Kentucky dealer takes aim at tuner market: Accessories, show car and can-do attitude augment tire and wheel strategy

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Kentucky dealer takes aim at tuner market: Accessories, show car and can-do attitude augment tire and wheel strategy

S&S Firestone Inc. is as traditional as tire dealerships come. Since the early 1970s, the Lexington, Ky.-based company has turned handsome profits selling conventional items like passenger, light truck and commercial tires while offering automotive service.

The 31-outlet firm also knows a profitable trend when it sees one, however -- and isn't afraid to capitalize on it.

Big potential

"The tuner market is catching on in Middle America," says Brooks Swentzel, the son of S&S Firestone President Paul Swentzel.

MTD met with the younger Swentzel last month at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) International Tire Expo (ITE) in Las Vegas to discuss how his company is pursuing the tuner market.

The younger Swentzel, 35, has tracked the sport compact craze's progress from its origins in California to its move first to the East Coast and then into the nation's heartland. He knew that if pursued correctly, the tuner business would yield considerable returns. But he also realized that to make an impact, targeting tuner customers would require a significant amount of time, money, and a smart marketing plan.

After months of planning, Swentzel decided to take the plunge earlier this year. He established S&S Firestone's Sport Compact Division and based it at the dealership's performance center in Lexington.

Then in July, he hired Aaron Roberts (right in the photo with Brooks Swentzel), a local tuner enthusiast, to supervise the division. Roberts, who owned his own car customization garage, had built several award-winning vehicles and understood the dynamics of Kentucky's budding tuner market. Prior to that, he had sold tires for another dealership. "Aaron was brought in because of his expertise," says Swentzel.

It didn't take long for S&S Firestone's Sport Compact Division to start making money.

'Everything ties together'

S&S Firestone's Sport Compact Division stocks 15 wheel brands and displays some 400 rims in its performance center's 8,000-square-foot showroom.

The dealership's proprietary wheel brands, Milanni and Xtreme Alloys, receive star billing at the shop. Swentzel commissioned the rims two years ago "so we wouldn't be at the mercy of wheel manufacturers."

S&S Firestone buys the units -- which come in 18 different sizes from 14 to 26 inches -- directly from Chinese manufacturers. "We commit to 10 container loads each year," he says. The dealership sells 10,000 wheels a year on average, all brands included.

Throw in high performance and ultra-high performance tires and the company is achieving enviable margins. (S&S Firestone carries the Falken, Bridgestone, Goodyear and Mastercraft brands, plus Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire LLC's new Fuzion tuner line.)

A standard tire and wheel package at the dealership sells for around $700. Higher-ticket packages have gone for up to $12,000. "Most of our transactions are cash," says Swentzel.

S&S Firestone also carries tuner accessories since most buyers in that market don't stop at just tires and wheels when customizing their vehicles. "If they want body kits, wings, spoilers, air intakes, you name it -- we're on top of it." Other add-ons available include lights, suspension and brake components, window tinting and "interior dress-up" items like seats and carpeting.

Accessories currently comprise 15% to 20% of the performance center's total sales and should make up 50% within a year. "We try to cover every facet," says Swentzel.

To the streets

Having established itself as a "go-to" source for tuner tires, wheels and accessories, S&S Firestone is taking its message on the road in conjunction with the roll-out of Bridgestone/Firestone's Fuzion brand, which was unveiled at last month's International Tire Expo.

The dealership spent $20,000 to soup up a $35,000 2004 Subaru WRX with the Fuzion logo and colors, plus a set of P225/45ZR17 Fuzion ZRi tires. Sponsors also provided parts for the car.

Starting with the New Jersey Auto Salon in Atlantic City this March, Swentzel and Roberts will take the car to 15 tuner shows in Atlanta, Ga., Chicago, Ill., Miami, Fla., and other parts of the country. "The concept with the car is to be out among customers, mingling and mixing," says Swentzel.

"A lot of these shows are outside our (retail) market," he says. But the potential customer base for S&S Firestone's tuner products "is all over the country. The boundaries are ocean-to-ocean and border-to-border."

All accessories and most parts can be shipped via UPS, says Roberts. The dealership also sells tuner products through its wholesale arm. "We're in the process of printing a catalog that we can send out to jobbers."

Lifestyle, not just style

Swentzel and Roberts say the tuner market mirrors what happened in the 1960s and '70s with muscle cars -- with a few differences.

The phenomenon, which several years ago was an underground movement, has achieved mainstream status thanks to MTV, movies like "The Fast and the Furious" and other mass media products. "It's 100% lifestyle," says Swentzel, and includes clothes, music and slang.

Tuner enthusiasts -- many of whom grew up in the age of instant gratification -- want products today, according to Roberts. They also tend to know what they want by using the Internet and tuner publications as research tools. "A lot of them come in with brands already in mind."

Extremely image-conscious, they are willing to spend large amounts of money to get the look they want. "Some go as far as buying a car just to match a tire and wheel combo!" he adds.

Having the right products on-hand is key to succeeding in the tuner business, says Swentzel -- but so is the ability to speak the language and demonstrate genuine excitement. "We have a lot of enthusiasts who work for us. Our parking lot looks like the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show!"

Swentzel says business will only get better since each tuner customer represents a long-term investment. "The guys driving these cars today will be driving SUVs 10 years from now. We have loyal customers."

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