Second time's a charm!
It's not easy to build a new tire dealership from scratch. Bob Mirman has done it twice. He even came out of retirement to open one!
Mirman, 76, is the owner of West Coast Tire & Service, a single-store operation in Los Angeles, Calif.
West Coast Tire represents his second go-around as an independent tire dealer. In his previous career as a tire dealer, Mirman ran a company called American Tire Corp. that by the end of the 1960s was selling 8,000 tires a week through 55 retail stores and a wholesale operation that covered six states.
The tire industry has changed considerably since Mirman opened American Tire in the '50s. But his commitment to customer satisfaction has stayed the same.
"I'll walk up to a customer before he leaves our store and I'll say, 'Are you completely happy with our service and price?' If that customer doesn't say to me, 'This is the best place in the world to buy tires or have my car serviced,' we've failed.
"I don't care what we sold them, I don't care how much money we made -- we've failed."
First time around
When Mirman's hitch with the Marines was up in 1952, he bought a truck and began selling retreads that were produced at his father's retread shop. He peddled them to gas stations, garages, body shops and used car lots.
Before long, Mirman was ready for a new challenge and opened a tiny retail tire store. Little did he know he would soon hitch his wagon to a much bigger operation.
"One day a friend of mine invited me to lunch. He said, 'I have to drop off some products at White Front Discount Stores,' so come with me and then we'll eat.'" White Front was the "grandfather" of the current price club concept, according to Mirman, and the biggest discounter in Los Angeles at the time.
"We went there and I was amazed. It was a Wednesday, and they had a fire marshal standing at the front door. He was letting 10 people out and 10 people in. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
An idea struck Mirman: why not set up tire shops at White Front stores? Mirman pitched the idea to Harry and Tootsie Blackman, who owned the popular chain.
"When I went in to make my presentation, I was so afraid they would say no that I never shut my mouth!" he says with a laugh.
The Blackmans liked what they heard and brought Mirman in for a second meeting. But before green-lighting the deal, they wanted proof that Mirman had credit. Mirman only had $11 in his checking account at the time. So on the way out of the Blackmans' office, he asked their secretary for a piece of stationary and quickly forged a contract with White Front!
"I then went to U.S. Rubber -- I used to buy camelback from them for my retreads -- and said, 'I have a contract here that I'm going to open two tire centers with White Front. If you want in, I need a $100,000 line of credit.'"
U.S Rubber gave it to him and he went back to the Blackmans, who granted their approval. Mirman soon set up two tire shops, each at a different White Front store. (One was an old liquor store that had been used to store layaway items!)
"One of my agreements with White Front was that they would run a half-page ad for me in the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald. The Friday morning when we opened both stores people were lined up around the block to buy tires!"
Mirman sold 900 tires his first three days in business, exceptional even by today's standards.
8,000 a week!
As White Front grew, so did American Tire. Within 13 years, Mirman had 55 retail outlets. He also set up an automotive accessory division for White Front and established eight "serve yourself" gas stations to bring in more customers.
Then came another twist of fate. In 1964, his major supplier, Mansfield Tire & Rubber Co., decided to close its factory in Oakland, Calif. "They came to us and said, 'We can't warehouse for you anymore, but we will give you a discount if you can do your own warehousing.'"
Thus another idea was hatched: a wholesale operation, Western Tire, that would complement American Tire's retail business.
Mirman bought a 45,000-square-foot warehouse in Sepulveda, Calif. "We brought tires in by railroad car."
Over the next several years, he built a network of wholesale customers across California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada and even Hawaii. Western Tire specialized in private label products, including Jetzon, plus two now-defunct brands, Traveler and Performer.
By 1969, Mirman's company was selling 8,000 tires a week, both wholesale and retail. "We had a tiger by the tail. We were working 25 hours a day, eight days a week."
During this time, tire technology was evolving. "We went from a four-ply polyester tire with about six sizes that covered everything, to belted tires, which were a nightmare because every time we sold one, we adjusted it twice. At 10,000 to 15,000 miles, they would separate."
As tire construction continued to improve, major brands began to eclipse private brands.
"Private brands weren't the darling of the industry anymore."
Meanwhile, Mirman's relationship with White Front, which the Blackmans had sold to an East Coast-based chain called Interstate Department Stores Inc., was eroding.
