'Image now matches service'
Three years ago Terry Hawthorne handed over the keys of Hawthorne Tire to her son and daughter-in-law, John and Heather. At the time the dealership was $30,000 in debt. Competition increased and the debt doubled. John and Heather knew things couldn’t keep going the way they were or the company would not survive.
“It was a 28-year-old business that looked way older,” Heather tells us. She had tried to spruce up the dealership when she came to work there in 2005, but there was no budget, “We spent as much as we could.”
She knew the image the company was projecting was not positive. “It was dirty. The carpet was disgusting. There were plenty of people telling me how bad our bathroom was. What kept customers coming back was sheer loyalty. They had been dealing with the company for years and would not go anywhere else for tires and service. But we didn’t get many new customers.”
Hawthorne Tire sells Yokohama, Continental, Falken, Firestone and Goodyear brand tires, as well as “any other brand our customers ask for,” John says. It also offers automotive services such as brake work, alignment and suspension work.
John and Heather are the family’s third generation in the tire business. John’s grandmother, Rosemary Tucker, operated a couple of tire shops in the Los Angeles area — Tucker Tire Co. — starting in the early 1960s. She was even featured on the cover of Modern Tire Dealer for a 1972 article about women in the industry.
“We didn’t want to be the generation that closed the business,” Heather tells us.
‘Peter Perfect’ to the rescue
Last year, when Heather was about eight months pregnant, she was ordered to get complete bed rest. While watching TV to pass the time, she saw a one-hour program called “Peter Perfect” on the Style Network that was doing business makeovers — along the lines of the popular “Extreme Makeover - Home Edition” show, but on a much smaller scale.
“Peter Perfect” was taking struggling small businesses and giving them much-needed makeovers courtesy of the host, stylist Peter Ishkhans.
“I could relate to every episode I saw,” Heather says. Featured were coffee brokers, candy shops, dog groomers, etc., all small enterprises trying to stay afloat. “I related to all the struggles, the problems. Our business fit the TV show’s mold perfectly.”
So she went online to see how to apply for consideration for a makeover. She filled out an application on the show’s Web site. “Does your business need an image overhaul?” the application asks. “Do you have a vision that isn’t realized because your store doesn’t attract the clientele you desire? Please include details about your business and yourself, and tell us how you think you could benefit from making your enterprise ‘Peter Perfect.’”
“I was all for it,” John says. “I admit our image was not my number-one priority. I knew our customers came here not because it looked good, but because of the quality of service. We had no comebacks. But I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Last May, after seeing Heather’s application, the TV show’s assistant director got in contact with her. “We were thrilled to get the phone call. We didn’t think we’d get chosen,” John says. “After all, who gets picked to be on a reality TV show?”
The television production crew interviewed Heather on the phone and came to the shop to take photos and video of the couple and the dealership.
The crew returned a second time to get testimonials from customers and videotape the Hawthornes again. One month later the Hawthornes found out they were one of six small businesses chosen for free makeovers for the show’s second season.
Ishkhans and his film crew did their magic last October.
First, to get a good idea of what the Hawthornes deal with on a daily basis, Ishkhans spent a day working the sales counter and in the garage. “I walk a mile in their knickers,” he says. And he asked them, “What is your inspiration? Where do you see the company going?”
Based on their answers, his personal observations and the personality of the two owners, Ishkhans designed a new image for Hawthorne Tire. Then he shut down their business for one week. He had the Hawthornes and their employees box up everything in the showroom, office and nursery where they were bringing their young daughter, Addyson, during work hours.
Ishkhans had them rip down the posters on the showroom walls of local car shows that had been tacked up there since John and Heather took over. Down came the dark wood paneling. The old carpeting was ripped up. Tossed out were the five metal chairs that had been the only seating in the showroom.
Since the Hawthornes like and cater to classic and performance cars, Ishkhans created a theme based on a 1950s-era diner, complete with auto memorabilia on shelves, new green-and-white checkered tile flooring and a bright red corner booth.
He brightened up the showroom with new pale mint-colored paint and covered a wall with a chalkboard where specials can be spotlighted. He created a nostalgic-looking nursery/office area where Heather can work while watching the baby, complete with an old oak desk.
He also felt the company’s family history should be an integral part of the makeover theme for the dealership, so he framed the cover of MTD that featured Rosemary Tucker and placed it prominently in the showroom.
Ishkhans also suggested changing the dealership’s name to Hawthorne Tire & Auto Service to better define exactly what the company offers. He added much-needed outside signage incorporating the company’s new slogan, “Hometown family service you can trust.”
Heather, John and Terry, who still works the phones at the dealership, were given hair, makeup and clothing makeovers, too.
The show aired in February, and the company held a grand-reopening to coincide with the premier. Reruns of the show are shown frequently on the Style Network.
What has customer reaction been to the new look? John tells us, “Everyone is floored when they walk through the door. Their jaws just hit the ground.
“Everyone says it is so much more comfortable, warm and inviting.”
And business has been good since they became TV celebrities, John says.
“Everything is going relatively well, although we have been affected by the downturn in the economy. But business has improved. We’ve gotten some new, big clients.”
“Now our image matches our service,” sums up Heather. ■
Designer likes to ‘walk a mile in their knickers’ -- Hands-on approach leads to dealership’s image improvements
British stylist Peter Ishkhans is the star of business makeover television show “Peter Perfect” on the Style Network. He knows color, form and fashion, having trained as a portrait artist and spending years doing interior decorating and hair styling for some of the biggest entertainers in the music and film industries.
What did his trained eye see when he walked into Hawthorne Tire in San Marcos, Calif.? A business built on a strong foundation needing a fresh start.
“We saw something special there,” he says. “There’s a lot of emotional investment in a family business, and three generations have been involved. They offer fantastic customer service. They have that real one-on-one contact that you don’t find at the tire company-owned stores or the big boxes. But not enough people knew about it.”
He also saw a company lacking inspiration, with a tired, dirty showroom where customers could not be comfortable waiting for their cars. “Your waiting area should be where you showcase your business, not the garage,” Ishkhans says.
“With a lot of businesses, the owner has given it his best effort. And it’s hard to tell him that best effort is not good enough. And it’s hard for the owner to hear. They don’t want to admit the problem is with them. People are resistant to change.
“You need to see the place through your customers’ eyes. And you need to realize that following a sale your customers become your sales force,” through word-of-mouth advertising.
“I helped them get in touch with their own greatness,” Ishkhans says. “I needed to leave them with an image and look that they can be proud of, be enthusiastic about, and take their business where they want it to be.”
Ishkhans stresses that a makeover doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. “Sometimes it just takes a new coat of paint. Brighten it up! Sometimes it’s just that simple.
“Change your image and you change your life,” Ishkhans says.