'We're Just Getting Started:' Jim and Tommy Duff - the Recipients of MTD's Tire Dealer of the Year Award - Prepare for Southern Tire Mart's Next Growth Phase
They own and operate the biggest commercial truck tire dealership in the United States.
Their company also is the largest retreader in the country — with its daily production eclipsing that of three different tire manufacturers.
They’ve built a coast-to-coast empire spanning more than 150 stores across 15 states that is on track to hit $2 billion in sales this year.
They recently formed a historic joint venture with the nation’s largest truck stop chain.
They also own 22 other companies — including two trucking fleets — that they have transformed into wildly successful ventures.
They’re Jim and Tommy Duff, the owners of Southern Tire Mart.
They’re the recipients of MTD’s 2021 Tire Dealer of the Year Award, the most prestigious honor in the tire industry.
And they say they’re just getting started.
‘We were the underdog’
Today’s Southern Tire Mart is a far cry from the dealership’s humble beginnings.
The company was founded in 1973 by the Duffs’ father, Ernest Duff, a prominent lawyer in the family’s hometown of Columbia, Miss.
“Our father was an attorney by training, but liked business more than practicing law,” says Tommy.
In the early 1970s, Ernest bought stock in Bandag, then a publicly traded company, “and it did well. He thought if the stock was such a wonderful investment that a Bandag franchise would be even better.”
Ernest applied for — and received — a small Bandag franchise, his first foray into the tire business. He set up shop in a small, unassuming building.
The plant contained a single, 11-unit curing chamber and manufactured five to six retreads per day.
Ernest also owned a small trucking company.
“He learned that his 20 trucks did not cover the volume he needed” to operate the Bandag plant profitably, “so he had to go out and find customers,” says Jim.
Already busy with his practice, Ernest “had to find a manager to do that.”
Managers came and went and the fledgling company struggled to gain traction.
Then Tommy, who was finishing up a masters degree in business and had been accepted into law school, came to Ernest and said he would like “to try the tire business.
“I had worked at Southern Tire Mart while in high school and really liked the business,” Tommy recalls.
“He said, ‘OK, but you need to realize it’s broken and can hardly make it.’ And I said, ‘I appreciate that.’ He then said, ‘If you want to try it, then try it. Get after it.’ I started in the tire business right then and there.
“Three years later, Jim was finishing up school and we had an opportunity to go to Jackson, Miss. Our largest customer was a company called KLLM Transport Services” — a firm that the Duffs would eventually acquire and rebuild.
“Our dad was a brilliant man and a great teacher, but until Tommy got involved, Southern Tire Mart really floundered,” says Jim, who joined the company as a salesman and started calling on customers in Jackson and other areas.
“We were the underdog,” says Jim. “Everyone was bigger” and better capitalized.
“We worked hard, but it was tough for a long, long time. Accounts were hard to get and weren’t just falling into our laps.”
The Duffs realized they needed to offer new truck tires in order to compete more effectively. They applied for an account with Michelin.
A Michelin rep who went to their church vouched for them “and for some reason, Michelin felt sorry for us,” says Tommy.
Even with a new tire supply contract in place, things were slow-going. “It took years to solidify our business,” says Tommy.
The brothers eventually developed enough customers in Jackson to justify opening a store there.
“We were in a bad part of town,” says Tommy. “It was all we could rent. But four years after we moved to Jackson, we were the dominant dealer there” — a process that would repeat itself many times in the ensuing years.
“We were two kids. We never had a mentor. We really didn’t have a lot of support. We just had to out-work and out-service our competitors. And that’s what we did.”
“We’ve always been very engaged in what we’re doing,” says Jim. “We were always hands-on. It made a big difference.
“A lot of our competitors at the time were older guys who had done OK and were enjoying their lives. But we were very engaged. And that taught us a valuable lesson. If you’re not engaged — whether you’re younger or older — you’ll start losing your business.”
