customer.”

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For love and money

“Anything” is a far cry from “simple.” Take Hemi motor conversions, for example. “A guy’s not going to put a Hemi motor in a stock Jeep without doing a suspension, and to handle the power of the motor going to the axles, he has to upgrade the axles.”

Desert Rat also rebuilds entire vehicles. “You can build a hardcore off-road vehicle in a couple of days.” However, some rebuilds -- depending upon how elaborate they are -- can take up to two or three weeks.

Desert Rat bills by the hour. It charges around $75. In the Phoenix market, a number of off-road shops charge up to $100 an hour, according to Tim. “Our prices are super fair.”

He says Desert Rat is generous when it comes to technician compensation. “It’s taken a lot of time to develop a crew of guys who can handle this business. It’s not easy work. Their job is unbelievably difficult.”

Almost all of them are off-road enthusiasts, though. The same goes for the people who work Desert Rat’s sales counters. “I think almost every one of our employees has an off-road vehicle,” (Tim himself owns four).

“We attract these sorts of people.” Turnover at Desert Rat is low.

It’s important to get vehicles in and out as quickly as possible, says Tim. But the complex nature of many of Desert Rat’s services isn’t always conducive to speed.

“If we could make money installing intakes all day, obviously that would be easier. The faster you can turn a customer, the better. It’s like the tire industry. But in our segment, it’s a little harder to do that. Installing a suspension system, wheels and tires is a day job for a fast group of guys.”

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Desert Rat’s store in Tempe, Ariz., where Tim’s office is located, has six service bays. “We’d love for all of our stores to have the same number of bays.”

But commercial real estate in the Phoenix and Tucson areas is getting more expensive all the time. (Desert Rat, like Western Tire, owns the majority of its locations.)

More Desert Rat outlets are planned. “In Tucson, we don’t have any major competition. In Phoenix, there’s nobody who’s as dominant as we are. We’re hoping to get bigger as the market will permit.”

Tires are still tops

Desert Rat sells a wide range of off-road light truck tire brands: BFGoodrich, Super Swamper, Mickey Thompson, Dick Cepek, Parnelli Jones, Goodyear, Cooper, Yokohama, Continental, and Kumho are just a few.

“Some customers are brand-loyal because they’ve had (certain) tires in the past,” says Tim. “But with all the larger tires that have come out over the last five years that are super high quality, I think our guys can steer customers toward other tires.”

Younger customers are more willing to try alternate brands. “Their point of reference is the Internet.”

However, they’re not always educated “the right way. There’s nobody fact-checking the Internet, so there’s a lot of misinformation.”

Desert Rat salespeople sometimes find themselves correcting misconceptions about products.

Size is what drives the tire purchase for most off-road enthusiasts, says Mike. “We still sell a tremendous amount of 15-inch tires, but that’s rapidly changing. The 16-inch sizes are catching up.”

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Tire and wheel sizes have a direct impact on off-road performance. With a bigger rim, “you shorten the sidewall,” notes Tim. “You don’t have much flex.”

Plus-sizing tires and rims doesn’t pose a problem as long as the packages can support the weight they’ll be carrying and clear vehicle wheel wells. If the latter doesn’t happen on its own, “you sell the suspension.”

Like other segments, the off-road light truck tire niche has seen its share of size proliferation. “Our life was a lot simpler when there were only three sizes and three bolt circles,” Mike laughs. “You’re never going to sell billions of any one size. What you have to hope for is putting a package together that’s appropriate for the customer.”

Customers have always made tread designs a major consideration. “If a guy is looking for appearance, he’ll buy a more aggressive, mud-type tire,” says Tim. “A guy who’s looking for longevity will go into an all-terrain tire. Most of the brands offer either one.

“The more aggressive treads are super-loud, so depending on the age of the customer, he may not be able to deal with the noise. The young guys just turn their stereos up.”

Until several years ago, off-road tires had primarily been the province of smaller companies, according to Mike. “The highly specialized companies in our (segment) are the big names. They’d never make the man on the street’s list, but in our world, they get lots of play.

“But what’s happened with the majors coming in -- they’ve brought the standard of manufacturing way up. When I first started, everything was bias ply. There was no radial. Bias remained a high percentage of our sales up until five years ago.”

The company still sells a “reasonable amount” of bias tires, mainly for vehicles that are used in low-speed, high traction situations.

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Desert Rat has had great success influencing off-road vehicle owners’ buying decisions when it comes to wheels. The company sells Cragar, Centerline, Weld, Eagle, Enkei and other wheel brands.

“If it was up to us, we’d only carry one wheel,” says Tim. “That would be easier, but that’s not how it works.”

Steel wheels remain a big seller, which is “unbelievable, considering steel is old technology. But the guy who’s going to beat up his Jeep will buy a steel wheel. They’re still pretty cost effective and also very durable. If you run into something, you just touch it up.”

Selling expertise

Easy, fast access to inventory is critical to Desert Rat’s success. One-third of Western Tire’s Tucson warehouse is devoted to Desert Rat merchandise.

The warehouse delivers to Phoenix, which is 115 miles northwest of Tucson, three times a week. It ships to Albuquerque, which is nearly 500 miles away, via common carrier three weeks out of each month, then sends a company truck once a month.

