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King of the RVs: Jim Miller and Twin City Tire keep recreational vehicles on the road with service, tire sales and tire repair

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King of the RVs: Jim Miller and Twin City Tire keep recreational vehicles on the road with service, tire sales and tire repair

It takes a lot of time, energy and passion to turn a hobby into a money-making venture, but Jim Miller did it.

Miller, the owner of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Twin City Tire Inc., has been an RV enthusiast for 30 years. (Twin City's other store is in Bloomington, Minn.) He knows the vehicles and the mentality of those who own them. In addition, he's familiar with the myriad of services that RVs require and the manner in which they should be delivered.

Several years ago, Miller decided to apply that knowledge to his own business by creating an RV service center at his Bloomington store. The facility has evolved into one of the most highly regarded RV service and tire sale shops in the upper Midwest. It pulls in RV owners from all over the region and adds a significant amount to Twin City Tire's already-healthy bottom line.

The shop has been so successful that Miller will soon add an RV service lane at his new, state-of-the-art store in Eden Prairie, just 15 minutes down the highway from Bloomington. "We're growing every month," he says.

Booming interest

Twin City Tire is a full-service tire dealership. The company offers consumer and commercial tires in a variety of brands, including Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Vredestein, Multi-Mile, Yokohama, Pirelli, Continental, Cooper and others. It also performs a wide range of auto repair work.

Twin City Tire's position as a trusted destination for RV service and tires helps differentiate it from other tire stores -- and also from RV dealerships that in many cases can't match Twin City's capabilities. It also puts the tire dealership in a position to capitalize on the RV hobby's projected growth.

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RV factory shipments reached a 27-year high in 2005, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. More than 384,000 RVs of all shapes, sizes and configurations were shipped last year.

A recent study by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center revealed that nearly eight million American households own at least one RV. The statistic represents a 15% increase from four years ago and a 58% increase since 1980. Within four years, some 8.5 million households will own RVs, according to the study.

Like cars, those vehicles will eventually need work. Here's a partial list of RV services that Twin City Tire offers:

* coach and chassis repair;

* refrigeration and air conditioning;

* suspension and front end repair;

* brakes, bearings and driveline repair;

* lube, oil and filter maintenance;

* transmission flushes;

* lights and wiring repair;

* exhaust system repair, including custom exhaust systems;

* welding and fabrication (steel, stainless and aluminum).

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Miller didn't add the services one-by-one over an extended period of time. "We hired people who knew how to do all of that. I was looking for people who knew what they were doing."

He and his head RV tech, Rich Mathiason, had known one another for years. Mathiason has more than 25 years of RV work experience. Another RV tech, Bob Madsen, has worked on RVs for years as well.

"You have to have a good grasp of (RV service) and have to see it from the inside out," says Miller. "One of the things I did throughout my ownership of various coaches... wherever I traveled, if I was near an RV factory, I'd go through that factory.

"You get to see how everything is built. You know how the walls are built, how the plumbing system works, how the generator goes in, how the roof goes on." Modern RVs -- especially larger ones -- are incredibly sophisticated.

"You have to know air conditioning systems that are built into the vehicles. There are roof-top units. Then some (RVs) have 12 batteries -- some of them charge from the engine, some charge from the generators, some are solar-powered.

"Many RVs have different filters," he says. "They may have one or two oil filters, hydraulic filters, cooling system filters. There may be four or five filters that have to be changed as part of routine maintenance."

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RV experts

Twin City Tire sees quite a few upscale RVs "because we have the capability and the knowledge to work on them." Some of these vehicles cost upward of $700,000. Fancier models can retail for as much as $2 million.

Twin City Tire's Bloomington store might work on one or two RVs per day. Service sessions vary in length.

"The longer we can get them the better," says Miller. Twin City Tire charges $90 to $110 per hour for most RV work -- the going rate in his market.

"We'll have some situations that are computer-related (in which) we'd go up to $135 an hour.

"You have to be careful because there's no flat rate, so to speak, on motor homes. It's really time and materials. How long is it going to take you? "Maybe the battery box is rusted out. You may have to re-fabricate the whole box and weld it in."

