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The Sky's the Limit for John Marshall and Grismer Tire

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The Sky's the Limit for John Marshall and Grismer Tire

"Be interested in the things the boss is interested in. And the customer is boss!" This statement, imparted by Harvey Firestone to former Grismer Tire Co. owner Charles "Charlie" Marshall Sr. more than 70 years ago, has long been the cornerstone of the Dayton, Ohio-based dealership's business philosophy. And it's the foundation of current Grismer Tire President and 2003 Modern Tire Dealer Dealer of the Year John Marshall's success. To Marshall, customer service is more than a business school buzzword -- it's dogma, an absolute conviction that directs every move Grismer Tire makes as an organization.

At the master's feet

Grismer Tire's history as one of the Midwest's most prosperous and well-respected independent tire dealerships dates back to 1932, when Charlie Marshall bought the single-location dealership, which had been started earlier that year by local businessman Adam Grismer.

Charlie, a Cincinnati, Ohio, native, had been running a Firestone company-owned retail store in Marion, Ind., after a stint as an insecticide salesman. "Dad went to a banker in Marion and sold the banker on lending him money to buy the business -- during the depth of the Great Depression! My father did not have any assets, but was regarded as an honest and fair merchant," says John. "One of the things that impressed the bank wasn't just the fact that my father had a good reputation, but also that his hands were dirty. He was more than just a store manager; he was willing to do whatever it took."

Charlie soon began selling new tires out of the dealership's storefront location in downtown Dayton (prior to that, it had been a retread operation). Because space and resources were limited, employees dismounted tires on the curb and sent them up to the building's top floor, where they were changed.

John and his older brother, Charles II ("Rusty"), were exposed to the tire business at an early age. "When we were kids, dad wasn't big on TV and really didn't like us to watch it. He would come home and sit in his den, and always had a legal-size yellow pad to figure calculations. And he'd talk to us about business and business philosophy." Their mother, Gertrude Bucher, was a well-respected attorney.

John worked at Grismer Tire during high school, "cleaning the floors, cleaning the restrooms, anything I could do without causing damage," he says with a laugh. He changed and delivered tires as well.

John also worked for his father periodically while attending Ohio State University, where he began as an accounting major and later switched to international finance. He spent his last semester studying in Europe and graduated in Holland in 1969. He spent the next couple of months traveling around the continent with a buddy but stayed in touch with family back home. "My brother had written me and talked on the phone about how things were going back at the business and said, 'Come on, it would be a lot of fun, the two of us in it.' So I came back."

Meanwhile, Westinghouse had made him a lucrative offer. Charlie told John he would match Westinghouse's proposal, which "was about what MBAs were being paid at the time." He handed the company's offer to his father, "and he looked at it, then looked up at me and said, 'Take it! You're not worth that much!'"

But John decided to stick with Grismer Tire. "Some people say working for your dad is hard, but in my case, it was an extremely easy thing to do. I was excited about it."

Growing up, John had periodically dreamed about running Grismer Tire one day, but Charlie never pushed his sons in that direction. "He didn't want us to feel obligated. I don't think dad wanted to look back 10 years later and have me say, 'I really didn't want to do this, but you wanted me to, so I did it.'"

John entered the business "with my eyes wide open. That really enthused dad, and it was a great deal." He started retreading and repairing tires in the dealership's retread shop. "We were stronger in other areas but weak there. Dad was happy to see that I was willing to take whatever job needed to be done."

John also managed retread shop personnel, which he describes as a "steep learning curve. Right out of school you don't know anything about management. It was a very good lesson to learn in how to relate to people with different backgrounds, educations, goals and motivations." John enjoyed the job and worked to improve the plant's productivity and efficiency.

Charlie then decided to consolidate the shop, which had operated as a separate entity, into Grismer Tire's commercial division, which was under Rusty's supervision (Rusty eventually took over the division in the early 1970s).

John moved to the retail side of the business and started purchasing tires, hiring employees and making key marketing decisions. Charlie's advice to the brothers "was on-going. Dad was extremely gracious, sharing not only the financial part (of the business), but his time and coaching. And of course, the older we got, the wiser he became, in our eyes."

John and Rusty are still awestruck by Charlie's knack for making sales and friends at the same time. "One day, while I was running a store, dad came in to see how I was doing," recalls John. "A customer had come in and wanted the cheapest thing we had. So I first talked to him about retreads.

