How Westside Tire & Service Thrives During Tough Times
Rich Rogenski is not an economist. But he has a pretty good handle on how to make money in a down market. Rogenski - along with his sister, Lisa Walters, and their father, Dick Rogenski - own Westside Tire & Service, a three-store dealership that’s based in Youngstown, Ohio.
Located half-way between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Pa., Youngstown has struggled since the late-1970s, when the once-prosperous city began to lose its industrial base, which in turn, created a mass exodus of residents.
In 1970, eight years before Dick opened Westside Tire & Service, Youngstown had more than 139,000 residents. By the end of the decade, which saw the shutdown of several major employers in the area, more than 24,000 people had left the city. Today, around 60,000 people call Youngstown home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
High-paying jobs are less plentiful in Youngstown than they once were - compounded, in no small part, by the 2019 closing of General Motors’ mammoth assembly plant in nearby Lordstown, Ohio. (The factory employed around 4,500 people when it closed. Thirty years ago, it employed more than 10,000.)
Many of Westside Tire & Service’s blue-collar customers live on increasingly tight budgets. And the area boasts a much smaller car count.
These economic tides have swept away more than a few independent tire dealerships in Youngstown, says Rich. But Westside Tire & Service has found ways to not only survive, but thrive and grow.
The company’s formula is simple, he notes. “You work hard. You work long. You do a good job. You take pride in what you do. And you adapt to what customers need.”
This no-nonsense, roll-up-your-sleeves approach will soon carry the dealership into its 45th year in business.
Up in a down market
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown was a major steel manufacturing hub, with many large companies - including U.S. Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. - employing the vast majority of the city’s blue-collar workers.
In the late-70s, Dick Rogenski was working for an independent tire dealership in Youngstown, where he grew up. He decided to strike out on his own. In 1978, he opened a small tire store on the west side of the city - “hence our name,” says Lisa, who was in high school at the time.
Rich, then 21 years old, became Westside Tire & Service’s first employee. It wasn’t the greatest time to open a small business in Youngstown, he admits.
On Sept. 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, a big employer in the area since 1900, closed its plants in nearby Campbell and Struthers, Ohio, instantly putting 5,000 people out of work. The incident - known to this day in Youngstown as “Black Monday” - would have a devastating domino effect on the city and its residents.
It was a scary time, Rich remembers. “A great number of our customers worked at Youngstown Sheet & Tube. And many of those who didn’t work for Youngstown Sheet worked for U.S. Steel or Republic Steel.”
U.S. Steel would exit Youngstown in 1979. Republic Steel filed for bankruptcy a few years later
Despite the unstable economic environment around him, Dick had a vision that he continued to pursue, says Lisa, who started with the dealership as “the cleaning lady” and then became its bookkeeper. “Later on, I was a service advisor,” she notes. “I worked in the back office. We wore many hats.”
The Rogenskis quickly established Westside Tire & Service - then a tires-only operation - as an affordable, service-oriented alternative to big box merchandisers.
Business grew and Dick saw a need for further investment. “We had been open for about a year when our dad started an addition” onto the busy Youngstown store, says Rich. “He wanted to be full-service. So we added four bays onto the front of the building.”
The expanded location soon had all the work it could handle. This prompted the Rogenskis to open their second store - located in nearby Niles - in 1984.
“We worked very hard to get to that point,” says Rich.
Meanwhile, the greater Youngstown area continued to shed jobs. New car sales plummeted.
This helped fill Westside Tire & Service’s bays, says Lisa. “When you’re in a recessionary period like that, people don’t trade in their cars.”
The freeze-thaw cycles that are the hallmarks of northeast Ohio weather during winter months - coupled with salt-covered roads - didn't hurt either, says Rich.
“If you go back to the 1970s and '80s you couldn’t keep a car for 13 years. You wouldn’t have anything left!"
Westside Tire & Service continued to win new customers. It was soon time for another round of investment.
The Rogenskis opened their third store - a location in Austintown, a western Youngstown suburb - in 1987 “to help take some pressure off ” their two other outlets. (Dick is still the dealership’s CEO.)
They began looking at other revenue streams. One - servicing local fleets - started small, but has paid big dividends.
Westside Tire & Service has more than 45 fleet accounts - everything from local building contractors, a TV station an a tree removal service to the Diocese of Youngstown, the Ohio Lottery Commission and a funeral home.
