‘We’re in the Long Game:’ Tire Dealer of the Year Chip Wood Leads Tire Discounters Into the Future
The year was 1976. Armed with $5,000 in hard-earned savings and a matching loan from his father, 22-year-old Chip Wood opened his first tire store - a rough and tumble former gas station on the east side of Cincinnati, complete with missing windows and a garage door that was too small to accommodate a car.
Nearly 45 years later, Wood’s dealership, Cincinnati, Ohio-based Tire Discounters, has evolved into one of the country’s largest tire store chains, a state-of-the-art operation that occupies a prominent position on the cutting edge of tire and auto service retailing.
Through a laser-like focus on operational excellence, envelope-pushing marketing and an uncompromising commitment to customer satisfaction, Wood - who is MTD’s 2020 Tire Dealer of the Year - has built a vibrant organization that is poised to embark on the next chapter in the story of its outstanding growth.
‘I wanted to attract attention’
Like many successful dealers, Chip has deep roots in the tire industry. His grandfather was vice president of labor relations at General Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, some 230 miles northeast of Cincinnati.
While attending college, Chip built tires at General’s Akron plant. During the summer, he worked at his uncle's tire store.
The entrepreneurial spirit that would fuel Tire Discounters’ development had already been instilled by Chip’s father, Bill Wood.
“My dad, for as long as I can remember, had raised me to believe that I was always going to have my own business,” says Chip. “Even when I was a little kid, while we were driving down the street, he would give me business tutorials. ‘Now what is supply and demand?’ That’s all we would talk about.
“My dad always told me, ‘You’ll be a lot happier working for yourself.’ So I knew that’s what I was going to do.”
In his teens, Chip entertained thoughts of opening a pizza shop “because that’s where the girls went. They didn’t go to tire stores,” he laughs. “But I was selling tires at 15 years old. I really liked that.
“The summer after graduating college, I was working at my uncle’s store. I called my dad in Cincinnati and asked him if he could find a garage for rent. He called me excitedly to tell me how he had found the perfect place - and said the best part about it was that it was only $400 a month!”
The new venture was off and running. Chip dubbed it Tire Discounters, which “sounded like a company that had a lot of locations.”
Despite its aspirational name, the dealership wasn’t much to write home about when it opened, he admits. “The showroom had eight inches of solid ice on the floor. There was no heat. The front window was half-missing. And you couldn’t even pull a car into the bay. It was the ugliest duckling you ever saw. But how do you tell your dad that? The truth is, I couldn’t have afforded a nicer place anyway.”
Chip’s younger brother, Chris, was in junior high school at the time. “I wasn’t thinking about working for him then because I knew I would be working for free,” he says with a laugh.
He went to work for Chip a few years later. “Things were starting to get busy. It wasn’t like you had a service tech, a service writer, a tire tech, a counter person and a store manager. Everybody did every job.”
Hustle was the name of the game, according to Chip. “On calls with customers, when it was time to talk about tire selection, sometimes I would ask them to hold so I could ‘check on’ stock in the warehouse,” he remembers. “In reality, I would just pause a minute and come back on-line: ‘Yes, sir, we have that tire in stock in warehouse east.’ That meant the tires were sitting about two feet east of where I was standing. But it sounded impressive!”
Selling tires was a less complicated game in those days, according to Chris. “Back then, you had 40 or 50 tire sizes and only 10 prices: $49.95, $59.95, $69.95 and so on,” he notes.
Tire Discounters’ product pipeline also was significantly less complex. “I would drive up to Akron every Sunday to pick up tires,” says Chip. “My uncle would meet me, we’d load up, I’d come back here, Chris would meet me and we’d unload. That was my supply line. I ran the store for six days and on the seventh day, I drove to Akron.”
Competition, however, was fierce. Cincinnati was a crowded market with well-established, multi-location dealerships like Century Tire, Tire America and Michel Tire, plus a host of tire manufacturer-owned outlets and mass merchandisers.
“Sears was just up the street,” says Chip. “We battled them all. But all I cared about was getting started and doing the best I could. It never dawned on me that we were competing against these guys, except, as you can imagine, every single customer was calling around to check tire availability and price.
“But that was your shot to sell yourself. I spent all day on the phone - so much so that my ear would be swollen. But it was so critical. I would do my best to convince customers to come in. And a lot of times, it worked.”
