A Newbie Learns the Tire Business
Darrin Mallet has worked as a general contractor, once sold groceries and even managed a meat counter. Until about five years ago, he had never sold a single tire.
But Mallet just happened to marry into a tire dealer family. And his mother-in-law, Mary Alexander, needed someone to manage the business that her late husband, Vernon Alexander, had started. So Mallet took the job. And during his short time in charge, he’s helped Kilgore Tire Service grow.
Vernon Alexander opened the single store tire dealership in Kilgore, Texas, in 1975. Back then, the Alexanders focused on tires, brakes and alignments. There were other businesses in town that serviced mufflers and offered underhood automotive repair.
“We’re in the heartland of the oil fields,” says Mallet. “Our main focus for many, many years was just tires and supplying oil field-related trucks. When oil prices are up, it’s good, but when they’re down, it’s down.”
For many years, Alexander had a right hand man in Kent Jackson, who kept the business going after Vernon died in 2006. When the time came for Jackson to retire, the family turned to Mallet.
“I had some big shoes to fill,” he says.
But he had earned his undergraduate degree in business management and then added his MBA while he was working full-time in the grocery business. The idea of running a business appealed to him and he was willing to make the leap.
As it turns out, just as Mallet was joining the business, its landlord and property owner was looking to sell. So Kilgore Tire went from tenant to owner. And Mallet put his construction skills to work to remodel and make some updates.
Two years later, he added a second location in Kilgore — closer to Interstate 20 — designed for commercial customers
With three bays now at the truck tire center, Mallet says technicians can change tires with a roof over their heads — at the older location, all commercial work was done outdoors — and it’s also easier for truck drivers to maneuver in and out. Moving commercial tire work off-site also opened up opportunities at the dealership’s original location, which serves as Kilgore’s retail center. There, Mallet added six service bays to the store’s original five and began offering automotive repairs.
That outlet’s sales are now 60% tires and 40% automotive service. The percentage of auto service sales is growing, says Mallet. Two years ago, auto service made up 20% of Kilgore Tire’s sales.
He admits the transformation has taken longer than he expected.
“Our biggest challenge is finding good, talented people. As far as being able to borrow money or make money to open up another location, I’d love to open another location and grow. The biggest constraint is finding those people that you can count on to help run the front end and turn the wrenches. Mechanics jump from place to place.”
The goal, he says, is “finding those people and retaining those people who can help you grow your business, while still maintaining profits.”
Mallet knows he’s not alone in his staffing quandary. He’s found good prospects, but they sometimes have unreasonable salary expectations. One technician wanted a flat hourly rate, but didn’t bring in the work to cover the wage.
“We’ve been down that road before,” says Mallet.
Planning for the future
Five years from now, Mallet would love to have “a few more locations.”
He also would like to diversify in the kinds of communities Kilgore Tire serves as a way to balance against the ups and downs of the oil industry.
One option would be specializing in certain emerging services, like repairs on electric vehicles (EVs.)
Mallet says investing in the technicians and equipment to offer EV service now is a way to plan for the future.
“If you don’t do it, you’re going to get left behind. We hope to move this company into another generation of family. But if we’re going to do that — as the leader of the company — I need to be looking not at the day-to-day, but where we are going to be in 30 years. And we can’t wait 25 years to start worrying about 30 years.”
That’s why “we’ve got to start doing it now, so when we get to that point, we do have our hands in electric vehicles. Because if we don’t, someone else will. To stay around, that’s what we have to do.”
Advice for new owners
When he took over at Kilgore Tire, Mallet says the best advice he received was to spend time inside his shop.
He entered the tire business with a background in streamlining processes, making things more efficient and cleaning up clutter. But he says when he asked his team what they needed in order to improve their efficiency, he received blank stares.
“I had to get out there and get my hands dirty.”
So he learned how to install tires and change oil and found ways to improve various processes. There had been one workstation with tools and supplies that served three bays, so a technician had to walk the length of the building to grab a socket and did it twice when he grabbed the wrong size. Now there are stations between every service bay.
Mallet also purchased more equipment to streamline workflow.
He says his experience in the grocery business has served him well.
Mallett worked for a grocer that focused on customer service. As a newly hired courtesy clerk, Mallett remembers being given a notepad and pencil to keep in his pocket. He was told to make notes so he could remember customers and greet them by name when they returned to the store.
That attention to detail serves him well as a tire dealer, he says.
“We’re in a small town here. Everybody knows everybody. One of the competitive advantages we have over other people coming in is that we’re very community-oriented.
“We still have a long way to go. I am proud of what we’ve done so far and I want to do a lot more."