As Southern Tire Mart slowly grew, the Duffs hired people — “many of whom are with us today,” notes Tommy.
The brothers continued to open stores — moving into Baton Rouge, La., and then to New Orleans, Lafayette and Lake Charles, La.
“As we opened a location, we always had a salesman or two working the next area,” says Tommy.
“And as the next area started developing, it was time to put in a location. We went from north to south and east to west.”
How did competitors react as Southern Tire Mart expanded? “Not that well!” says Jim.
“You had some manufacturers that favored one company over another and if you were trying to enter a new market, you were the black sheep.”
One person who was extremely supportive of the Duffs’ growth was then-Bandag CEO Marty Carver, who would play an instrumental role in Southern Tire Mart’s future.
‘Top of the world’
By 1997, the Duffs had built Southern Tire Mart into a $145 million-a-year enterprise. “We were on top of the world,” says Tommy. “We were happy. We were growing.”
“Everything was coming together,” says Jim. “A lot of hard work was starting to pay off.”
Then came an unexpected turn of events involving Bandag.
Faced with the prospect of losing five of its most prominent retreaders to venture capitalist Kolhberg & Co., Bandag acquired those companies “to prevent major voids in our distribution network,” Carver told MTD at the time.
Bandag folded the retreaders into its Tire Distribution Systems Inc. (TDS) subsidiary.
“It was the beginning of roll-ups and the private equity business,” says Tommy.
Kohlberg first approached the Duffs with an offer. They turned the company down.
“We had a close relationship with Marty Carver. He said, ‘I want to go with you.’ And we said, ‘Marty, we have no intention of selling to you, either.’
“Marty came back and said, ‘Kolhberg has pulled the plug.’”
He made the Duffs another offer.
“He said, ‘I’ve got to buy you. Just tell me what you want and we’ll do it.’”
“Our dad still owned the majority of Southern Tire Mart at the time,” says Jim. “At his age, he was excited. It was good for our family.”
The dealership was sold to Bandag “and that’s how we ended up at TDS,” says Tommy.
The sale “killed us,” he adds. “It was great for our family, but bad for Jim and me.”
TDS offered jobs to the brothers. Jim stayed at TDS for a year. Tommy hung on for a year-and-a-half.
“TDS never really used me and then fired Tommy,” says Jim.
The brothers also had a five-year non-compete that started with the sale. After it expired, tire manufacturers began calling them and making offers.
Jim and Tommy turned them down.
Then Carver called again. “He said, ‘I would like to see you come back and if I can help you, I will.’”
The Duffs bought Southern Tire Mart from TDS in 2003. They quickly began reassembling their old team.
“We met with people who had worked for us before and every one of them returned,” says Tommy.
That included Keven Haddox, one of Southern Tire Mart’s first employees, as well as David Tolbert, who now manages the dealership’s business east of the Mississippi River, and Janet Price, who is now the company’s chief financial officer.
With Jim and Tommy back at the wheel, the Southern Tire Mart team hit the ground with renewed passion. But there was a lot of work to do.
“When we sold to TDS, we were doing $145 million,” says Tommy. “When we bought it back, it was doing $85 million.”
The enthusiasm of Southern Tire Mart’s employees played a big role in enabling the dealership to regain what had been lost during the interim.
“There was a huge sense of energy and excitement,” says Tolbert. “Everybody was so happy — especially the ones who were there before. It was a big motivator for a lot of people.”
“Everyone wanted to get out there and go after it,” says Haddox.
Tolbert says Jim and Tommy had inspired fierce loyalty in their employees.
After working for TDS, Tolbert had moved to Tire Centers Inc. (TCI), which was owned by Michelin.
The rumor mill was churning at the time. “My regional manager at TCI came to me and said, ‘I understand you’re thinking about going back to work for Jim and Tommy.’ And I said, ‘They haven’t made me an offer yet, but if they call me, I will.’
“He slid a piece of paper across the desk and said, ‘Write down how much it will take to keep you. And understand that Michelin has deeper pockets than Jim and Tommy.’
