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The Power of Perseverance: Past Tire Dealer of the Year Award Winners Keep Moving Forward

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Steinberg says his top job is to promote the Direct Tire brand.

Over the past 27 years, those five little words have represented the best of what the tire industry has to offer. The past honorees of Modern Tire Dealer’s award - the oldest and most prestigious of its kind -  include men and women who have led their businesses to success, and also steered the whole industry into the future. 

In 2020, MTD has presented our 28th Tire Dealer of the Year Award winner, Chip Wood, the founder and chairman of Tire Discounters.

Past honorees include single-store superstars and regional powerhouses. They serve consumers as retail-focused sellers and some keep fleets and commercial customers in motion. There have been jack-all-trades tire dealers who seemingly do it all - from the warehouse and the retail counter to the retread shop and the service truck.

Six of our past honorees have died. Others have sold their businesses and left the tire industry altogether. But the majority of our past Tire Dealer of the Year Award recipients continue to report to work. 

They’ve held on during this especially unpredictable year and continue to show why they’re the best. Here’s a look at how three of our Tire Dealer of the Year Award winners are adjusting and persevering in 2020.

The first winner

Barry Steinberg set the bar in 1993 when he was named the first MTD Tire Dealer of the Year. At the time, his company, Direct Tire & Auto Service, was a single-store tire dealership in Watertown, Mass., selling $6 million in tires and automotive service a year.

Steinberg now operates four stores outside of Boston. He had a fifth, but closed it about 18 months ago. Combined, his four locations do $13 million a year.

He’s always had an eye for finding a way to sell consumers a great deal on tires. And that’s not the same as a bargain basement deal.

In the 1990’s, Direct Tire offered a lifetime guarantee to customers who bought Toyo tires. As long as the customer had the tires aligned once a year, they could drive on them until the tread wore thin. When it was time to replace them, the next set was free.

“We sold zillions” of Toyo tires, says Steinberg. “We replaced thousands of them over the last 20-some-odd years. It was probably the very, very best thing I ever did.

“We shouted it from the rooftop when we were giving away a set of tires. People came in (as) Doubting Thomases thinking they’re not going to get the free set.”

As tires changed, so did the promotion. “We’re not doing it anymore because there aren’t any 185/70R14s out there.” 

Now, the Direct Tire website promises another exclusive - a three-year free replacement road hazard warranty - with the purchase of Toyo tires. He says the warranty “is really doing well for us because everyone else sells road hazard and we give it away.”

Toyo remains his top brand, alongside Nokian, Continental and General.

But rather than market tire brands, Steinberg says his job is to promote the Direct Tire brand. He cites MTD research that more than seven out of 10 consumers buy the tires an independent tire dealer recommends. 

“They buy what we sell them,” so Direct Tire sells advice and honesty.

There have been countless transformational changes in the retail tire landscape since Steinberg was named Tire Dealer of the Year. But it seemed noteworthy that in 1993, with a single store, he was proud to carry a hefty inventory to ensure he had the tires in stock when a customer arrived on his doorstep. It was a $400,000 inventory.

“We’ve reduced our inventory drastically. We’re continuing to reduce our inventory because every one of our vendors is dying to service us as much as we need.”

American Tire Distributors Inc. trucks roll up twice a day. Sullivan Tire Co. Inc.’s wholesale division offers three or four deliveries daily. Plus more tires come from Max Finkelstein Inc. 

“Why do I need to stock a Goodyear OE tire when I know I can get it in 15 minutes? By the time I get the car in, the tire’s there.

“It’s just helping us with our cash flow. It’s helping us with our inventory management. It’s making it easier for us. I like ‘easy.’ I’m 75 years old. I don’t want it to be more difficult.”

Steinberg continues to handle all of the marketing, advertising, purchasing and negotiations for Direct Tire, although a health issue (not COVID-19, he notes) has forced him to work from home recently. 

He admits it’s not the same. “I can’t get my juices going” working from home, but he’s following the advice of doctors anyway.

Weathering changes

It took 23 years for MTD to name another single-store tire dealer as its Tire Dealer of the Year. Alpio Barbara followed in Steinberg’s footsteps in 2016. He’s the owner of Redwood General Tire Service Co. in Redwood City, Calif.