With so many competitors, Chip realized that Tire Discounters’ advertising had to be different - a philosophy that guides the company’s marketing efforts to this day. “Tire America was really tough back then,” he recalls. “They ran those menu ads that listed prices. But that wasn’t us. We didn’t sell on price.”
Newspaper and Yellow Page ads made up the bulk of the dealership’s early media buys. “We were fortunate that phone books, back then, were a quasi-governmental affair,” says Chip. “They didn’t check credit ratings or anything else. If I called them up and said I wanted a half-page ad, which was the biggest you could buy back then, they’d say, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t have a hope of being able to prove that I could afford it!”
He also began to post eye-catching, often humorous messages on the large, old-fashioned, changeable-type sign in front of his store.
“We were on a pretty busy thoroughfare. It was the main east-to-west road, so if people wanted to go downtown, they had to use it. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, we’re here and this is what we’re doing.’ I wanted to attract attention.
“Chris often recounts the story about how one day, when I asked him to change the sign, he put up, ‘Boss told me to change the sign, so I did.’ Customers loved it.
“Sometimes we’d get in trouble,” Chip admits. “You learn over the years how much you can push that envelope. One year, on one side of the sign, I put ‘Discount only for Democrats.’ On the other side, I said, “Discount for Republicans.’ People would ask each other, ‘Did you see the other side?’ We captured their attention. That’s all I cared about.”
Another message - “the best place in town to take a leak,” which was a reference to air pressure loss - also proved to be somewhat controversial.
“There was a church down the road and this lady called, saying she represented a committee there. She said, ‘You have a dirty mind!’ And Chris said, ‘No, you have a dirty mind!’ We had some fun.”
Chip posted new messages every couple of days, which evolved into a once-every-Monday ritual. “As we got bigger, I would fax out a message to all of our stores” to ensure that each location ran the same message. (Chip is still very involved in creating messages. “A lot of times, I’ll be driving and will see something” that inspires a thought, which he will relay to Tire Discounters’ management team.)
Thinking ahead, he began to implement other concepts that would set Tire Discounters apart. The company’s “out the door with more” pricing program, which was introduced in 1985, was one of them.
“When I first opened up, there were stores that charged customers for wheel weights -- by the size of the wheel weight!” says Chip. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
The practice of tacking extra fees onto final bills also was time-consuming, he discovered. When Tire Discounters started, “I would balance tires for free, but would charge for valve stems.I kept running from our garage to our waiting room to ask, ‘Do you want a valve stem? It will be a dollar.’ And it was just a huge waste of time.
“I asked myself, ‘Why shouldn’t you just make this part of the deal?’ It took me a little while to get that, but we started doing it. Then over the years, we added more” free services, including tire rotations.
At the time, it was common for local tire outlets to “nickel and dime” customers, according to Chris. “There were a lot of fees. Everybody was skeptical about tire stores back then. So we gave them a price that was the price.”
This was unique to the Cincinnati market, according to Chip. And it grabbed the attention of both customers and Tire Discounters’ competitors.
“I used to be upset with the reputation our industry had when I first started because you were guilty by association,” he says. “The local Sears would write these repair estimates and they were just horrible. People would come to us and say, ‘They said it will cost $350 for brakes.’ I’d say, ‘Ok, let’s take a look,’ and we’d find that they didn’t need anything. So it was real motivation to do everything we could to turn that (negative customer perception) around.”
Tire Discounters opened its second store in 1986 and added a third location a few years later.
The dealership soon ventured north, adding stores in Columbus and Dayton, Ohio. “By the time we went to Kentucky, we had seven or eight stores,” says Chip.
The company, which was soon closing in on 10 locations, was now firmly on its competitors’ radars. Rival tire dealerships started opening locations near Tire Discounters stores. Around this time, Chip also realized that he had to make some operational adjustments.
“We weren’t big enough to buy competitively. I had to do something about that. We began buying truckloads of tires instead of making small buys.”
He also joined the now-defunct American Car Care Centers program group. “We needed more heft. It made a difference for us.”
In 1997, Tire Discounters was close to opening its 15th outlet. That’s when Chip introduced another innovation that had never been attempted before in the markets where the dealership operated: free alignments with the purchase of four tires.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” he says. This included Jamie Ward, who, at the time, managed one of the company’s outlets. Ward is now the dealership’s president and CEO.
