Horst Tire Wins With Old-Fashioned Service
Owner Lonny Horst Spends Most Days in a Service Truck
Horst Tire LLC provides “old-fashioned service.” Lonny Horst, the dealership’s owner, may not have started his business with that as a specific goal. Yet he’s fielded phone calls from multiple customers who have thanked him for providing just that. He says he’s not sure how to do it any other way.
“That’s how I was raised,” he says. “You treat people like you’d want to be treated.” That personal touch is helping the single store dealership in Adrian, Mich., grow.
A career by chance
Horst might not have ever entered the tire business if not for his brother-in-law. In 2013, he was working in construction, like he had done since he was 16, but a bad knee made roof work difficult and especially precarious. He was wondering what else might be out there.
Then his brother-in-law, Justin Hess - who took over his dad’s ag-only tire business in the state of New York - suggested he consider tires. Hess grew up in the tire industry and has been working in a service truck since he was a teenager.
During the slow winter months of the construction season, Horst went to New York and joined the crew at Hess Farm Tire LLC.
“I think I was up there for maybe three weeks and I liked it,” he says. “I ended up buying my own service truck. I’d probably never have considered tires if it wasn’t for him. He’s the one who lit the spark (in me) for tires.”
Horst started small. He and his wife, Ashley, were living in eastern Ohio. He had a small garage at home and in the beginning, tires were delivered to their house.
If he wasn’t home, Ashley would keep a list of tires that were dropped off and the names of customers who needed them. “It was a little primitive,” he says with a smile.
The next year, he built a shop. And over time, the business grew. Another brother-in-law, Sheldon Horst, joined him and added passenger and light truck tire service to the mix. Sheldon focused on consumer tire customers and Lonny stuck with the commercial tire clients.
Then the church that Lonny and Ashley attended announced it was planning to start another one in Adrian. It asked if any families were interested in making the move to a new community.
The Horsts visited Adrian, which is tucked just inside the Michigan state line and less than an hour from Toledo, Ohio. They ultimately said yes to a new adventure.
In 2018, Horst sold his share of his Ohio tire business to his brother-in-law and set out to start over again in Michigan. By June 2018, he had opened Horst Tire.
K&M Tire is a problem solver
One of the consistencies in Horst’s two-state tire career has been his partnership with wholesale-distributor K&M Tire Inc.
When Horst first moved to Michigan, K&M Tire didn’t have a sales representative serving the Adrian area, so he worked with K&M Tire Regional Sales Manager Jay Goring.
Horst says Goring has been a reliable, go-to source who is willing to help solve any problem. “He’s helped me out tremendously getting started here, and still does. We still talk on the phone every day. If not for K&M Tire, I don’t think we’d be where we are today. They went over and beyond to help me out.”
That help has come in all forms, he says. In the beginning, money was tight. Horst says K&M Tire “kind of went out on a limb” by offering him “pretty generous terms to get started.”
When Horst Tire secured a contract with the City of Adrian to service government vehicles, Goring and others from K&M Tire helped with the paperwork. “They’ll walk you through anything,” says Horst.
A small team
Horst is one of four full-timers on staff at his company. And truth be told, if he could spend all day, every day, working in a service truck, he’d be one happy guy.
Sometimes Horst gets a funny look when a customer realizes the owner of Horst Tire is changing tires on a tractor in a muddy field or answering an after-hours service call.
“I love it,” he says. “Every job is different. I’ve always enjoyed manual labor. I don’t like book work. I do just enough (of that) to get by. I’d rather run in the truck and let these guys take care of it.”
Those guys are Horst Tire’s other three full-time employees, plus Ashley. She manages the business’ books, while also playing mom to the couple’s four young children.
Sherwin Schlabach has been at Horst’s side since he started installing tires in Ohio. Schlabach manages inventory and ordering - plus larger customers like the City of Adrian. He can float from the service bay and front counter to the service truck. Horst says Schlabach “can do anything - probably more than what I can do.”
Ryan Keil is the company’s newest hire. He joined Horst Tire last fall and is managing its sales counter. Keil is working to move the company to more appointments and less walk-in tire service. He also schedules service calls.
Brad Horst, the owner’s nephew, is the final member of the company’s full-time team. He’s a tire technician who works in the shop, but also assists on larger service calls.
The four-man team - along with a few part-time workers - are building a business, though they already have more work than they can complete on any given day.
“My employees are great,” says Horst. “I would like to see that we go to about six (full-time workers). I would like to get another guy in the truck. We need two trucks right now. More service calls come in a day than I get done. I would really like to have two trucks on the road all the time.”