In just four years, some pieces of his business have changed dramatically. The wholesale operation continued its decline as car dealerships cut Redwood General Tire out of the equation. 

And this year, due to COVID-19, the company’s commercial business has taken a big hit. The fleet vehicles that are used to transport Silicon Valley workers every day from their neighborhoods to tech giant headquarters were idled when employees began working from home. Facebook and Twitter have both announced permanent work-from-home policies, so at least some of that business isn’t coming back.

Other fleet customers, such as limousines, have had their businesses decimated.

“Our commercial trucks are working, but not like they used to,” Barbara says. “Our overtime now is basically nil.”

So Redwood General Tire, with annual sales of $9.6 million - down from $12 million in 2016 - is focusing on how to make its retail business shine even brighter.

“You can't get people to come out of their house unless they're comfortable coming out of their house,” says Barbara. He’s doubled down on safety and cleaning procedures. When others couldn’t find masks, he already had 1,000 in the store and offered them to customers. He bought 2,000 pens. If a customer needs one, they keep it. 

“We were really proactive from day one.”

And he’s done all of this from Arizona. Barbara suffered lung damage following a stroke in 2009, and that puts him in the higher risk category during this pandemic. He also is still undergoing physical therapy following an April 2018 motorcycle crash, when he broke his back, a shoulder, hip and four ribs.

The distance has required even more trust in his team of 40 employees, especially his four long-time leaders who have been with him for a combined 127 years. But he admits he’s nervous that customers will think he’s walked away from the business.

He’s always led Redwood General Tire’s marketing campaigns because that’s not the forte of others on his staff. “I’m still active. I still own the store.”

Beating the odds

In a year when there have been plenty of challenges, John Quirk and his team at VIP Inc., dba VIP Tires & Service, are bucking the national trends. The company’s new fiscal year began Sept. 1, and as of early August, VIP was looking to end the previous year on an upswing. “We’re still up pretty significantly year over year.”

This is how you know you’re talking to a Tire Dealer of the Year. Quirk won the award in 2018.

Some of VIP’s growth is due to new stores that have come on board in the last 12 months, but the rest can be attributed to the dealership’s relentless focus on not just selling tires, but providing comprehensive care for every customer’s automobile.

Early on in the pandemic, Quirk says weekly sales were off by as much as 30% to 40%, and yet VIP kept its stores open seven days a week. “We slowly came back. Over the last month or so, we’ve had some significant comp increases.” 

VIP is about to open its 60th location, and Quirk says the company will open four new stores before the end of 2020. They’ll all fall in the company’s existing New England footprint, which includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

On top of the sales success in the midst of an uncertain environment, VIP has added 16 experienced technicians to its payroll recently. All of them had been laid off by their former employers due to the pandemic.

He thinks auto dealerships made some quick staffing cuts to save money, but did so without thinking of the long term consequences of eliminating experienced technicians. 

“We were able to capitalize on some of that,” Quirk says, knowing it was time “to put the foot on the gas pedal.”

He says VIP kept its eye focused on long-term goals. The company did not lay off any employees and assured its workers that their jobs were secure. Employees were told, “We’re going to get through it whole. We may be asking you to do different things and pitch in, but you can be secure that you can put food on the table and pay your bills.

“I think that’s been a strength of ours.”

That kind of spirit is an everyday focus for the VIP leadership team. They want to deliver straight talk to customers, too, and provide the service and recommendations that are needed to keep them safe in their vehicles.

VIP soon will have a new tool to help the company serve its customers - a modern point-of-sale system. It’s been under development for several years and will replace a homegrown system that has been added onto countless times. The system is in the midst of a massive testing phase. It’s in place in every store, and employees are double-entering work orders in the old and new. They’ve detected kinks along the way, fixed them and double-checked how the data moves to the back end for the finance department. Training the team is underway.

The system will offer VIP the modern bells and whistles to help with customer service at the counter, as well as the overall customer relationship. It will tie online tire sales to the appointment scheduler to create a seamless transaction for the consumer.

Yes, even the goal of the POS system is to serve the VIP customer. Quirk says if the front counter salesperson has good information, it makes his or her job easier. 

And, it helps the employee and company achieve its mission: to earn an automotive customer for life. 


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