“I was running store number seven and Chip came out to meet me,” says Ward. “He said, ‘I have something to bounce off of you. What do you think about giving away free alignments at all of our stores?’ I shook my head and like most people would, said, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea. We’re going to give up all of our gross margin on alignments.’ He said, ‘Jamie, I have another store doing some tests and I think we’re going to prove you wrong.’”
Tire Discounters soon became “home of the free alignment” across its footprint.
Today, every Tire Discounters store offers free alignments when customers buy four tires. “I knew it was going to take an investment to offer free alignments,” says Chip. “We made sure all stores had two alignment racks and ASE-certified technicians. We had to change some pay plans. We had to do a lot of stuff to get it right. But we did it.”
“It was a gamble,” he continues. “Business had to go up or it was going to fail. But we knew from our test that it would work, so I was all-in.”
To this day, Tire Discounters stores double as test labs for new concepts. “It all starts with the guys and gals who are behind the counter,” notes Chip. “We ask them, ‘What do you think about this?’ If we get positive feedback on a concept or service, we’ll test it. I haven’t been behind the sales counter in a long time. It’s important to ask, ‘What do you think?’”
As Tire Discounters continued to grow, certain administrative functions, like employee recruitment, became easier, according to Chip. “When you’re a small business owner, you do everything yourself - and not all of it well,” he says. “As we grew, I hired really good people to work with me and for me. It was challenging at first because it took a while to get the right staff. But the bigger we got, the more I was able to attract great talent. Today, I have the best of the best in every area. And it makes my job so much easier.”
Supplier relations changed over time, too. “At first, I wasn't direct with any manufacturer. But they would pay their respects and would stop in.”
Tire Discounters’ first supplier was the old Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. “I remember when the Kelly region manager and local salesman came in. I asked them for an exclusive for the greater Cincinnati area, plus Dayton and Columbus, because I said I was going to have stores everywhere. They said, ‘Sure, kid - you can have your exclusive.’ Years later, they told me, ‘We thought you were full of baloney!’”
Working with suppliers “is so much better today, for a lot of reasons. It seems like everyone wants our business.”
Those who know Chip well often cite his marketing acumen as one of the primary drivers behind the dealership’s growth.
“Chip was the little guy in town, but he made such a huge difference through branding,” says Ward, who points to the company’s changeable sign messages as an example of “guerrilla marketing” that made a lasting impact.
“If you want to know how we went from one store to 10 stores, and then from 10 to 20, and so on, we had to set ourselves apart,” Ward continues.
Tire Discounters’ imaginative marketing starts with Chip, according to Crissy Niese, the dealership’s senior vice president and chief customer officer. “There’s a very distinct tone that we communicate with. We want to help our customers feel comfortable. It’s all very rooted in making sure we reinforce trust. There is an intentional strategy around that.”
Marketing ideas at Tire Discounters flow freely and quickly. “Chip is an amazing, outside-the-box innovator,” says Niese. “And he sets the pace. Because he’s so actively involved, we’re literally texting every Sunday to come up with ideas for our store signs on Monday.”
Chip encourages quick action and gives Tire Discounters’ marketing team the autonomy to pursue tactics that they believe will be effective, says Niese.
“He’s the first person to say, ‘Try it!’ And that freedom is felt all the time. If there’s any hesitation, it’s on the opposite side - if you’re not acting fast enough or if you’re not acting boldly enough. It’s not looked down on, per se, but it’s not us. The reaction is, ‘Why are we just talking about it?’
“We’re an ‘act first’ organization. We’ll measure once before cutting, but we won’t measure 27 times. We’re choiceful about our actions, but we are specific and focused about the amount of time we spend” on deliberating. “You can always adjust and correct, post-action.”
Tire Discounters religiously follows what retailers outside the tire industry are doing, according to Niese. “We’ll have heated debates about what their strategy should be and how it could apply to us. We consider ourselves to be a retailer - not just a tire shop. We look at the restaurant sector, We look at the fashion industry. We look at all variations of retail. We’re constantly looking for inspiration.”
Sometimes the dealership draws inspiration from popular culture. “One of my favorite store signs is from a couple of years back,” when reality TV star Kim Kardashian posted provocative photos of herself on the internet, says Niese.