Horst says there are other dealerships in the region who specialize in medium truck tire service and he’s not looking to take business away from them. As his business has become more established in the community, he’s picking up a few local fleets. And as law enforcement has learned he’s available, he’s getting more of their calls.
Some of that growth has come as tire supply has been tight. When a customer can’t get the tire he wants, Horst says “they start looking.”
Other customers have come back to him to buy tires after he answered an emergency roadside call and provided good service.
“When they’re down, we help them out without raking them over the coals - with hopes they call us for their new tires.”
On the farm tire side, there aren’t many other tire dealerships that offer on-location service in this southern strip of Michigan. The closest competitors are at least an hour away. And even then, some of those other commercial dealers only service truck tires and don’t touch OTR tires, including products for ag applications.
“They sell it sometimes and I usually end up installing it for them,” says Horst. “As far as competition, there’s not a lot. We try not to take advantage of that in case competition comes. I don’t want to have to make big changes.”
What’s best for business
Even as he adds to his team, Horst hopes to keep himself on the road in one of his trucks. He says a lot of people ask him why he keeps working so hard.
“I’m not sure if something’s wrong with me or not, but I enjoy it. I enjoy selling tires to people. I enjoy talking to people. I don’t enjoy chasing money. I’ll sell you anything you want and I’ll put it on, but after that....”
He also thinks Horst Tire is doing better business now that he’s turned more of the in-house office operations over to others on his team. He admits there were times he likely didn’t create invoices for jobs that were done. “I let a lot of stuff slip. It’s more profitable if I stay out in the truck.
“It can be hard to turn the image of your business to another individual, but I wasn’t enjoying it and I wasn’t getting it done right. And the service calls weren’t getting done right because I was trying to be in two places (at once), so I had to choose. I picked the truck.”
That humble spirit is guiding his plans for the future, too. He hopes to one day build a new location. His current two-bay outlet sits on a busy two-lane U.S. highway next to his home.
He bought land immediately to the west of his current business and envisions a larger space, with drive-through bays that are easier for trucks to maneuver in and out of.
“We’ve done a few little sketches. I’ve priced a few buildings, but then the cost of steel and lumber went crazy, so I’ll just keep dreaming for now until things level out.
“I don’t want to jump in too big and sink the ship. We’re outgrowing (this space) quickly, but we’ll push it as long as we can.”
The people problem
Horst’s dreams of expansion are tempered by reality. Finding good employees to join the Horst Tire team is as big of a task as it is anywhere.
Horst has been looking for another service truck technician for about a year. Business has grown to the point that he can’t afford to pull another person away from the shop to answer service calls in the field.
“It’s frustrating to get good help to show up everyday. My guys are great. But they can only do so much. They run hard. There’s only so much you can do and only so many hours in a day to do it.”
And he knows that means retaining employees is just as important as recruiting additional ones.
At Horst Tire, that has come in actions both big and small.
One big one has been to adjust to a five-day workweek. Again, the inspiration for this change comes from Hess, his tire dealer brother-in-law in New York.
Horst went to New York to run Hess’ shop while he was out of the country for a couple weeks.
“He’s not open Saturdays” - something Horst had never considered as an option. But Hess told him, “Your service should be good enough to wait until Monday. They should be willing to wait a day-and-a-half for better service.”
The caveat is that Hess still provides service calls to farmers on weekends. He doesn’t leave customers or equipment stranded.
Horst was intrigued, so in the spring of 2021, Horst Tire tested a Monday-through-Friday schedule. Emergency service calls were answered like normal. “I get more out of my guys. We get more done in five days than we did in five-and-a-half. Everyone hated working Saturdays.
“The mood on a Friday is much better. I think they work harder and faster just because it’s the last day of work and they have a two-day weekend.
“No one has to come in for four hours” on Saturday
He admits there have been a few customer complaints - but only a few. “I didn’t think you could do it. I thought you had to be open Saturday.”
He’s since heard of other friends in the business who have made the same change. “They all say the same thing - you get more done. My guys aren’t burned out. Come Monday, they’re ready to go. On Friday, they’re giddy because they’re almost done.”
The change has alleviated the pain of scheduling the right number of workers on the weekend, too. For example, some Saturdays, Horst wouldn’t have enough workers. The next weekend, he would bring everyone in - only to discover there wasn’t enough work to keep them busy.
“It’s definitely been worth it. If I could figure out how to take Fridays off, too, I would.”