“I came back two days later and he said, ‘Well, what’s your number?’ And I said, ‘There isn’t a number. If they want me to work for them, I’m going to work for them.’ And I’ve never had a reason to look anywhere else.”
‘We’re very aggressive’
Southern Tire Mart entered an expansion phase. “We were very fortunate to have all these wonderful people come back,” says Jim. “We were growing and growing.”
Jim and Tommy remained hands-on, which has continued to this day. (Up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they were on the road at least three days a week — every week — visiting customers and Southern Tire Mart stores.)
“We don’t sit in our offices, waiting for things to come to us,” says Jim. “We’re very aggressive. During an average day, we might visit a customer or two and then visit a store. And every time we go to a store, Tommy is always looking at it and asking, ‘How can we make it better?’”
“There are two mandates we operate under,” explains Tommy “One is that if the customer is right, we need sales growth. The other is that we have to be the most efficient people in the tire business.
“And the way you achieve that is by doing it right the first time. Our plants have to be perfect.” (Southern Tire Mart operates 24 retread plants, including one near Columbia, Miss., that retreads 1,200 units a day.)
“Our administrative work has to be perfect. If you build (a retread) right, you don’t have adjustments. If you invoice right, you don’t have customers calling and wondering and then not paying you.”
As Southern Tire Mart continued to grow, the brothers observed other dealers. “It was interesting to see how they could have pockets of excellence here and not so much there,” says Jim.
“Our goal is for the customer to have the same experience in Corona, Calif., as he does in Tallahassee, Fla.,” says Tommy. “We’re no better than our last sale.”
“You have to understand what the customer’s needs are,” says Jim. “That’s something I learned from Tommy. When a customer calls, you need to listen. There are times when we think we’re doing a great job, but when a customer tells us where we can improve, we listen.
“We don’t sit back and think we’re right and the customer is wrong,” he continues. “We ask, ‘What are we doing wrong? What can we do better?’
“You learn so much more when you go in and ask, ‘What can I improve on? How can I make this better?’ We have that ability to look at something, self-analyze and say, ‘This is not working. We need to change it.’”
Southern Tire Mart was the brothers’ sole business interest when they bought the company in 2003. “We worked 100 hours a week,” says Tommy.
But with growth, came conflict — and not just with other dealers.
“As we grew, our largest supplier” at the time “was not really happy with that,” says Tommy.
“And sometimes Jim and I would get a little concerned about the irritation caused by going into a new market — perhaps thinking they didn’t want us there and wanted to protect their distribution in the same area.”
This motivated the Duffs to invest in businesses outside of the tire industry.
“We got into the transportation business,” says Tommy, by buying two struggling companies — KLLM Transport Services and Frozen Food Express — that today have a combined annual turnover of $1 billion. (KLLM is the second-largest temperature-controlled carrier in the U.S.)
“Both were failing when we bought them and are great successes today. And that has allowed Jim and I to have relationships with people we would not normally have.
“We have 5,000 trucks. We understand engines. We understand electronics. We understand what a driver is going to do and not do. And we really understand the cost” of operating a trucking fleet.
“This gives us an advantage over somebody else who is just peddling something.”
Under the umbrella of Duff Capital Investors, Jim and Tommy now own more than 20 non-tire businesses in a variety of fields, including construction, energy, automobile sales and insurance. And they have established themselves as turnaround specialists.
“Every time we’ve bought any type of business — even tire companies — the business’ management team will sit down with us at the beginning or the end of the process and will tell us what needs to be done in their company in order to fix it,” says Jim.
“And they are always right. But the weird thing is we’re thinking, ‘You lost your company because you knew what to do, but you didn’t do it.’
“They will tell you what to do, but they just don’t have the discipline to do it themselves. We’ve seen that over and over again.”
Southern Tire Mart remains the Duffs’ primary concern. “We have presidents for our other companies,” says Tommy. “The only company that Jim and I directly run on a day-to-day basis is Southern Tire Mart.”