The business started as a sideline, according to Rich. “There was an electrical contractor two blocks from our original location that had done some work for us,” he says
“They started sending their vehicles to us for tires and oil changes and any repair their vehicles needed They probably had five vans. And it just evolved from there.”
A garage door installer became the dealership’s second fleet customer. Soon other fleets began contacting Westside Tire & Service.
The dealership became known as a place that could handle "vehicles that are too big for the average tire shop to work on and too small for a truck repair shop to work on,” notes Rich.
A local janitorial supply distributor signed onto Westside Tire & Service’s fleet program. “They have four or five vehicles that we service,” says Rich. “And their owners bring their personal vehicles to us.
“A lot of people we had done business with became our customers. We like to do business with people who do business with us.”
“Word-of-mouth has had a lot to do” with the dealership’s success with fleets, according to Lisa. “One of our newest fleets came to us through Business Networking International (BNI),” a business referral organization that Westside Tire & Service belongs to.
“A lady in our BNI group told someone who’s a fleet manager that he should give us a try,” explains Lisa. “And he was happy he did.”
Rich and Lisa market Westside Tire & Service as a “one-stop shop” for fleets of all sizes, vocations and vehicles.
Each store has a dedicated bay for fleet work “because we don’t know if we’re going to get a Ford Focus or a Ford F-350 on any given day,” says Rich. “It could be a 16-passenger bus.”
Westside Tire & Service offers a wide range of auto maintenance and repair services - minus engine and transmission rebuilds, which are farmed out to local specialists when requested. “We’ll do engine replacements, though,” says Lisa.
The dealership’s biggest fleet customer - a company that restores properties that have suffered water and fire damage - has 70 vehicles. “And they’re possibly adding more at the end of the year,” says Rich.
Westside Tire & Service’s smallest fleet customer - a man who provides lawn care and snow removal services - has two vehicles.
Rich and Lisa put fleet vehicles on regular maintenance schedules.
“The owners of these fleets are so busy running their businesses,” says Rich. “We take that off their plate for them.”
Sometimes, however, fleet vehicles need immediate help due to breakdowns “and other emergencies,” notes Rich. “Some drivers will worry when a van’s check engine light comes on and will want that checked right away.”
“Just about anything a vehicle needs, we can do,” says Lisa. “One of our newest accounts told us he was going to one (provider) for one service and another place for something else. We can do everything for them here.
“Another fleet customer told us, ‘I have no records of anything. We do our oil changes at one place. Another company does our brakes. Another company does our tires.’ We’ve centralized all of that.”
Rich says Westside Tire & Service is working with a vendor to develop an online portal “where our fleet customers can access all of their (maintenance) records through their phones or laptops.”
The dealership also offers digital vehicle inspections for both fleets and regular customers. Photos of needed repairs - plus written details - can be shared with clients, along with quotes, depending on customer preference.
“We can send a video of our technician inspecting a tie rod end and the customer can see the movement,” says Rich. “Now they understand what it needs, rather than someone miles away telling them what’s needed.
“We started offering digital vehicle inspections around five years ago, but got really serious about it two years ago” during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says.
“Our customers were blown away by it. We also have added more texting with customers. It’s convenient for them.
“If I call and say, ‘Hey, do you have time to talk right now?’ they might be busy. Now we can text them a quote and (provide) a checklist” that gives them the option of selecting what services they want to buy now versus later.
Fleets also rely on Westside Tire & Service for replacement tire recommendations. “Very seldom does a fleet customer have a specific request for tires,” notes Rich, who says the dealership carries Kenda and Nexen brand cargo tires for Ford Transits and other work vans.
Once Westside Tire & Service plugs a customer into a specific tire, “they will stick with it,” he adds. “Fleets put a lot of trust in us to put the right thing on their vehicles.”
The dealership solicits new fleet accounts by sending out letters, “telling them about us and what we can do for them,” says Rich.
Displacing a fleet’s current tire and auto service provider - or multiple providers, in some cases - isn’t always easy. “But once we get our foot in the door, customers know we have their best interests at heart,” says Rich. “All of our customers are treated with dignity and respect.”
That, he adds, is what ultimately keeps Westside Tire & Service’s customers coming back to the dealership during - and despite - tough times.