“We put up a sign that said, ‘Kim, that’s not how you use oil!’ We had customers taking selfies with the sign and sharing it all over.”
Sign messages are changed often “so customers can see that a person went out there and physically pulled down old letters and added new ones. It feels like the family business that we are. And it’s really important for us to preserve that (family feeling) as we expand.
“Putting up signs isn’t the most enjoyable experience when it’s cold outside,” Niese continues. “But there’s also a sense of pride when a store manager or employee hears from customers or family members, ‘Hey, I love that sign you put up!’ It’s fun when we interact with members of the community. And it ensures that we don’t take them for granted.”
In recent years, Tire Discounters has expanded into more cutting-edge media, yet has remained “balanced on all touch points,” says Niese. “We do everything. And we are wherever our customers need us to be. If that’s on social media, paid search or streaming - because of the dynamics that are changing with TV...if there’s a market we’re in that’s still heavily cable, we’re on cable TV. We’re on satellite radio and traditional radio. We customize our marketing by region. It’s a very complex media buy process.”
One of the quickest ways to understand a new market is through use of social media, she says. “We’ll come up with three or four pieces of creative” and then track customer reaction.
At Chip’s insistence, Tire Discounters was an early adopter of social and other forms of digital media. “We now take SMS appointments and things along those lines to make sure we are making it easier for customers and that they’re getting the right information at the right time.”
Feedback from Tire Discounters’ store managers is critical. “Every time I visit one of our stores, someone tells me, ‘Here’s what I need for my market or my local community,’” says Niese. “We’ll make sure they get a customized solution.”
‘A process for everything’
Just as Tire Discounters’ marketing has evolved, the dealership - which recently opened its 135th location - has developed a more systematic approach to expansion. For many years, the company grew by adding two or three new stores annually. “We didn’t get to 50 stores until 2008,” says Chip.
To position the company for more growth, he accelerated the development of his management team, which is currently led by Ward and Chip’s daughter, Anna Wood, Tire Discounters’ managing director and vice president.
Ward says Chip knew that systems and processes needed to be put in place to ensure consistency of service and a predictable customer experience, regardless of store location, if the dealership’s expansion was to continue successfully.
“Chip would say, ‘I want you to make this store franchise-ready.’ He meant, ‘I want the same quarter pounder-with-cheese at each store.’ We put workflow processes in place - how we manage bays, where equipment goes, how to put tires away, etc. In 2012, we opened 12 stores but didn’t have the structure that we do today. We piece-mealed them together. It resulted in a lot of stress. So we knew we had to systemize things.
“We brought in an architect who completely redesigned our locations so we could scale up fast,” says Ward. “We came up with three different store prototypes” that could be applied to different-sized properties, “like a jigsaw puzzle.
“The dimensions of our showrooms were the same. The dimensions of our bays were the same. The dimensions of our tire rooms were the same. It was just how we segmented it. And this allowed us to capitalize on our economies of scale.”
With a specific store opening formula in place, Tire Discounters found that it could negotiate better terms and pricing with suppliers.
“The key is that it reduced our costs because everything is now uniform,” says Ward. “Everything is easy to replicate, over and over. You can count on it and it keeps costs under control. Opening new stores is an expensive proposition. It really has a cash flow impact.”
Under Chip’s direction, Tire Discounters’ site selection process also has become more systematic, according to Ward. “We look at market data and demographics. We have a dedicated broker who brings sites to us constantly. We look at every key performance indicator. Our real estate team meets every week to talk about properties. We now have a process for darn near everything we do. Once you systemize it, it’s no longer a real burden.”
Chip says he is undeterred by the number of existing, competitive stores in a target market.
“I can’t remember if I’ve ever said, ‘There are too many stores in this area.’ We’re going to put in a store anyway.”
Tire Discounters also bundles items at its two distribution centers -- one on the north side of Cincinnati and another in Tennessee - for installation at new stores. Computer hardware, office furniture, shop supplies and other items are palletized and shipped to locations, reducing dependency on outside vendors.
“We’ll have shrink-wrapped supplies ready to go,” notes Ward. “You just repeat the process.”
Tire Discounters also controls its own distribution, which was another directive from Chip. The dealership's warehouses ship tires, wheels and other products exclusively to Tire Discounters locations, eschewing distribution to outside customers..