Jim says everything the brothers own “has grown through our tire business. It’s been the engine for the growth of everything we have.
“It has given us the ability to grow our other companies. It’s our largest company.
“And quite frankly, I think Southern Tire Mart has the best future of any of our companies.”
‘Doing the right thing’
A number of critical opportunities have presented themselves to the Duffs over the last several years.
One was the divestiture of 46 GCR Tires & Service locations by Bridgestone Americas Inc. Southern Tire Mart acquired the stores — plus six GCR retread plants — during the first quarter of 2019. They are located in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.
The deal was part of a bigger sell-off of GCR locations to large, independently owned, Bridgestone-affiliated commercial tire dealerships around the country. At the time of the deal, Southern Tire Mart had 90 locations.
The dealership completed its integration of the newly acquired GCR facilities within a year, says John Boynton, a longtime Bridgestone executive who had joined Southern Tire Mart a year earlier.
“In the process of doing that, I don’t think we lost one person,” he notes.
“The minute the GCR thing was announced, we were on planes and traveled to every single GCR location” that Southern Tire Mart had acquired, says Haddox.
Southern Tire Mart had competed directly with some of those outlets.
“We sat down with people and said how excited we were to work with them. To be able to make that personal connection gave us energy.”
The transaction boosted Southern Tire Mart’s store count by more than 50%.
Questions arose about adding layers of management to oversee the dramatically expanded holdings.
“I remember when we were working on the GCR acquisition — knowing that it was going to be a big undertaking — I mentioned to Jim and Tommy that we needed to start thinking about building up our support structure so these stores could be assimilated faster,” says Boynton.
“Tommy specifically said, ‘We’re not interested in that.’ I asked, ‘How are you going to manage this thing?’ And he said, ‘By being true to what brought us here.’ And he was exactly spot-on.”
The Duffs have avoided adding layers of management to Southern Tire Mart over the years.
“When you have a very layered organization, the processes get slowed down,” says Boynton. “Things can be misinterpreted or reinterpreted.
“If we have a big decision to make, it can flow through our organization very quickly. When store managers have a question or a problem, they have a direct connection to Jim and Tommy. And the first response they will get from Jim and Tommy is usually, ‘What do you think? What are your thoughts on it?
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Jim and Tommy then say, ‘That’s the right decision.’”
“There is no red tape or layers of regional managers and district managers,” says Tolbert. “Our store managers can make decisions and go with it.”
“We want to be the market leader — period,” says Haddox. “So whatever the market is, we want our people to go after that. Our corporate office is set up to support the people in the field so they can take care of customers.
“Whenever I’m talking to our managers, I say, ‘Here’s the big road. There’s a ditch over there and a ditch over here. You can operate on one side of the road or the other side of the road. You can operate in the middle of the road. Just travel in the same direction we’re going. And stay out of the ditches.’”
Southern Tire Mart is not big on executive titles, either, says Boynton.
“It goes back to the culture of the organization. ‘We just need you to make things happen. Take care of the customer.’”
The biggest advantage of maintaining a simple structure is that “everybody understands their role and everybody has a report card concerning their role,” says Tommy. “If you ask any Southern Tire Mart manager, ‘Who do you report to?’ they will say, ‘Jim and Tommy.’
“We’ve observed the owners of other tire companies,” Tommy continues.
“They all have these vice presidents and everything. We empower our folks. They know Southern Tire Mart’s philosophy. They know the guidelines they’re supposed to follow. They know what we expect.
“And a lot of it is just doing the right thing. We don’t ever want to take advantage of a customer. We say, ‘Treat them fairly and always do the right thing.’”
“We want that return business,” says Jim. “Taking advantage of customers is bad business. It’s not right.”
“We hire 25 to 30 new folks every year,” says Tommy. “We grow them. We teach them. And when they’re ready, they get their opportunity to grow.
“They realize they don’t need middle management. They are the management. We respect them and treat them that way. And people respond to that."