"'No, I don't want any retreads,' he said.

"We had a Firestone Nylon Air, which was primarily designed to go up and down the driveway, so I showed him that. He had a '56 Buick.

"'No, I don't want those,' he said. 'Too much money! The damn car is old!'

"Well, dad was just walking in and that's all he heard. And dad said, 'Yeah, but I bet you (the car) will go 100 mph.' The guy spun around, looked at dad as if his family name had been besmirched, and said, 'A hundred? Fella, I tell ya, it'll do 115 if it'll do five!'

"Dad got a big smile on his face and said, 'See, you need good tires,'" and then up-sold the customer to a much more expensive set. "It wasn't the 'Five Steps to a Tire Sale,'" says John. "How do you teach that to somebody?"

Intelligent design

With John aboard, the dealership -- which consisted of four outlets -- entered an expansion phase. In 1972, Grismer Tire launched Dayton Tire Sales by renaming one of its existing stores. "Dayton Tire wanted us to add more locations, so we added two more (outlets) within a couple of years," increasing the dealership's total store count to six.

"We ran with six until we added a seventh down in Fairfield (a Cincinnati, Ohio, suburb). Then we started Grismer Tire of Lima (Ohio), which was a commercial operation." Years later, in 1988, Grismer Tire would acquire the tire operations of three Dayton-area Elder-Beerman department stores, "and we've added ever since." Grismer Tire made its most recent acquisition, Detroit Tire, in 2000.

John and his brother implemented changes as they got more involved with the business, including raising managers' starting salaries and improving pay structures. They also began putting more emphasis on automotive service. "Back when radials first came out, our dad said they would drastically change the business." Grismer Tire was selling Michelins at the time "and we were making a strong margin. Then radials started going to more dealerships and everyone was getting into the tire business. Margins started going down."

The Marshalls' goal was to have service cover their expenses "and the net would be what we made on tires." The strategy, which was ahead of its time, paid off and Grismer Tire was able to stay ahead of the pack. "The auto service business is a lot harder than selling tires," says John. "It takes more time and explanation to the customer, and more personnel problems (since) service requires more labor, by definition." Today, service comprises 60% to 65% of the dealership's total sales at its 24 retail stores.

John and Rusty assumed many of their father's responsibilities "in a gradual manner. There was a tremendous age difference between my dad and us, so he was anxious for us to take over some of his (duties)." Charlie worked full-time right up to the year before his death in 1989 at the age of 88. (Gertrude passed away the same year, several months before Charlie.)

"He was passionate in his beliefs. He was good about it if you made a mistake, not harping on it. And he was willing to relive his mistakes and what he learned from them. We were very close to our dad."

Loyalty goes both ways

John attributes part of Grismer Tire's growth to the company's fiscal solvency and penchant for being in the right position to capitalize on opportunities. "Since we started during the Great Depression, one of the things dad lectured strongly about was not to be in debt. We've always been in a financially strong position.

"And some of it has just been serendipitous. We'd (happen) to be grooming people for a new location when something would come up, and we'd be able to get them in right away."

Grismer Tire has nearly 240 employees, many of whom have been with the company for decades. Commercial tire salesman Robert Hupp started with Grismer Tire in 1954. Woody Blizzard, 81, started with the dealership in 1959; he now helps John with clerical work.

Jerry McCormick, who is a partner with the Marshalls in Grismer Tire's 13-outlet Associate Tire spin-off, has been with the company since 1988 after meeting John and Charlie several years earlier. "I was impressed with how hard they worked and their dedication," says McCormick. "They worked all day; they didn't take time off to golf or go fishing." Steve Whitehead, the Marshalls' partner in Dayton Tire Sales, started with Grismer in 1976.

John credits the dealership's long-term success to the staff that he and his brother have assembled. "It shouldn't be 'Dealer of the Year.' It should be 'Tire Company of the Year.' Our people are as instrumental as I am.”

There's no "magic" to employee retention, according to John. "They want to be well-compensated, but they need more than that. Opportunity for improvement, opportunity to participate in decision-making, and the feeling that they're contributing for real" all play a part.

John is directly involved in the hiring process, "depending on the department." Rusty, McCormick and Whitehead normally have final say on new hires for their respective departments. "Enthusiasm is the absolute strongest point" in evaluating a potential employee, says John. "There are other things you'd like to have, like honesty, but some of those qualities are so (intangible), how can you tell during an interview? You can't. But give me an enthused person and I'll take him any day of the week. Anything else we can train."