As senior vice president of purchasing, warehousing and distribution, Chris Wood oversees the distribution facilities’ operations. He says Tire Discounters keeps “an enormous amount” of inventory on-hand. “We want to own the product.”
Deliveries are rigorously scheduled. Stores are promised drop-offs within a 10-minute window of designated times. “Our trucks don’t stop,” says Chris. “They drive the same routes every day. They don’t deviate. They don’t stop at a car lot to throw off a couple of tires. They’re not even allowed to go backwards. If they miss a stop, we’ll use a courier service.”
This disciplined approach also applies to inventory levels at individual stores. “Every store has an individual stock plan” with built-in flexibility, according to Chris. “If a manager has a new fleet account, he can change his inventory to adjust. Every time we add a new tire, we take out a tire. We also visit the stores. Chris Alberts, who works in purchasing, does about 120 visits a year. He goes to stores every week and talks about their stocking plans.
“We don’t do a lot of spot buys,” says Chris Wood. “We like to keep our inventory clean and fresh. I look at the top 100 sizes every day. Our team meets once a week to discuss pricing and fitments. ‘Do we have enough of 225/65R17?’”
Individual stores are well-stocked. “We’ve always erred on the side of not running out of something.”
Adhering to formal, agreed-upon processes - from site selection to store opening and stocking - “is important so everybody knows our standards,” according to Ward. “Chip expects the same customer experience, no matter what the store. He’s all about making sure our stores get what they need. Chip also always wants to get to the simple design. That’s how we’ve operated over the years.”
“You just don’t point to a store and say, ‘There it is. Go run it,’” explains Chip. “Our people need to understand what the best way we think that is. And there’s also our ‘values proposition.’ Our company culture and our values are critical to our daily business.
“Our staff understands that rule number one is to do what’s best for the customer, period. That sounds obvious, but it’s essential that everyone understands just how important this is.”
Getting ahead of COVID-19
Having the right people, processes and systems in place has enabled Tire Discounters to expand its footprint across six states. But these things also have helped the dealership manage through unexpected, and in some cases, titanic challenges - COVID-19 being the most recent.
Ward recalls when the company’s management team first learned about the rapid spread of the coronavirus in China. “We were reading about it - and started talking about it - in January and decided to use it as the topic of our quarterly incident response team meeting in mid-February,” he says. (Ward adds that Chip was well-aware of the developing situation. He reads several newspapers each day and shares relevant articles with his management team.)
At Chip’s direction, each department head was given the task of coming up with what-if and worst-case scenarios in the event that the pandemic hit the U.S. “We saw what was happening in China and the mess that was starting to unfold in Italy, so we brainstormed,” says Ward. “We started to think about what could happen and what we would need to do to protect our employees and customers. Immediately, we started talking about how we were going to sanitize our stores and also what could happen from a government standpoint. That was one of the things I took on personally.”
“We set up two teams: a back office team and a front office team,” says Ward. “Our back office team included human resources, our attorneys, our finance team - everyone in the back office who was trying to protect the company.
“From a front office side, Crissy took our stores and how we operate, how we were going to market, how we were going to take advantage of advertising and how we were going to let customers know we were open.
“We got our purchasing team keyed up and immediately sourced hand sanitizer, masks, thermometers, steering covers, floor mats and other items. We had a lot of that stuff already, but nowhere near the quantities that we anticipated needing. Some of our stores actually made sanitizer themselves. They put up plexiglass panels. They did six-foot clearances from counters.”
At the same time, Tire Discounters management kept in close communication with suppliers. “We overstock our stores to where tires sometimes flow into bays,” says Ward. “We overload our stores with tires. We were sitting on a healthy supply when all of this was happening. We had purchase orders out. We had containers on the water. We were talking to all of our manufacturing partners.”
Like many tire dealerships, Tire Discounters experienced a sudden, dramatic drop in business. But it wasn’t felt universally. “Right around March 13, we saw a deflation,” says Ward. “But it didn’t happen at all of our stores. Our top 20 stores didn’t skip a beat.”