Employees are motivated by respect and consistency, says Jim. The average Southern Tire Mart store manager has been in that position for more than 12 years.
“We don’t change our pay packages or our commissions,” says Jim. “They’ve been the same forever. We’re blunt with our people. We expect them to be adults.
“There’s not a lot of politics with us. We’ve always been an open company. We don’t hide numbers. Our employees know exactly what they are getting and what we need them to do.
“They know they have to take care of the customer,” he continues. “It’s not a one-time, ‘I’m-going-to-hammer-him’ thing. For their business to grow, they need to take care of these people, so they will go to the nth degree to make sure that the customer is happy.”
“Everybody knows what our managers make,” says Tommy. “They can look at the financials and say, ‘You’re doing well at your store. Help me understand how I can do better.’”
Several years ago, the Duffs discovered that two of their biggest tire suppliers, Continental Tire the Americas LLC and Yokohama Tire Corp., were each planning to establish new truck tire manufacturing plants in the U.S.
This presented another opportunity — to help convince Continental and Yokohama executives to place those plants in Mississippi.
Tommy helped broker meetings between the governor of Mississippi and decision makers at each company.
“We went to Japan,” says Tommy. “We went to Germany. We went together.
“It was important to us because it’s good for our state and also good for those manufacturers.
“During my first conversation with the president of Yokohama, we were playing golf and I said, ‘You need to be a player in Mississippi.'
“We also made a commitment to those manufacturers that if they would put those plants here, they would be very pleasantly surprised with our purchases.
“Mississippi had to offer a good incentive package, but it also helped that their largest customers are sitting right here.”
The Continental plant, which is located in Clinton, Miss., shipped its first tire to Southern Tire Mart last October.
“Certainly, Southern Tire Mart being headquartered in Mississippi was an influencing factor in Continental’s choice for the new plant location,” says Tom Fanning, head of U.S. market, truck tires, for Continental. “It only made sense.”
Yokohama opened its commercial truck tire plant in West Point, Miss., in 2015.
Jim credits his brother with bringing both factories to Southern Tire Mart’s home state.
“That was Tommy telling both companies’ hierarchies, ‘Hey, this is a great state. This is a great opportunity. This state will embrace you.’ He’s the one who did that.”
“Tommy and Jim have great respect for the people of Mississippi and always talk very highly about their work ethic and how warm and friendly everyone is,” says Dan Funkhouser, vice president of commercial sales, Yokohama.
“They are very proud of the state and of being Mississippians and will go out of their way to help the state — including attracting new business opportunities — any way they can.”
Jim and Tommy “do what they say and say what they do,” says Fanning. “Their openness and transparency is such a valued trait.”
A new venture
The Duffs’ latest major initiative — a joint, co-branded venture with Pilot Flying J, the largest truck stop chain in the U.S. — was announced this past January.
Pilot Flying J has a presence in 40 states. And in that, the brothers saw an opportunity for Southern Tire Mart.
“For years, we had been seeing the need” for dedicated tire sales and service facilities at truck stop locations, according to Tommy.
“Truck stops have the trucks in there before anybody, but they can be inefficient” when it comes to tire work.
Jim and Tommy had discussed opportunities in the truck stop channel with some tire suppliers, “but they never really jumped on it.”
At the same time, truck stop chains like Love’s Travel Stops started investing heavily in tire and retread sales and service.
The Duffs sprung into action and met with Jimmy Haslam, Pilot Flying J’s owner.
“Candidly, Pilot had two other proposals in hand and they went with ours,” says Tommy. “Private equity groups were going to go in without knowing what they were doing. We knew what to do.
“Pilot is the largest distributor of fuel in the country. They have 800-plus truck stops.”
Hours-of-service laws mean truck drivers are often stuck at truck stops overnight or even during the day.
At the same time, truckers want to maximize uptime when their rigs are rolling.
“If they have a breakdown and it takes over three hours, that’s extremely expensive,” says Tommy.
