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'We're a service company': Sparks Commercial Tire builds sales, customer loyalty on more than just tires

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'We're a service company': Sparks Commercial Tire builds sales, customer loyalty on more than just tires

"We're really not a tire company." At first glance, that's an incongruous statement coming from a man who runs a busy, four-location tire dealership that's on track to shatter its standing sales and income records.

But Terry Sparks, president of Sparks Commercial Tire Inc. in Findlay, Ohio, can explain. People can buy tires -- including OTR tires, his company's specialty -- anywhere, he says. Good service, however, is much harder to find. And a passion for keeping customers' costs to a minimum even at the risk of losing a sale is even rarer.

"If somebody doesn't need a set of tires we don't sell them a set of tires," says Sparks. "We're a service company."

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Turnaround specialist

Sparks Commercial Tire, which was founded in 1986, is unique among OTR tire dealerships: it doesn't work on contracts.

"Our customers are free to leave at any time and I prefer it that way," says Sparks. "It keeps us on our toes. Sometimes when you land a contract you breathe easy... but keeping that customer depends on how I handle this phone call right now. We have to earn our customers' business every day."

Customers have responded by giving Sparks their business and trust. "We have customers I've serviced for 26 years. We once had a customer who asked if we could write a reference letter to his bank for him."

Sparks' career in tires dates back to 1970, when he went to work at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. company store in Kenton, Ohio, near Findlay. "I was their youngest credit manager."

He joined Carolina Tire, which had locations in Michigan, in 1974 and wound up running an OTR retread plant in that state some five years later.

Back then, Carolina Tire's top-selling OTR size was 29.5x29. Most of the firm's customers in the Midwest were rock quarries and steel mills, "very similar to what we're doing today."

In 1981, Carolina Tire (by then known as Brad Ragan Inc.) fired a manager in Findlay and wanted Sparks to replace him. "I didn't tell my wife, Roxanne, this, but they gave me six months to turn the location around or go back to Michigan. I wanted to be back in (the Findlay area) anyway, so I told her, 'Hey, we're moving to Ohio!'"

When Sparks arrived, the struggling store was doing $340,000 a year in sales. Within a year, it was doing $900,000. "They let me stay," he says with a laugh. Sparks and his staff of two worked hard to build the business. "I ran service calls, I loaded trucks at night. Times were tough so you had to make it happen."

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Market experts

Meanwhile, things were changing at Brad Ragan, according to Sparks. He left the company and in a twist of fate, was able to buy the same location where he'd been working. Goodyear gave him a line of credit and he was off and running.

"Before I became in charge I thought I had all the answers. I absolutely knew what should be done. 'Why would corporate make this kind of decision?'... that sort of thing. But the realization hit me that if I make the decisions, they're going to happen, so I better think it through."

As business grew, Sparks added staff, which wasn't easy. "It always seems like we're under-staffed," he explains. "And part of that is because we're very selective. You have to meet certain standards.

"If you walk around our shops you won't see earrings, you won't see offensive tattoos. You have to pass drug tests, you have to have a good driving record. We're very particular in who we hire because they're representing our company."

In 1991, Sparks bought a Shrader's Inc. location in Toledo, Ohio. He followed that by buying two additional Shrader's Inc. outlets: one in Greenville, Ohio, and another in Hillsboro, Ohio.

(Sparks closed the Greenville store in 2006 and replaced Hillsboro with a new location in Sardinia, Ohio, near Cincinnati. He also eventually added a location in Greencastle, Ind., which is near Indianapolis.)

The Shrader's Inc. deal was made to gain access to the Michelin and General OTR brands. (Sparks Commercial Tire had been selling Goodyear OTR tires up to that point.) Having multiple brands made obtaining sizes easier. Goodyear understood the decision, he says.

"We were already buying Michelin and General from other distributors so we could service our customers. We gave Michelin our word that we wouldn't be aggressive with the product and that we'd just sell it to a handful of customers."

Sparks began to extend his company's footprint. He opened a location in Ft. Wayne, Ind., in 2002. Shrader's Inc. had a number of long-term clients in the Ft. Wayne area. "We had a tough 18 months trying to figure out things. When we bought Shrader's, we didn't know their customers. There was a learning curve."

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Above and beyond

As business prospered, Sparks continued to invest in his dealership. Several years ago, he bought 10 acres three miles outside of Findlay where an old Yellow Freight terminal sat.