John demonstrates a great rapport with his employees by the way he warmly greets them by name, inquires about the well-being of their families, laughs with them, and beams with pride when discussing their work ethic and craftsmanship. "If you need anything, he's always around," says Bob Kemper, who oversees seven Grismer stores in and around Dayton.

The Marshalls make it a point to share financial and other company information with all employees, from upper-level executives to the latest hires. "Each store gets its own financial statement, in addition to checks that have been charged to the store," says John. "We encourage them to see how their expenses are being generated" and in what areas they've done well. "Everybody likes to know how they're doing."

John meets with store managers on a monthly basis and encourages them to meet with their employees at least once a week. "Jerry McCormick taught me the big thing is to get rid of their complaints. If you've gotten rid of their complaints, what's left? If something's not working right, get it fixed. If you need a particular tool for a job, get it."

Concentrating on things they don't have or should have is counterproductive, he says. "We show them that we're willing to have them direct us."

Grismer Tire store managers have the autonomy to make major decisions affecting their operations. But most of the dealership's strategies are plotted at the top of the organization. John calls it "management by objective." John, Rusty and others literally write down their goals for the company "and then cover that with our people. It forces us to sit down and determine where we want to be and what we want to achieve." Top management also reviews employee suggestions. When workers set objectives, they feel obligated to reach them, according to John. "It becomes their goal, not our goal. They've bought into it.

"Go into any retail establishment. There are people who really feel that they're part of the business. I can't always define it, but I know it when I see it."

Grismer Tire employees advise John on equipment to buy, brands to carry "and even (on the viability of) some locations. We never decide on equipment ourselves; we get our mechanics together and have them review it. Major (equipment) purchases are done by them."

Workers are evaluated on an annual basis. "Normally, when we do evaluations, we want the immediate supervisor to put down both what (employees) are good at and what they need to do for improvement. This does a couple of things: one, it forces managers to give their thoughts on improvement, and two, it gives them a guideline on what they should be working on.

"I've often wondered how many people get up in the morning and say, 'You know, it's a beautiful day -- I'm going to go to work and do something dumb?' Nobody does. Yet you talk to some employers and that's what they feel like their employees are doing! Whose fault is it? There's a good chance the employer hasn't trained them. And there's probably a very good chance that the employer hasn't sat down and thought out what he or she really wants their personnel to do."

He cites aircraft carriers as an illustration. "In my mind, they're the most complicated things in the world. You name it, an aircraft carrier has everything going against it: loud noise, heavy equipment, and in wartime, think of the pressure. And who do they have running it? Kids! Multi-million dollar planes moving all over the deck of a multi-billion dollar ship -- all done by kids.

"Someone has taken the time to figure out exactly what they want the person to do and has spent the time training them.

"Take a guy who is a tire changer, and that's a very important position. Who trains him? What's expected of him? What checklist do you have to make sure everything has been covered? Most people will respond if they feel what you're asking is fair, if you aren't arbitrary and if you're consistent. The problem is most (employers) know this but don't practice it."

John certainly does. Grismer Tire partners with Dayton-based Sinclair Community College's auto repair programs for tech training. The dealership pays 100% tuition if one of its techs earns an A or a B and half of the tuition in the event of a C. Techs also receive their normal salaries while attending classes.

Grismer Tire will even reimburse employees' tuition if they pursue other majors. "We've paid for courses that aren't directly related to us. I'd pay for someone to take a course in history. A better-educated person is just better, period. And the better person you have, the better company you have."

Grismer Tire also takes advantage of supplier training programs for salespeople. John prefers daytime sessions "so people are fresh and alert, instead of doing it after they've worked a full day. You can't train enough."

Onward and upward

A large part of John’s workday is spent wading through volumes of paperwork. "It's necessary, but a lot of stuff can get lost in that. A good part of it is looking over figures. I like to look over maintenance items and I definitely want to see customer adjustments.

"I spend part of my time on advertising and purchasing." John is a founding member of the Midwest Tire Association, a buying group that also consists of Massillon, Ohio-based Ziegler Tire & Oil Co., Lexington, Ky.-based Ken Towery's Auto Care Centers, and several other dealerships in the region; association members meet twice a year.

"I should probably spend the most time on personnel, because that's our most valuable asset. But you have to be just as diligent on the parts of the business you're not as interested in."