"They took this gold mine discounter and turned it into a department store... we weren't getting along with each other."
Mirman's personal life also was in turmoil. He was going through a divorce, and when the opportunity came up to sell his company, he grabbed it. At the age of 39, he retired.
Mirman figured it was time to take it easy. For a while, he traveled the world and played golf. The rest of his time away from the business, however, was "a nightmare. I had nobody to play with. I'd have lunch with somebody and I'd say,
'Let's play golf,' and they'd say, 'I have to go back to work.' I had all this time on my hands. I'm not built to sit around."
In 1971, he decided to get back into selling tires. And this time around, he went about it in a completely different way.
Mirman was toying with the idea of opening four stores: one for him, one for his daughter, Stacy (now West Coast's vice president) and two for his sons, Brad and Steve.
While driving down a side street through a commercial area one day, he spotted a man hanging up a 'For Lease' sign on the side of a sheet metal building.
Another idea hit him: why not open a membership tire "club" in that building? He leased the building and called an old friend, Al Hoffman, who was the founder of Jetzon Tire.
"I said, 'I want you to drop 4,000 Jetzons in here. Here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to hire four of the prettiest starlets you've ever seen and they're going to go out to every union in Los Angeles - police, fire, federal, teachers - and we're going to give them a membership card to come here and pick up tires at prices that nobody can compete with.' The teachers union alone had 8,000 members."
Avoiding the hard sell, Mirman simply promoted his new tire club as a benefit to union members. (Membership was free.)
The idea was a hit. He added services like brake work and alignments and eventually opened the club to the general public.
This presented its own set of challenges. Due to its location, West Coast Tire doesn't see much drive-in business.
Over the years, Mirman used a variety of methods to bring people into his shop. At first, newspaper advertising worked well -- until escalating advertising rates made that method cost-prohibitve.
Mirman then ran ads in the Yellow Pages, but that also became expensive. Five years ago, he began targeting customers via direct mail.
"We bought specific lists. For example, we bought a list of every plumbing company within a three-mile radius of our store. We sent them letters about the specific problems that plumbers might have: 'Your van is overloaded, you can't afford for it to break down, etc.'"
Each piece costs anywhere from 27 cents to 50 cents to mail, depending on its size.
"We just finished a big program with real estate brokers, going under the assumption that they need their vehicles to chauffer people around. So we tailored a piece to them. It worked out terrifically."
West Coast Tire -- whose main supplier is Michelin Americas Small Tires but also carries Goodyear, Continental and Pirelli brand tires -- tracks the pieces' success based on coupon returns.
"I'm in the wealthiest market in the U.S. I'm between Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Bel Air. I see more Rolls Royces and Porsches within a week than the average dealer sees in a lifetime."
The thought of a person who can afford to spend hundreds of thousands on a car clipping coupons from a mailer seems ironic at first glance, Mirman admits. "But how do you think they can afford those cars?" he quickly adds.
"Two weeks ago, I had a customer who came in on a high-line Porsche, and he was arguing with my general manager over a $35 fee on a $1,200 set of tires! And this person was a friend of mine. I said, 'Here's the deal; you have to pay the price we're asking, but here's $35 out of my pocket to make you happy.' These customers want the best products, but they also want the best prices."
West Coast Tire had a record year in 2006, achieving $5.6 million in sales. "People say, 'Why haven't you expanded?' If I was 40, maybe I'd think about it. But at my age, I can't think in those terms.
"It takes four years to turn a store around. If I sell you a set of tires today, theoretically you shouldn't be ready for another set for three or four years." There's plenty of work to keep Mirman, Stacy and the rest of his staff busy. (His son, Steve, is a successful builder and his other son, Brad, is a movie screen writer; neither are involved in the family business.)
But Mirman has six grandchildren, ranging in age from 11 to 21, and "maybe one of them will get involved," he muses. "One of the boys, Mason, who's 18, works here part-time." One of his granddaughters, Nicole, 21, is studying business. She may take an interest, he says.
If members of a new generation join West Coast Tire, you can be sure that they will be just as in tune with customer service as its founder.
"Long ago I decided that we were going to turn every single customer into a friend and a salesperson for us. The customer is going to tell 10 people, who will tell another 10 people.
“Unless you put a gun to my head, I will not allow you to leave here angry."