At a crossroads: One dealer needed a pick-me-up, the other just needed new product. How TireStarz helped two dealers reclaim their businesses
The year was 1998 and Tom Paris was burned out. He'd been running his Hillsboro, Texas-based dealership, Tom's Tire, since 1980, and for various reasons, was starting to lose his passion for the business. He didn't like the feeling.
Then one day an account rep from Paris' tire supplier, Gray's Wholesale Tire Distributors, walked into his shop. "He said, 'I'm not here to sell you tires,' but we have a program that I think might benefit you.'"
Paris listened. The account rep began telling him about TireStarz USA, a new program group for independent tire dealers that had been launched by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (now Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire LLC.) Gray's Wholesale was already a member and thought Tom's Tire would benefit from membership, too.
Paris gave it some thought and figured he had nothing to lose. He signed up for TireStarz and gained access to its credit card program, co-op advertising plan and other benefits.
But the biggest benefit Paris derived from joining, he says, came a little later: Membership in the group helped re-ignite his passion for selling tires.
As a complete independent with no formal ties to anyone other than his distributor, Paris had been "flopping around."
Joining TireStarz renewed his confidence, he says. "After I'd been with TireStarz for a short period of time, I felt like I was an officer in a large company. They listened to my concerns and gave me options."
He appreciated the camaraderie that membership in a program group offers. It's a benefit he doesn't take for granted. "If I get another TireStarz dealer calling me with a problem, I'm tickled to death to help him."
Hillsboro is a small town of around 8,000 people. Before joining TireStarz, Paris pushed private label tires, like TBC Corp.'s Multi-Mile product.
He says TireStarz helped him realize that he could sell a premium-priced tire -- in his case, Bridgestone -- in the community instead of just a value-priced tire.
"I was under the impression that you had to keep the price down. But in today's economy, you need to have value, not just a cheap tire.
"Everybody wants 'four-for-$99.' I tell them, 'I can make your Lexus ride like a Geo real quickly by putting the wrong tire on it.' Our entry-level tire now is what used to be my mid-priced tire."
Paris says his affiliation with TireStarz even helped him make hay during the Ford-Firestone recall. "I spent a lot of money each month trying to get people into my store. Bridgestone/Firestone spent millions to get people in my store" during the recall.
Many customers who came to him for replacement tires then still send business his way.
As much as he enjoys belonging to TireStarz, Paris says no program group can help a tire dealer if a foundation of customer service isn't already in place.
"I have a little medallion hanging on the combination of my safe: a pair of silver shoes. Every morning when I touch that medallion, I remember to put myself in my customers' shoes. If I had a problem, how would I want it handled?"
"A lot of retail tire customers are dealer-reliant," says Bill Pace, who manages the TireStarz program. "They trade with a retailer because they feel they are treated well and it's easy to do business with that individual."
Al Harmon, owner of Harmon's Tire in Ellsworth, Maine, joined TireStarz eight years ago through his distributor, Colchester, Vt.-based University Wholesalers Inc.
Before signing with TireStarz, Harmon belonged to another program group. He was unhappy with its fill rate.
"I was at the end of their channel... very poor delivery. We had to keep so much in stock because it took seven to 10 days to get stuff."
University Wholesalers, a TireStarz distributor, delivers to his shop twice a week. "How well the program works depends on how good (your distributor) is."
Harmon is now able to manage his inventory more efficiently. "We've had so many new SKUs over the last five years. With University delivering so frequently we can have more sizes here.
"We're very big in the snow tire business. If you're a dealer of my size, nobody has enough space to stock for the whole season, but University does."
Training is another benefit of TireStarz membership, according to Harmon. Last year, the group co-sponsored a big tire pressure monitoring system seminar in August, Maine, that he attended. TireStarz also has hosted retail workshops.
“They covered every part of retail management: how to fix a sick store, all of your ratios, where your costs should be.
"They pushed the idea that you have to get paid for what you do. You can't do a lot for free."
Harmon says he learned that lesson the hard way as he gave away too much in the past. "We looked at what they said, came back to see what we were charging, and changed our prices to be more comparable to what the services are worth," he explains.
Harmon also began charging for shop supplies, which has made a significant difference.
TireStarz even helped Harmon put together a celebration to commemorate his dealership's 60th year in business last October. "They made everything happen."
In the future, he plans to use the group's credit card program. (He currently uses Visa and MasterCard.) He likes how TireStarz validates new credit accounts quickly "so we can get that initial sale. People who have a dedicated credit card spend more money because they're not in other stores. It brings them back to you."
TireStarz by the numbers: Program requires at least 51% loyalty
TireStarz USA has about 1,100 retail members and 37 wholesale distributors in the United States.
TireStarz members "have a tendency to be in smaller cities and rural areas," says Bill Pace, the program's manager. "But that's not always the case. They can be anywhere."
Retail members are required to buy at least 51% of their total passenger and light truck tires through authorized TireStarz distributors, "and at least 150 tires per month. For example, if a location does 1,000 total tires a month, they would have to give us 510."
Bridgestone and/or Firestone brand products must make up at least half of that amount, according to Pace.
"We have people who go over 1,000 units with us a month and people who do 150 tires a month."
TireStarz distributors play a key role in retail member recruitment, says Pace. "What happens is a distributor will tell one of our people they have a retailer who's interested in becoming a TireStarz member.
"Our person sends in a nomination first to a regional office and they forward it to me. We're interested in image: Are they clean? Do they have a showroom? Do they have the proper equipment?
"If that's the case, then I approve a presentation made by our people and the distributor's people. If the retailer then says, "I want to join the program,' they enroll. We immediately assist in getting them set up with our credit card, identification and all of our support programs."