John enjoys "delving into the things that need to be fixed the most. One of the biggest advantages to being in your own business is that you can give yourself variety."

He delegates as much as he can, explaining that his staff is more than capable of handling any task he throws their way. "Is there anything I do that somebody else can't? I hope not. If so, I should never take a vacation," which, he notes, has never been a problem.

He spends much of his time with his wife, Karen, a realtor whom he met "on the way to a hurricane." Years ago, John and Rusty hopped a flight down to Florida to secure a boat they had anchored there before a hurricane hit. "We got as far as Atlanta and Delta canceled all flights down," says John. He'd known Karen's sister, who was living in Atlanta at the time, for several years. "I called her up to see if she wanted to have dinner since my brother and I had to spend the night." That's when he met Karen, who relocated to California shortly thereafter and fell out of touch with John. She eventually moved back to Ohio, and nine years later, happened to be working on a property that the Marshalls owned. "She called and asked if I remembered her," recalls John. "I said, 'Yes,' and she met with me to submit an offer." The deal never came to fruition, but they started seeing each other and married in 1995. Karen now lends her expertise to Grismer Tire, handling commercial real estate issues, checking stores "to see how they appeal to females," offering input on ad campaigns and serving as a sounding board for various ideas.

As a teenager, John enjoyed tennis, collected stamps and "loved cars," a passion that has carried over to the present. "My first car was a Hillman Huskie," a vehicle that his mother picked up for him in England while attending an International Confederation of Women Attorneys convention. "It was English drive, so I had to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road. My next car was a Triumph." Rusty also had a Triumph, "and both of them were red."

John and Karen are long-time supporters of public radio and have helped sponsor fund-raising activities for the cause. Karen also is on the volunteer board of the Dayton Philharmonic.

The Marshalls are involved with The 100 Club, a Dayton-based group that offers educational assistance to the children of slain or severely injured police officers and firefighters. The group has put dozens of kids through college. "We don't broadcast it. A lot of policemen and firemen don't even know about it. It's not for personal accolades."

While many tire dealers provide financial support for athletic activities, John donates money to local high school band programs. "There are more people in a school band than on a little league baseball team. The whole family often is involved." John played the alto clarinet while in high school but doesn't profess to be a musician. "My parents wasted money on piano lessons when I was young," he laughs. "Now the only thing I can play is 'Chopsticks!'"

John also contributes to The Salvation Army, which he calls "a great organization. One of the biggest reasons is that their expense ratio is low. Money that goes to them is used for what it should be."

However, John's primary passion is aviation. He's flown in small planes since his father, who was a pilot, first starting taking him and his brother up on short flights. (Rusty is a pilot as well.) "As a kid I'd sit on his lap and he'd work the rudder while I'd work the wing controls." John was authorized to fly solo before he even had his driver's license! "My mom had to drive me to the airport." In his late teens, he frequently flew to other states and later even commuted to college by plane for a weekend. "You weren't allowed to have a car there, but they didn't have a rule against planes."

For a couple of years, John flew in acrobatic competitions, placing as high as second place in a contest held in the early '90s. In 1994, he and Karen flew across the Atlantic to Europe by themselves, accomplishing one of John's long-time dreams. "We flew to Northern Canada and then to Greenland. Then we flew north of the Arctic Circle and went to Iceland. From Iceland we flew to Scotland, and took the same route home several weeks later." They logged 45 air hours round-trip.

Flying brings a sense of independence, according to John -- and also responsibility. "It makes you focus on what you're doing as opposed to anything else. Everything in aviation is geared toward you being responsible. I think it's super training for kids." John presently flies around 100 hours a year -- "not nearly enough."

People make it happen

The Marshalls have positioned Grismer Tire as a quality service provider. "On service, we're definitely not the (least expensive)," says John. "But we want to be perceived as giving the best value. Without good quality, people won't patronize you, regardless of price."

But after 30 years as a key decision-maker, he admits that the way Grismer Tire operates and how he approaches it have changed. "It's not as personal" in terms of dealing with both employees and customers. And working with tire manufacturers "depends on their changing personnel. We're more consistent than the rubber companies as far as (personnel) goes. The manufacturers have the personalities of whoever's in there at the time, and sometimes it's better than at other times.