“A lot of retailers overreacted” when COVID-19 hit, he believes. “They eliminated staff right off the bat. They cut their stores down to skeleton crews. When volume started picking back up, they couldn’t handle it. We have a policy at Tire Discounters: we don’t overreact and we don’t underreact. We react just right. We have processes in place and we let the business tell us what to do. And we don’t do it with a broad brush.
“In multi-unit management, you’re successful when you focus on and address the outliers,” says Ward. “We looked really closely at run rates, sales forecasts and trends and made adjustments as we needed. We were staffed properly at any given time. And we brought business back on a one-week trail. We didn’t do it across the board. We did it surgically. We’d get sales data every two hours. We were watching and monitoring. We focused on what we could do to get ahead of this.
“And our employees were thrilled that we weren’t running away from (COVID-19). We had a clear mission and purpose. Many of our employees worked six days a week and over the weekends, prepping their stores. They said, ‘What do you need me to do? Put me in, coach!’”
The pandemic also gave Tire Discounters a golden opportunity to launch several initiatives that were already in pilot mode. These included pickup and drop-off, text-to-pay and other services - all originally designed to enhance the customer experience by providing an extra layer of convenience.
Chip and his team immediately pinpointed an opportunity to use these programs to ease customer anxiety around buying tires and having their vehicles serviced during COVID-19, while instilling confidence that the dealership was doing everything within its power to minimize opportunities for virus transmission.
“We rolled out curbside check-in pretty much overnight,” says Niese. Text-to-pay and online check-in services were launched at the same time.
“We already had a lot of these programs in pilot during the fall of 2019,” she explains. “We just expanded them out. There was a lot of work in a tight timeframe,” but she says the programs “were relatively straightforward” to implement.
“We have an extremely creative team that is always coming up with ideas,” says Anna Wood. “These concepts were on the backburner. Then COVID-19 hit and we said, ‘We have to do these now.”
“We’ve always focused on customer innovations,” says Niese. “We were already prepared so we saw this as an opportunity to bring these innovations to customers in a way they were comfortable with. They were willing to try some of these new technologies and were a little more willing to take the leap with us. Because of the pilot work we did, we knew they’d love it. COVID-19 just helped us get there faster.”
Customer reaction was both immediate and positive, according to Chip. "Everybody supported us.”
Tire Discounters will continue to offer services it rolled out during the early days of the pandemic as more customers use them. “We’re now seeing over 1,000 online check-ins per day across our footprint,” says Niese.
“We got ahead of COVID-19 early and went on the offensive with innovation, operations and communication,” says Chip. “I am proud of how well we’re doing but we can’t let up. We consider ourselves to still be very much on the offense.”
Chip believes that all companies, regardless of size or field, share a common denominator: engaged, motivated employees who are focused on customer service.
“Our store managers drive the bus,” he says. “They really do. Being able to do everything we can for our staff will always be the most important task at hand.”
“We call our store managers,” says Anna. “We visit them. We try not to be top-to-bottom. We’re more bottom-to-top. The store experience is so important.”
Tire Discounters’ management team maintains an open-door policy. “I try my best to always pick up the phone,” notes Chip. “I think it’s important for everybody to know we’re paying attention.”
He also is a firm believer in employee development, which is why Tire Discounters launched its Tire Discounters University program six years ago. Pre-pandemic, two full-time instructors cycled six students four days a week through a battery of training sessions held inside a state-of-the-art facility that contains three classrooms and a model tire store fitted with the latest equipment.
Tire Discounters is using current, pandemic-fueled downtime to upgrade and enhance the facility.
The dealership invests in employees in other ways. Several years ago, Chip created a program in which certain long-tenured associates - all former store managers - are crowned as Tire Discounters “legends.”
“When we have store managers who have been with us for a long time and have really become the ‘mayors’ of their towns and markets, we call them our ‘legends’,” says Ward. “These guys dominate their markets. Customers wait in line to see them and won’t go anywhere else. And they’re almost like celebrities to our other folks. Everyone wants to be a Tire Discounters legend. They’re really our brand ambassadors and are a big part of the customer experience. It’s truly remarkable.”
“They wear the legend label like a badge of honor,” says Anna. “It’s definitely an elite group.”
Customers self-identify with the Tire Discounters brand, according to Niese. “They also identify with - and love - our people. They come into a store and say, ‘I want to see Bob, I want to see Jerome, I want to see Les, I want to see Seth…’ We don’t get complacent about it. But that’s a big part of who we are. And we want to make sure we earn the right to maintain that.”