The Duffs have tasked Boynton with growing the Southern Tire Mart at Pilot Flying J network.
Jim says that up until joining forces with Southern Tire Mart, Pilot “really didn’t have a tire program that was working and they knew that. That’s why they have embraced us so much.”
“And Jimmy Haslam is a very honorable man,” says Tommy. “When he says something, he does it, so we can deal in an area of trust.”
Southern Tire Mart at Pilot Flying J is a separate entity from Southern Tire Mart. “But it will be like coming to a regular Southern Tire Mart,” says Jim. “Customers can buy retreads. They can buy new tires.”
The idea is to place Southern Tire Mart at Pilot Flying J outlets in areas where Southern Tire Mart does not have a presence.
“We’re working with Pilot on where their needs are and where their volume is,” says Jim. “We don’t want our competition to think we’re coming into the market to open a Southern Tire Mart store. But it’s a great opportunity to be more efficient with the customer.”
Two hundred Southern Tire Mart at Pilot Flying J stores will pop up within the next two-and-a-half years. Forty are already up and running.
“If we can get to that and get scale and service the fleets, that will give the customer the experience they need. Whether it’s Southern Tire Mart or Southern Tire Mart at Pilot Flying J, it’s about consistency, quality and not much downtime.”
Pilot Flying J officials say the Duffs have been enthusiastic partners.
“It has been really rewarding to see how everyone is invested in the success of this venture,” says James Chiu, senior director of strategy and execution for Pilot Flying J.
“They’re always talking about the same things we value, which is providing consistent, fast and friendly service. They are 100% focused on reducing turnaround time for drivers.
“Jim and Tommy are uniquely gifted at getting into the minds of drivers and what’s important to them, so ultimately you end up with long-term value and customers who are happy to come back and get that service again.
“The first time I met the Duff brothers was during the initial stages of negotiating Southern Tire Mart at Pilot Flying J,” recalls Chiu.
Tommy took Chiu on a tour of Southern Tire Mart’s retread plant in Houston, Texas. “He knew all the equipment. He explained to me how all of it works. He knew everyone in the plant by name and shook their hands.
“It was a very collegial interaction,” he continues. “And this is who Jim and Tommy are. They know their teams. They are very hands-on. And they are very accessible.
“When I think about our dealings with them, they have always been extremely fair and they’ve always had integrity. When you get to the point of agreement, they do exactly what they say they will do.
“All of that combines to make the best kind of partner,” says Chiu.
In 2017, Southern Tire Mart — for the first time — found itself occupying the number one spot on MTD’s annual list of the largest retreaders in the United States. (MTD began ranking the country’s biggest retreaders based on their daily production in 1988.)
Today, Southern Tire Mart retreads 5,700 medium truck tires per day, according to MTD research.
By comparison, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. retreads 5,200 truck tires per day, Bridgestone’s GCR operation retreads 2,180 truck tire units daily and Continental produces around 630 truck tire retreads per day.
The Duffs maintain that Southern Tire Mart was the biggest retreader in the U.S. long before the 2017 designation.
They also believe that Southern Tire Mart’s plant near Columbia, Miss., is the biggest retreading facility in the U.S., based on production volume.
“The thing we love about the commercial tire business is that we are always measured,” says Tommy. “It’s not a transactional business. It’s a relationship business.
“Whether it’s cost-per-mile, cost-per-engine-hour — whatever — we’re always measured. And retreading is an integral part of that.
“We constantly preach that a quality new tire and a quality retread yields the greatest savings. When a customer buys one new tire, he’s hopefully going to have it retreaded three times.
“So retreading has to be viable and a retread has to have the quality of a new tire for this to work,” he explains.
Some fleets report to the Duffs that they are paying too much for new tires, according to Tommy.
“We’ll often say, ‘It may be too high. It may be too low. But what we’re concerned with is what your costs are. Your price is one thing. Your cost is another.’