“We’re in the want business, not the need business,” says Mike. “You don’t need Desert Rat. You can go to Western Tire and buy a set of tires and be able to drive anywhere you want to go.

“That’s’ why it’s fun dealing with our customers. They come in wanting to buy something. But you could never do that without having those products right there on display. If we can’t satisfy a customer’s need at that moment, we have a big problem. You’ve got to have parts on the shelf.”

“Of course, the salesmanship of our guys helps,” adds Tim. “Arizonians are fairly laid back, so we take a laid back approach to sales. I like to think that because we’re all enthusiasts, we treat our customers like friends. I tell our guys, ‘These people are your buddies. You can be wheeling with them next weekend.’”

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A large percentage of Desert Rat’s customers “are real experts,” according to Mike. “They know exactly what they want. They’ve done the research. They even tell us the part number! We love those guys; they make our job simple.

“The rest of the population has an idea of what they want, but they don’t know everything we sell.”

Desert Rat advertises via direct mail, sending product brochures to its existing customer base. The company has cut down on the amount of radio advertising it does due to skyrocketing costs. “In the Phoenix area, we were spending $8,000 to $9,000 a month just advertising on the radio,” says Tim.

Desert Rat also has stopped publishing paper catalogs, a tradition that stretched back to the company’s founding.

“Catalogs are extremely expensive,” says Jack. Instead, products are listed on the company’s www.desertrat.com Web site.

Off-roading is still a word-of-mouth-driven hobby. “If you lift a truck, everyone is asking (the owner) about it,” explains Tim. “And if you mess it up, he’s telling everybody.

That’s why we make sure everything is perfect. You don’t want to give a customer any reason to not want to do business with you; it’s similar to the tire business.”

Desert Rat extends its grassroots marketing efforts to event participation. In May, it was the title sponsor of the Desert Rat 250, an off-road race that was held in Mexico.

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Wants, not needs

Desert Rat’s connection to Western Tire gives it advantages that few, if any, competing off-road shops enjoy.

“We give ourselves a big advantage in the volume of tires we buy,” explains Jack. “The average four-wheel-drive shop can’t afford to buy what we’re able to buy. Our volume is pretty substantial. Plus we also have exclusives on some products, like Parnelli Jones Dirt Gripz.

“If you’re going to be in (the off-road business), you’ve got to have some money, because the inventory is tremendous. You ought to see the parts numbers! Our biggest problem is inventory turns for the accessory end of the business. It’s difficult to know what to buy and when to buy.”

Western Tire occasionally sends customers to Desert Rat stores. In addition, Desert Rat regularly sells off-road tires and accessories to competitors, including other tire dealerships.

The number of off-road shops in the southwest has multiplied in recent years. “You wouldn’t believe the number of off-road shops -- a lot of small, one- or two-store operations,” says Tim.

You would think the proliferation of off-road stores would worry the Furriers, but Mike doesn’t even consider them to be competition.

“We’re in the discretionary income business. Stereo stores, Best Buy, night clubs, The Gap -- they’re my competition. When there’s money’s left over after paying the bills, the customer is looking for a way to spend it.

“There’s a whole universe of things he wants to buy, whether it’s a new stereo for his house or a plasma TV or clothes. That all comes out of his discretionary income.”

“The off-road industry is full of things that people want,” says Tim. “People who come here… this is their hobby. They walk in and they’re in a happy mood. There’s nobody coming in here who is forced to buy anything.”

That’s the secret, says Jack, who’s been selling tires for more than 40 years. “I’ve always thought it’s a lot easier selling to somebody who really wants your product.”

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Off-roaders versus SUV owners: How Desert Rat views each type of driver

Off-road vehicle owners are off-road vehicle owners. SUV owners are SUV owners. Rarely do the twain meet, says Mike Furrier, president of Desert Rat Truck Centers.

“If you want to see the dichotomy between the SUV market and the four-wheel-drive market… the wheel business exploded in the SUV market a couple of years ago with the high-diameter 20-inch wheels. That market was driven solely by the wheel.

“The four-wheel-drive (segment) is the exact opposite. It’s all about the tires.”

Western Tire Centers Inc., which spawned Desert Rat, is more of a broad-line tire retailer. The separation makes sense from a demographic perspective, according to Western Tire Centers President Jack Furrier.

The Desert Rat customer represents “a totally different demographic,” he says. “You have to talk the language. The guys working in our Western Tire stores aren’t that familiar with (the off-road hobby). Why mix the two together?”

Off-road enthusiasts usually don’t stick with OE tires. “We don’t focus on replacement tires,” says Mike. “If the Rubber Manufacturers Association says the number one selling (size) on the planet is 245/75R16, that will be our 97th size, because that’s the size of the tire that came on the vehicle. That’s what we take off.

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Strength in diversification: Western Tire corners street racer market

Western Tire Centers Inc.’s UPRacing division sells helmets, uniforms and other racing equipment via retail centers and also its www.upr.com Web site. “UPRacing is basically the car version of Desert Rat,” says Tim Furrier, Desert Rat’s general manager of retail operations. It sells to street racers, who in some cases are more affluent than off-road enthusiasts, he says.

“Because of our tire industry background, we’re very customer service-oriented. We’re a completely different deal than the average safety equipment (provider). It’s another way for us to diversify.”

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