Ensuring that Tire Discounters shares its bounty with worthy causes also helps engender a sense of customer loyalty.
The company is a major contributor to May We Help, a charity that Bill Wood and two partners - also named Bill - founded. The organization, which is headquartered in the Cincinnati suburb of Mariemont, creates custom mechanical solutions for disabled persons, mainly children.
“My dad was a talented mechanical engineer,” says Chip. “My mother once took him to buy a puppy from somebody who had a child with no arms. She had a pencil taped to her head, which she used as a page-turner when she read. My dad left there and said, “I can fix that.’ He went home and built a page-turning machine for her.
“He then found two other mechanical engineers and they created all kinds of inventions,” says Chip. “They also paired engineers up with people who have needs in order to develop products you can’t buy. That morphed into May We Help.
“When my dad was on his deathbed, he asked if I could take his place at May We Help. I’m the furthest thing from an engineer that you can imagine. But I turned it into a real charity with 501(c)(3) status, financing and a place to situate itself” within a facility that once served as an early Tire Discounters warehouse.
Tire Discounters supports May We Help financially and also runs periodic, in-store promotions that allow customers to donate money to the organization, which has provided life-enhancing devices for hundreds of people. (Recently, customer donations enabled May We Help to produce hundreds of face shields that were distributed to frontline medical workers.)
In line with Tire Discounters’ “keep it local” philosophy, Chip also encourages store managers to seek out and support charities in their own towns. “Just two weeks ago, a manager at one of our stores wanted to supply face masks to his kids’ school,” he says. “The next day, we had 295 face masks for him to distribute. We were happy to help.”
Other successful efforts include ReTire Your Kicks, a promotion that started when Tire Discounters entered the Nashville, Tenn., market. A local group there collects and donates shoes to “those who suffer from a hurricane, tornado or another natural disaster,” according to Niese. “We were so taken with the power of such a simple act having such a tangible impact on people’s lives that we created a campaign for all of our markets.”
The initiative collected 20,000 pairs of shoes over a six-week period. The second-hand “kicks” were donated to recipients in the storm-battered Bahamas.
Another campaign, Labor’s On Us, also was successful. “We ran this campaign first in one of our newer markets,” working with the Wounded Warriors and Helping Heroes organizations, says Niese. “We installed sets of tires (on veterans’ vehicles) with no cost for labor.”
The dealership also donated $1 for every store phone call or social media engagement it received. “We raised over $20,000.”
Chip is typically modest when discussing Tire Discounters’ charitable activities. “Just having the ability to help another is all the thanks I need,” he says.
‘All systems launch’
Tire Discounters recently passed the 135-store mark and will continue to open new stores, according to Chip. (“It would be pretty cool to become a national brand versus a regional retailer,” he muses.)
While new builds will continue to play a key role in the company’s growth, he says the dealership is ready to launch the next phase in its evolution: a Tire Discounters franchise program.
“We’re very proud of our company-owned stores and our existing employees,” says Ward. “And we’re also excited to soon start offering franchising to both existing store operators and to those who are new to the tire business.”
The program is designed to appeal to smaller dealers “who don’t want to sell their business, but can’t spend money on all of the initiatives” needed to grow, according to Ward. “They can become part of our organization as a conversion of their current format.”
Participants will have the opportunity to display the Tire Discounters brand, including signage, while taking advantage of the company’s marketing and IT support, training, supply chain and economies of scale.
“They would truly be part of our organization,” says Ward. “We’ve been working on this for the last seven months. We have a great brand and want to scale it. But we’re going to be very strategic and conservative. We don’t want to devalue our brand or lose control. You won’t see an explosion of Tire Discounters stores nationwide.
“We do know, however, that there are great people who don’t have the sophistication or the technology that we do. We can help them grow their business.”
“Our family is eager to talk with more family business owners, who, like us, have poured their hearts and souls into their businesses,” says Anna. “We know how difficult it is to compete in today’s world. We can help those who may not be able to invest in business-critical infrastructure.”
Tire Discounters, which Ward says is in “buy mode,” also will be more aggressive on the acquisition front. “We can continue to grow by 12 to 15 stores a year. We could probably do a little more than that, if we wanted to. But organic growth is slow.”