“When we go into fleets, we have to make sure they have the right mixture of new tires and retreads.”
“They have to have a reason — a desire — to see a cost savings,” says Jim. “You have to educate the customer. I don’t know of any trucker who doesn’t need to run retreads because it’s an efficient cost savings. It’s a harder sell, but it’s good for the customer.”
The Duffs believe that the market has evolved to favor commercial tire dealerships that have a larger footprint.
“As customers have gotten bigger and have demanded more consistency, they want larger dealers to work with,” says Tommy. “To their credit, they have finally understood that. Have they been a little slow to the game? Probably so. But they’ve realized they need that distribution throughout the country.”
“We’ve always pushed the envelope to grow and take care of the customer,” says Jim. “The customer wants the best, most efficient service and consistency. Things seem to be changing and this really gives Southern Tire Mart a wonderful opportunity.”
‘Our biggest asset’
Tommy uses the word “unorthodox” when describing the brothers’ management style.
“Jim and I have always believed there is a hard way of running a company and a soft way of running a company,” he says.
“The hard way of running a company is living strictly on the financials, people are merely a number and they either make a profit or you dump them.
“The soft way of running a business is being involved with your people, letting them make the right decisions and not being as concerned with the financials as probably most other people would be.
“If a new store loses money initially, that’s fine. They’re building their business.
“We’re far more interested in the soft side, which includes integrity, empowerment and the fact that employees see the owners working just as hard as they do.”
Action — not countless meetings — is the preferred course. “We have one managers’ meeting a year and it lasts two days,” says Tommy. “And it’s set in stone that it will never go over that.
“We don’t have daily or weekly updates. Do we understand the financials? Completely. Are our managers taught to understand the financials? Very much.
“We look at the P&Ls every month when they come out. Every store manager will write a memo to us each month and he’ll say what he did great, what he did bad and what he needs help with. He might need a service truck. He might have a problem in another area. And we’ll follow through.”
“We’re more interested in hearing about the bad because the good kind of speaks for itself,” notes Jim. “The bad (means) opportunity and learning.”
“A business that’s run the hard way will never be as successful as it can, because it doesn’t have the respect” of employees, says Tommy.
That approach motivates employees to take ownership of their work, say members of Southern Tire Mart’s leadership team. And the Duffs are al
ways there to offer guidance.
“Jim and Tommy will sometimes reframe an issue and will say, ‘You need to think bigger. Why can’t we do this?’” says Boynton. “They do an outstanding job of keeping the big picture in mind.
“People love being here because it’s not routine. It’s ‘We’re going somewhere and guess what? Things are going to move fast.’
“The same thing that happens today with that excitement, vision and energy was happening here 10 years ago and 20 years ago and 30 years ago. That’s the growth mechanism.”
“Jim and Tommy hire good people and trust them to run their business,” says Tolbert. “And anytime we have an employee who fails or is not successful, the first thing they ask is, ‘Where did we fail that person?’ It’s not ‘That person was no good.” It’s ‘What went wrong with us?’
“They see that individual as a person, not just an asset. I think that’s a unique characteristic.”
“Jim and Tommy aren’t superhuman,” says Haddox. “They can’t know 3,000 people. But if a person wants to ask a question, they have an open ear.”
Price says the Duffs understand that each Southern Tire Mart outlet operates within a unique environment.
“They want the stores to be profitable, but some ratios can vary by store.”
Other targets are encouraged. “We like our stores to stay 50% below payroll to gross profit,” says Price. “But our managers are basically the entrepreneurs of their own stores.”
“The dominant player in each market is that store manager and his crew,” says Jim.
“Southern Tire Mart’s greatest asset is its people. You can have the best location in the world, the nicest building — but if you have bad folks who don’t care, you’re going to have a horrible place.
“You can have a hole in the wall, but if you have the right people — who are hard charging and who care — you will dominate the market.
Taking care of business
Jim Duff is 60. Tommy Duff is 64. While still young, they are financially set and could easily walk away from Southern Tire Mart.
