Turning a mud pit into a gold mine: From dirt and water springs a masterful marketing promotion
"See that hole filled with water in the field back there? See if you can drive this vehicle through it," suggested tire dealer Brian LaPerle to a local kid visiting his shop.
He tried, he couldn't. And even though they had to get the vehicle towed out of the muddy pit, an idea was born which has meant added business for Northern Tire, a change in marketing direction and new business for other companies in the dealership's small town.
Northern Tire is in Colebrook, N.H., population 2,500, which sits on the New Hampshire/Vermont border 10 miles south of Canada.
LaPerle's grandfather, Roland LaPerle, started selling gas and tires in 1961. In 1962 he opened a retread shop, and LaPerle's father, Dennis, and his brother Donnie began working there.
In 1970 the company added automotive service work, and 10 years later Dennis purchased the retread shop portion of the business.
In 1993, after LaPerle graduated from high school, he brought the business into the computer age, and officially took over as owner in 1999.
Northern Tire now has six bays with four full-time techs -- two tire, two auto service -- plus a service manager. LaPerle's wife, Crystal, runs the front office and his father continues to help out.
The company retreads truck tires using Oliver Rubber products "and a system we've perfected over 40 years," says LaPerle. It also does tremendous business in tire repair -- from ATV to farm, forestry and OTR tires -- pulling in forestry tire repair business from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Canada. It is one of only three companies in the New England area to offer this level of tire repair, LaPerle says.
The company sells Cooper, Monarch, Cordovan, Power King, Nokia and Firestone passenger and light truck tires (as well as any other brand its customers desire), plus forestry, farm, lawn and garden, ATV and even motorcycle tires.
It is known for its snow tires -- mainly Cooper Weathermasters and Town and Country Sand retreads (produced by Gossco in St. Johnsbury, Vt.), which help customers navigate the mountainous roads surrounding the dealership. It even repairs snowmobile tracks.
"Our techs can put on four snow tires in 10 minutes," says LaPerle. "We have a system. We do every car exactly the same way."
Small town, big ideas
Although the business was successful, four years ago LaPerle was trying to come up with some way to promote his business beyond the boundaries of his small town and increase profits.
He heard a Maine morning radio talk show offering to do live broadcasts from businesses in its listening area. Northern Tire took them up on the idea, and WTOS broadcast its program from the dealership one morning from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.
"It was not too successful," LaPerle admits. "Most people were sleeping."
So the next year, LaPerle had the radio personalities return to do a live broadcast of a "Smoke Show," at which Northern Tire had participants "burn their tires until they blew."
More than a dozen contestants spent the morning "burning the tires off their vehicles as fast as we could put them on," says LaPerle. About 200 people showed up to watch.
"Smoke was all over town! It was a sight to see! But it turned out to be not very profitable for us since we pretty much gave away the tires so people could burn them."
Then came that fateful day in 2001, when LaPerle was looking at the field next to his shop, saw that low spot and sent the kid trekking into the mud. Although the vehicle got stuck, LaPerle thought he just might have something.
Not long after that he commissioned the local fire department to dump 1,600 gallons of water on the field and challenged people to try to drive through it. The radio station was there again broadcasting the contestants' attempts to forge the mucky terrain.
LaPerle says not a lot of thought or preparation went into that first "Mud Run."
"It was really a spur-of-the-moment thing, but it drew 1,000 people."
He said contestants had a ball wrecking their vehicles -- including one teenager who had just purchased a shiny new vehicle from the car dealership 1/8-mile down the road. He trashed it through the mud and then tried to take it back to the dealership for warranty work. Bad luck for him, however, "Everyone who worked at the dealership was here watching the Mud Run!" laughs LaPerle.
He now admits "the only thing that did cross the pit that first year was a snowmobile, and Crystal was on the back!"
Clear as mud
Last year, the Mud Run was totally revamped. A grandstand was fashioned on the property to hold spectators, prizes were offered, a jump was built, the soil prepared to be challenging but not impossible. "It went super great last year," says LaPerle.
Twenty-seven vehicles entered the contest, and 2,000 people came to watch the action. The radio station DJs again broadcast the action live.
What the Mud Run event has done is create a new market for Northern Tire. It used to sell mainly street tires, but the business now does blockbuster business selling off-road mud tires.
And another shop in town is busy selling and installing truck lift kits. "We've created a whole new craze," says LaPerle. "It's great."