The power of lunch
While Horst Tire’s scheduling change has been a big boost to employee morale, pizza has also played a role. Every Wednesday at Horst Tire is pizza day.
It started as a random whim. Horst asked his wife to pick up pizza for lunch on her way to the shop. It was a hit and he figured they should just keep doing it. “It’s so small, but it’s at least a bright spot halfway through the week. And it’s caught on that Wednesday is pizza day.”
He has friends who have started doughnut and coffee days for customers once a week and laughs as he hears stories of customers scrambling to find a reason to stop by on those days just to grab a doughnut.
So far, he’s sticking to pizza for his employees - though Horst Tire does have coffee available in its waiting area. “As long as my guys like their job, that’s my priority. I cater to my workers. I want them to come back tomorrow.”
He can’t compete with the big cash bonuses that larger companies are o ering to entice applicants and workers. He tries to pay a fair wage and treat people well. “If they like their job, it sure helps.”
Fluctuations in farming
Farmers’ willingness to pay more for their preferred tire brands can ebb and flow at times, just like the overall farming economy.
Grain prices and cattle prices are critical to their operations - and their profits.
On a typical day, the customer conversation in the waiting area easily turns to farming and the latest market report. Horst says he doesn’t need to overhear those conversations to know how things are going.
“I can tell when it goes up. I can tell when the yield is good and when the price is good. There’s a trickle-down effect.
“The tractor that could make it through the fall gets new tires,” he says. “Farmers get a little extra money, put new rubber on and then next spring, they’re ready to go. It’s preventive maintenance. It’s a lot easier to do when there’s extra money.”
It’s not all glamorous, though. Sometimes it means “putting tires on old, rusty tractors that could have been scrapped.”
Most days, Horst is working through a perpetual waiting list of service calls at local farms. The priority always goes to a customer who can’t keep working until Horst Tire arrives to repair or replace a problematic tire. That means there’s a constant juggling of appointments. He says his customers are patient and understanding.
“Usually, all the farmers get it, because they’ve been there (and) in that other guy’s shoes.”
Typically, it might mean that a morning appointment gets pushed to the end of the day or an afternoon stop gets bumped to the next morning, he says. But it also means that rather than scheduling a tire replacement for a specific date and time, Horst Tire gives customers a window - as in, a tire service technician will be there on Tuesday or Wednesday.
“We’re upfront with them. We tell them we’re behind, we’ll get there and we’re doing our best. Very rarely does someone throw a fit about it.”
That might not work in every industry, he admits, but Horst says farmers are accustomed to things breaking and they never know when that’s going to happen. It’s not uncommon for Horst to be in the service truck and en route to a job when another, more pressing call comes in. So he will detour to that new call and then his nephew, Brad, will meet him on site with the tires for the job.
Whenever that service call is done, he’ll return to regular programming and head toward the original job.
“If you’re a really scheduled person, this industry - I don’t know if it’s for you, especially in the service truck,” he says. “Being ready to change your plans at any moment is how it is in the service industry.”
The pace can be frenzied, but Horst prefers that to the alternative. “It tempts you to add on and build big shops. Yet it scares me. How long is it going to last? Will this just blow over until next year and then we’ll be looking for work? I wish it was more steady.”
Location is a draw
As it stands now, farm and commercial tire sales and service make up 60% of Horst Tire’s overall business. The passenger and light truck tire side of things is growing and it seems that more area residents are turning to Horst Tire for their tire needs.
“They keep showing up. Ryan continues to add many new customers” into the dealership’s database.
Adrian is the largest community in Lenawee County, with a population hovering around 20,000 people. e nearby lakes and Irish Hills are summertime draws and the Michigan International Speedway is less than 15 miles away.
Horst Tire sits on a two-lane highway that’s a primary route to these destinations. And as a result, any special event - especially those at the race track - draws customers. It’s not uncommon for the dealership to sell out of trailer tires on an event weekend.
“People are coming from a couple hours away and their tires maybe should have been changed before they left . On weekends, it’s a steady stream of campers past here, so the road frontage here plays a major part (in customers finding us).”
Working with the neighbors
There are some other small tire dealerships in the area and Horst says his goal is to work with them rather than against them.
He’ll perform service calls for those other dealers when needed.
Horst says there’s plenty of work for everyone, especially after some other small, mom-and-pop automotive shops have gone out of business. At least three of them have closed since Horst Tire opened in 2018. Two of the closures came during the pandemic.
“We work together here. We’re not taking work from others. They’re good guys and most of them don’t want to do tires. ey don’t take tires from me. I send my alignments to them. We just have a good relationship working back and forth.”