Wiring work can be labor-intensive as well. "These things have miles of wiring in them."

Twin City Tire is a certified warranty repair center for Monaco Coach Corp., one of the country's largest RV manufacturers.

"Many of the Monaco coaches in this area come to our shop and get their warranty and service work done. We bill the factory and the factory pays us."

Miller would like to become a warranty repair center for Winnebago Industries Inc. and other companies.

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He's selective about his partnerships. "The biggest problem we have is when you get a manufacturer who doesn't document well. They don't have good diagrams, they don't have a good parts numbering system, and they don't have a back-up supply of parts.

"If a manufacturer is really good, they'll have tech support. If one of my techs is working on a particular piece of equipment, he can pick up the phone and call the support line. They'll make sure we get the right parts and things like that. We depend on factories to support our techs."

Maximize the ticket

Tire sales and service are important components of Twin City Tire's RV offerings. The dealership sells tires specifically engineered for RV applications.

"Michelin builds a special RV tire," says Miller. "Goodyear builds a special RV tire. Monaco puts the Goodyear tire on all of its coaches."

Twin City Tire only deals in a handful of RV tire sizes.

"You have the 16.5-inch for the Class C (RV), the 19.5 for the Class A, and then you have the 22.5 for the big coaches. If the customer is happy with the brand that came on their RV, we'll go with that."

Twin City Tire's techs check for tire wear, tread depth and cracking as part of their routine inspections.

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Inflation levels are critical, with psi levels in RV tires ranging from 85 to 120 pounds, according to Miller. "You have 30,000 to 60,000 pounds going down the road. It's important to have the right pressure based on the (vehicle's) load."

Twin City Tire also repairs damaged RV tires. "We pull them off the rim. We don't plug anything."

The dealership usually charges $27 to $30 per repair. "If the tire is beyond repair it gets replaced."

A set of six new RV tires can cost $1,500, he says. In general, new tires aren't a hard sell.

"The thing that makes (RV owners) think of changing tires more than anything else is that they don't want to spoil their trip."

Alignments are another profitable tire-related service, says Miller. "We have one RV dealership that gives us all of its alignment jobs."

Alignments can take as little as 30 minutes to perform, "but you can't do it with passenger alignment equipment." The same goes for other pieces of equipment when it comes to general RV service.

"You've got to have brake lathes that will do big stuff. The most expensive things are the column lifts. They run anywhere from $25,000 to $35,000."

The RV lift in Twin City Tire's Bloomington shop can hoist up to 65,000 pounds. "You have to step up to the plate for equipment."

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Miller wants to increase the number of RV tires his company sells. "When we change them out it's usually because they're old and they cracked or failed." Any formal effort to boost tire sales "has to be in combination with the service we're doing. We're not a huge shop, but it's designed so we can work on a certain number of RVs at a time.

"The key is to maximize the ticket and get as much service done in one call, rather than bring it in three or four times a year."

Motor coach mindset

Twin City Tire has relied mainly on word-of-mouth referrals to publicize its RV services.

"There are a lot of people who waited for us to get into it," he explains. "One of the things we wanted to make sure of is that we didn't get inundated with work. You've gone into a place to have car service done and it's been bombed with people; you know you're not going to get good service.

"We wanted to make sure we got off on the right foot... and get our guys up to speed."

Sourcing RV parts was another facet of the business that had to be secured. Twin City Tire doesn't stock a lot of parts.

"But we have three parts houses within a half-block." The dealership's Bloomington location even shares part of a building with CARQUEST Auto Parts. Parts jobbers have been more than accommodating, according to Miller. "For example, if they didn't have certain kinds of filters we needed, we've asked them to put some in stock."

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The Bloomington store's close proximity to the Mall of America -- the largest enclosed retail venue in the United States -- has helped Twin City Tire's RV business. Many RV owners passing through the Minneapolis/St. Paul area use the mall's parking lot as an impromptu camp site.

"They know at the mall's welcome desk that we're the place to visit for service."