The vacant building became the nucleus of Sparks Commercial Tire's showcase commercial and retail tire center, which also contains a dedicated RV service area.

As an RV owner, Sparks knows that RV drivers will pay a premium for repairs when their vehicles break down. "You're tickled if you can find someone who can do the work."

Everything from RV water heaters to brakes can be fixed or replaced at the facility.

Sparks Commercial Tire's RV service has turned solid numbers despite minimal advertising. "If you take care of your customer, word-of-mouth does it."

The dealership's service center boasts a number of customer amenities, including wireless Internet service and an outdoor waiting area with overhead heat lamps that customers can regulate depending on ambient temperature. Seats on the patio are frequently occupied, even on cold days.

"The heaters only work 30 minutes at a time so we don't forget we're heating the great outdoors," quips Sparks.

Just as importantly, the service center's design is employee-friendly. All of the facility's bay doors are connected to motion detectors that open them automatically whenever a vehicle approaches.

"No longer does one guy have to stop whatever he's doing to open the door." The building also contains a dedicated area for medium truck tire work and tractor-trailer repair. "We do full-service repair... trailer repair and full mechanical, including engines and transmissions. We do a lot of truck mechanical work; it's probably 30% of our overall mechanical business.

"We have two mobile service trucks that go out to truck centers and work only on trailers. They do major repairs."

Medium truck tires are a small part of Sparks Commercial Tire's business compared to OTR, so plenty of space is devoted to OTR repair work.

The dealership's OTR tire repair business is booming due to the on-going shortage of bigger sizes. "We have a steady backlog of repairs. We won't fix anything that isn't repairable. You used to look at a tire and say, 'It's not worth putting that kind of money into it.' These days we have to look at it a second time."

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A major initiative at the dealership is making sure customers get maximum service out of their existing tires.

"We do site studies. We talk to them about road and equipment maintenance. We do air checks and then graph those checks.

"Production always rules. If we can make a tire last 6,000 hours, that's great. But if making a tire last 3,000 hours gives them more production, that's the course they will take and they will buy more tires."

As an added option, Sparks Commercial Tire also sells OTR retreads manufactured by other firms.

Wheels are becoming a bigger part of Sparks Commercial Tire's business. The company sells OTR rims through a subsidiary called Flag City Wheel.

"When Titan International Inc. bought Continental Tire North America Inc.'s OTR division (in 2005), we got serious about selling their product."

Sparks buys wheels and wheel parts from Titan and in turn sells them to other OTR dealers. "Some of our major competitors buy wheels from us. It's not setting the world on fire but it's another thing we offer."

Good stewards

Sparks Commercial Tire sells Goodyear, Michelin, Titan and General brand OTR tires, plus assorted products from GPX International. This gives the company a wide enough product offering to satisfy nearly every application, says Sparks.

While having the right product for the right application is important, he notes, understanding your customers' needs is even more critical.

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Sparks likens it to the restaurant business. "All of the restaurants in a given area probably buy their food from the same place. They all have access to the same ingredients but some get $10 for a meal and some get $25. What's the difference? It's the service they provide."

He makes sure his employees are on-board with that line of thinking. "You can be on your lunch break and if a customer needs something I don't want to have to ask people to take care of it. Maybe that sounds hard-nosed, but you have to take care of your customers.

"You develop friendships with your customers, but that only gives you a shot (at their business)... you have to earn it. I bet you in 20 years I might have taken a customer golfing three times.

"All the money in my pocket has come from a customer; I think we should be good stewards of that."

Work ethic required: Sparks puts out call for hard workers

It's unlikely that Sparks Commercial Tire Inc. will announce a hiring freeze anytime soon. Owner Terry Sparks says the Findlay, Ohio-based dealership is having a hard time finding good people. Part of the reason, he admits, is that he's extremely selective. The other reason? "Some people just don't know how to work!

"There isn't one area of our business we don't intend to grow. We have so much potential. It just takes people. We advertise, we try word-of-mouth, I've talked to people about doing job fairs.

"Once people come here, they stay." Sparks' corporate controller, Brent Schroeder, has been with him more than 15 years. A sales rep, Ron Duncan, has been with him for 18 years.

"We try to hire people who fit into how we do things. We don't expect people to sweat the entire time they're here, but we do expect them to work hard."

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