"We certainly need our suppliers. It works best when we're both on the same page and are striving for the same thing. We can't take advantage of them. When you start doing that, it's not a fair game. And if it's not a fair game, it won't last." The dealership sells Bridgestone, Firestone, Dayton, Nokian, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Continental, General, Uniroyal, Carlisle, Tivant and Falken tires.

Grismer Tire faces many of the same challenges other independent tire dealerships do. "Medical expenses are going through the roof. In Ohio, workers' comp just went up by 75%." John also is frustrated by what he calls "irrational tort concepts."

"But try to find one person who says it's easier to do business today than it was before, going back to my father and his father's father. It's like the 'people don't work as hard as they used to' syndrome; I don't believe that. People work as hard, if not harder."

Margins on tires may be less than they were decades ago, "but we have things that make up for that, like auto service. And we have tools that make us more efficient," like computer inventory systems. "Productivity has gone up.

"The challenges we had in the past are in the past and we've forgotten how difficult they were."

John wants to continue cultivating Grismer Tire "in a steady pattern, slowly but surely. We're not interested in more locations just to say we have more locations. We expect them all to be profitable.

"We also don't want to get over-leveraged. I want to be able to sleep at night and not worry about how we're going to make a bank payment. I don't want to be a slave to a corporation or to outside financial investors; that's very important to me."

John is unashamed to say that the health of Grismer Tire takes precedence in his life, second only to his family. To him, the company is an extension of his clan. "What is business? It's personnel. We're all people. I have loyalty to my employees.

"Priorities will change as demands (shift). But there are some very important individuals in the business I feel very obligated to."

He describes Grismer Tire as "a living thing. Technically, I don't run the business that much; it's everybody in it, and I'm working for them to a great degree. People have their own agendas, their own desires and they're only going to stay if there's a future for them."

John admits he never envisioned the amount of expertise currently at Grismer Tire's disposal. "The talent we have -- Steve Whitehead, Jerry McCormick and others -- are every bit, and in many cases, more instrumental (in Grismer Tire's success) than I am. The perspective they bring, their enthusiasm -- we would be nowhere near where we are without them, and I'm not being humble when I say that. It's the honest-to-goodness truth.

"There are no shortcuts that I've found in business. There's somebody out there who's just as talented as you are. What is it that makes Grismer Tire different? Anybody can get the products we sell. Anybody can get good locations. Anybody can buy the equipment. But they can't buy our people; that's what makes Grismer different."

And to an extent, that's also what makes independent tire dealers different, John believes. "Who are tire dealers competing against? Some of the largest corporations in the world. Sears isn't exactly a local outfit; neither is Wal-Mart. Yet tire dealers have been able to flourish. That's a heck of an accomplishment.

"We tell our people, 'When you go home at the end of the day, you have a lot to be proud of. You've competed against the best and you've done well.'

"We compete against very sophisticated organizations that have unbelievable resources compared to what we have. I'm proud of the industry and I'm proud of our company."

Welcome to the club: John Marshall joins elite fraternity

John Marshall is the 11th Tire Dealer of the Year, an annual competition sponsored by Modern Tire Dealer. Marshall will receive an etched plaque commemorating the honor and a framed portrait. A $1,000 check will be split between the charities of his choice: the Salvation Army and Chaminade High School, which he and his brother attended.

Marshall was chosen by independent judges Anne and Russ Evans of Tyres 2000, a tire importer/exporter in Hebron, Conn.; Saul Ludwig, a managing director at McDonald Investments Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of MTD's Ludwig Report; Richard Morgan of Morgan Marketing Solutions in Dallas, Texas; and 2001 Tire Dealer of the Year and Morgan Tire & Auto Inc. founder Larry Morgan.

Last year's Tire Dealer of the Year was Tom Raben, president of Raben Tire Co. Other Tire Dealer of the Year winners include Les Schwab, Les Schwab Tire Centers, Prineville, Ore. (2000); Raynal Pearson, Pearson Tire Co., Richfield, Utah (1999); Tom Gegax, Team Tires Plus Ltd., Burnsville, Minn. (1998); Walt Dealtrey Sr., Service Tire Truck Centers, Bethlehem, Pa. (1997); David Stringer, Stringer Tire Co., Jacksonville, Fla. (1996); Tony Troilo, Rosson & Troilo Motor Co. Inc., Brandy Station, Va. (1995); Jerry Bauer, Bauer Built Inc., Durand, Wis. (1994); and Barry Steinberg, Direct Tire Sales, Watertown, Mass. (1993).

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