Twin City Tire is experimenting with other forms of marketing. The company recently sent out a direct mail piece to RV enthusiasts that failed to generate much of a response, says Miller.

However, setting up booths at RV shows and talking with RV owners has borne more fruit.

"When RV owners get together, they sit around and talk. 'Where did you go for this? Where did you get that fixed?' It's their passion."

Twin City Tire offers a free shuttle service for RV customers who are having work done at the Bloomington store.

"They can visit the Mall of America and set up a time for us to pick them up. We also have a campsite at the Bloomington location that is set up with water and electricity." RV owners can stay there overnight and power up at no charge.

Twin City Tire has installed similar hook-ups at its Eden Prairie store in anticipation of the start-up of RV service there.

You can have the right people, equipment and marketing in place, but if you don't understand the RV "lifestyle," you'll have problems successfully addressing the needs of RV owners, he says.

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"You get some people who are on a fixed income; they're very conscious of what they're going to spend. Then you have people who just give you the keys and say, 'If you find anything wrong, fix it.'

"One thing about motor home people is that they're interested in what you're doing. They might even stand there and watch you do it."

Another certainty: Most RV owners are happy to pay for topflight service. But if they aren't satisfied, they'll tell others.

"You can't chintz on anything because it will come back to haunt you," says Miller. "You better do it right the first time. If we can't do it right or can't get the authorization to do it right, we don't want to do it, period."

More than just a motor home: Miller's high-tech RV takes him all over

"I started motor homing with my family about 30 years ago -- traveling and camping with my kids," says Twin City Tire Inc. owner Jim Miller. "In Minnesota, we have a lot of lakes. We'd have overnight and holiday weekend camp-outs."

Miller started with a basic tent "and then went to a pop-up, which are those trailers that come up and slide out. Then it was a 27-foot mini-Winnebago. The next step was a Class A Winnebago; that was 32-feet long."

He now drives a 2004 Class A Monaco RV that's more than 40 foot long and has some 25,000 miles on it.

The RV was custom-engineered to his specifications. "I spent a week at the factory going through all the different functions to make sure everything worked perfectly."

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Miller's Monaco contains a number of high-tech features, including:

* a dining area that expands by several feet via the touch of a button;

* a hydronic heating system that heats a mixture of anti-freeze and water to 200 degrees and then pumps the solution up to radiators; and

* an in-motion satellite dome that lets him pick up crystal-clear TV broadcasts. "It locks into the satellite as you're moving."

"Some of the new RVs are coming out with radar on the side of them and on the front," he says. "When you set the cruise control, it will maintain the speed between you and the vehicle in front of you.

"If the vehicle in front of you stops fast, it will turn off your cruise control and shut down your fuel, and an alarm sounds so you can hit the brake and slow down. If you turn on the signal to the right and there's a car there that you don't see, it will sound an alarm."

Some RVs also come with GPS systems. "I don't use GPS because my wife, Julie, is my navigator."

One of Miller's favorite RV destinations is Fort Myers, Fla., where the Minnesota Twins hold spring training. "We try to catch a few games and practices."

When asked to recount a memorable RV experience, he grins. "I remember one Memorial Day in Alexandria, Minn., we had three inches of snow when we woke up. We just brushed it off and built our campfire!"

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Pull-behind RVs equal pull-through sales: Trailer tires for small RVs yield solid margins

Not all RVs require big tires. Smaller units that are pulled behind trucks, like folding campers, use recreational trailer tires.

Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Twin City Tire Inc. sells quite a few trailer tires in the Marathon (made by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.) and Towmaster (made by Greenball Corp.) brands.

"It's a profitable segment because it's a specialty segment" that requires a certain degree of expertise, says Jim Miller, the dealership's owner. You have to match the right tire to the right RV, making sure the tire can carry the RV's load, he explains.

Common trailer tire sizes that Twin City Tire sells include 175/80R13, 205/75R14, 215/75R14, 205/75R15, 215/75R15 and 235/80R16. The segment "is almost all radial," says Miller.

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