To date, only five stores within Tire Discounters’ current footprint have been acquisitions. “But we’re in a market dynamic that we’ve been preparing for,” says Ward. “We are becoming highly intentional with acquisitions and it’s a good time right now. We’re actively looking.”
The company also is exploring other options to partner with fellow dealers. “We’re spending millions of dollars on our website, our customer relationship management system, our advertising, our digital properties, our marketing and how our brand is received by our customers,” says Ward. “A lot of family-owned dealerships don’t have the funds to do the same. So there are ways we can help them.
“One is we can do a real estate deal in which these folks own their own properties and we go in as a tenant and run (the business) for them. They get a grade-A tenant and their value goes up.”
The timing for these efforts, from Tire Discounters’ perspective, couldn’t be better, according to Ward. “We’re at the point where we have the right structure. We have the governance. We have the right people. It’s ‘all systems go.’ And next year, it will be ‘all systems launch.’ All of our initiatives will be ready to come to fruition.”
Playing ‘the long game’
Internally, Chip plans to continue to cultivate the next generation of Tire Discounters leadership, including Anna and her brothers, Evan and Steven. (Evan is a technician at one of the dealership’s stores. Steven works closely with Tire Discounters’ IT department.)
He also will continue to actively advise other members of the company’s management team. “Jamie and Anna have taken the lead,” says Chip. “I stay close with them and provide guidance and ideas. I’m always watching and monitoring. Every customer compliment or complaint comes directly to me. I review our flash sales reports every two hours. I often respond with handwritten notes to employees and also drop in at stores when out researching site selections.
“I feel very much in the loop and if I have questions, I’m not afraid to dig in and engage directly,” he says. “But in a real sense, my job is to say, ‘Yes,’ and ‘Go for it!”
Chip also plans to invest in Tire Discounters’ talent pool at the store level. “We have so much talent,” he says. “Every tire technician is a potential service technician, a potential general manager, a potential regional manager and a potential CEO. All one has to do is have the desire and the drive. That’s it.”
Chip says his role as Tire Discounters’ leader will continue to evolve as the company’s needs change.
“I did reach a point, several years ago, where after 40 years, I needed to back off a bit,” he reveals. “It might have appeared that I exited the business, but I never did. I just stopped running things and hired someone to do that for me. This was a big thing for me. It helped me step back, take a different perspective and look at the bigger picture. My role became more of a chairman.”
During that time, Chip says he discovered “that there are people out there who are way better than I am. And I still get to work with them and say, “This is what I think.’”
The unyielding focus on customer satisfaction that has made Tire Discounters what it is today will remain the foundation of the dealership’s continued success, he says.
“I wish I could say I was some sort of visionary. When I opened my first store, I literally thought I had made it. You’re running this small business and you’re making good money and you think, ‘I’m a success.’ It took me a while to wake up and realize there’s more to this.
“I started with no advantage whatsoever,” he says. “All I did was focus on the customer. One of the reasons we were - and are - so successful is that drive to help the customer: running to the car, changing tires with as much energy as you could and engaging with the customer as much as you could. These things helped us succeed.
“I can remember someone telling me, ‘It must be great to have your own business. You don’t have a boss.’ I said, ‘That’s not true at all. I have a bunch of bosses. I have to answer to every customer who comes in. And I have to answer to everyone who works here.’
“We’re in the long game at Tire Discounters,” says Chip. “It took 45 years to get where we are and I’m fine with that!”
(Special thanks to the following companies that support the 2020 MTD Tire Dealer of the Year award program: Advance Auto Parts, American Omni Trading, American Tire Distributors, Automotive Distribution Network, AutoZone, Bartec USA, Blackburn OEM Wheel Solutions, Bridgestone Tire, Centric Parts, Clark Schaefer Hacket, Cooper Tires, DRiV, FlexShopper, General Tire, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Hunter Engineering Co., Integrated Supply Network, Michelin Tire North America Inc., Moog Louisville Warehouse, Myers Tire Supply, Nexen Tire America Inc., NTW (National Tire Wholesale), O'Reilly Auto Parts, Pirelli Tire LLC, Synchrony Financial, Tireco Inc., Treadmaxx Tire Distributors, U.S. Bank, Valvoline and Wells Fargo Commercial Bank.)