In fact, Tommy says the two are approached by suitors “all the time.”
But the brothers have no interest in selling the company — or even easing off the gas pedal.
And while Jim admits that he and Tommy could stand to celebrate their wins more often, self-congratulation isn’t their style.
“Never have we congratulated each other and said, ‘We’ve done it now!’” he reveals.
“We just move to the next target,” says Tommy.
“People say we’re the largest commercial tire dealer and that’s nice,” notes Jim. “But the size of our company doesn’t matter. Companies kind of reach a point where they max out and say, ‘This is the time to sell and let someone else take it to the next level.’
“But the future is so bright for Southern Tire Mart, we need to make sure we give it the opportunity it needs. We want to make sure we take care of Southern Tire Mart. And when I say ‘Southern Tire Mart,’ I mean the people here.”
Tommy says the brothers have “a sacred responsibility” to maintain the company’s momentum for the security and well-being of its employees and their families.
This loyalty, in turn, inspires employees, says Tolbert, who likens Jim and Tommy to “shepherds. The shepherd goes in front of the sheep and the sheep follow him because they respect and love him, whereas the sheepherder is in the back, cracking the whip to make the sheep go in a certain direction.
“Tommy and Jim — in how they are as people — want to be more like shepherds,” says Tolbert.
The brothers also enjoy Southern Tire Mart’s status as an independently owned and operated business. They are the company’s sole owners. Each owns 50% of the enterprise.
Jim says the greatest thing about being independent is “when you tell someone you can honor your word.
“And we empower our people to do the same thing. I hate politics. We try to have the least amount of politics that we can have.”
That doesn’t mean the brothers always see eye-to-eye.
“But when you have two owners who are equal, you have to make sure the other is agreeable,” says Jim, who adds that Tommy keeps him in check and vice versa.
“If I feel like this is the way to go and decide to take something in a direction that will hurt the company because nobody will tell me ‘no,’ that’s a bad thing. And that happens a lot of times in companies. He and I can disagree.”
Tommy says they plan to stay as closely engaged in Southern Tire Mart’s day-to-day activities as they’ve ever been.
“We sat back for three-and-a-half years” after Bandag/ TDS bought Southern Tire Mart “and it was the worst time of our lives,” he explains.
“If you don’t love what you do, you will not be successful. And even at our age, we’ll probably out-work you.”
“We feel like as long as we have the ability to do this, we’re going to continue to do it,” says Jim. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes in life — I’m sure there have been millions — but we’ve been blessed way beyond our abilities and we’ve been blessed by having good people who want to be part of our team. And they are just as big of a part of it as we are.
“We don’t think we’re the best. We don’t think we’re the most successful. We’re not the most brilliant. But we love business and we like people.
“I never thought all of this would happen. People ask, “What’s your goal?’ I achieved my goals a long time ago.
“Most people who run companies and get to a certain level are not engaged anymore. The minute we’re not engaged in the business anymore, I hope we’re smart enough to get out.
“I can’t say this enough,” says Jim. “We don’t want to blow it with Southern Tire Mart. We want to take it to the level it needs to go to. And hopefully, Tommy and I have the ability to do that.”
(Special thanks to the following companies that support the 2021 MTD Tire Dealer of the Year award program: American Pacific Industries, Bridgestone Americas Inc., Carlisle Tyr-Fil, Carlstar Group, Chevron, China Manufacturers Alliance/Double Coin, Continental Battery Co., Continental Tire the Americas LLC, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., First Horizon Bank, FleetPride, Hunter Engineering Co., Interstate Batteries, Maxam Tire North America Inc., McGee Co., Michelin North America Inc., Mohawk Rubber Sales, NAPA Auto Parts, Pilot Co., Regions Bank, Schrader TPMS Solutions, Sutong Tire Resources Inc., Trelleborg Wheel Systems, Yokohama Off-Highway Tires America Inc. and ZC Rubber America Inc.)