K&R Tire Center Isn't Your Typical Tire Dealer

June 12, 2024

Thirty-five years ago Ed Rietman transitioned from diesel mechanic and truck rebuilder to business owner. In the decades since, he’s grown what once was a two-man operation into a $46 million Michigan enterprise that includes a five-location International Truck dealership — plus towing, body shop, mobile service and used parts businesses — and a tire dealership.

In the early years the growth was slow. Rietman and his business partner, Jeff Kolean, both worked other jobs while rebuilding trucks on the side. Rietman was a pickle farmer and Kolean a truck driver. They bought and rebuilt one truck at a time. Eventually, Rietman bought out Kolean’s share to become full owner of K&R Truck Sales.

Since then, he’s added all those other pieces onto the business, though Rietman is quick not to take credit for the growth.

“It’s the people around me. And that’s one thing that we probably do more than some other people. We build businesses around people.”

That certainly rings true when considering Rietman’s latest expansion — a Goodyear retread plant in Flint, Mich.

About 10 years ago K&R Truck Sales entered the tire business, dba K&R Tire Center. Rietman said it came as a natural extension of the truck operations as customers often asked if the business could handle their tire needs. Plus, K&R Truck was managing a bounty of used truck tires from the trucks and trailers it rebuilt and serviced.

For years, when a customer asked for retreaded tires, K&R Tire bought them from a handful of other tire dealerships in central Michigan. When one of those dealers was acquired, one casualty of the merger was a retread shop in Flint. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. wanted to find an operator to continue to service that market.

So Rietman and Goodyear worked to establish a new plant. Rietman found a building and hired employees of the former facility, including Kenny McMullen, who is K&R Tire’s retread plant manager. McMullen said the 17 employees at the retread plant have 200 years of combined experience. He and three other workers have amassed 100 years of that service.

During a grand opening event in mid-April, McMullen marveled at how far the business had come. On January 3rd he stood in an empty building. Thirty-seven workdays later he said the newly installed retread equipment was running.

Rietman said the plant represents an investment of around $1.5 million. A big chunk of that — around $250,000 — was spent rewiring the electrical system. In the earliest days, before the electrical upgrades were complete, the plant relied on generators to produce 20 tires a day.

McMullen said the plant has the capacity to build 150 tires a day. Rietman said if demand grew and warranted it, the company could add a second shift to increase that capacity.

The bulk of that capacity is dedicated to medium truck tires — sizes 225/75R16 to 445/65R22.5 — though the plant can also handle skid steer tires, OTR tires and section repairs for farm and earthmover tires. The site also features a commercial wheel powder coating reconditioning station.

Take a tour of K&R Tire Center's new Goodyear retread plant via our photo gallery.


Growing to say yes

Rietman never envisioned a business like he has today. But over time either his existing staff, customers, or other people he’s grown to know, have presented him opportunities to grow. In the earliest days, he sold the trucks he rebuilt to other truck dealers. But over time customers wanted to buy a truck directly from him. That eventually led him to an International Truck license with Navistar Inc.

“They started buying trucks and they said, ‘can you change oil and fix it, grease it?’ So we started doing that,” Rietman said. “The theme is we don’t like to say no.”

When K&R added truck service, there was a need for a much larger parts department. That grew into an entire parts business, which has evolved further into both new and used parts.

The business used to farm out its paint work on body shop repairs. Now that’s done in house. A towing company that used to haul in the wrecked trucks K&R was buying got into financial trouble, so Rietman bought the business.

When the company was constructing a new building in Kalamazoo, “we knew a guy that had a really good body shop in Kalamazoo. For us, more revenue centers under one rooftop helps pay the building rent, so we bought him out.” The original owner has continued to operate the business.

The list goes on and on.

It hasn’t all gone smoothly. One venture was a truck wash, which Rietman said failed “miserably. That’s the worst business to be in.” (He had two employees wash each side of a truck. In the end, the two sides would look totally different, the customer wasn’t happy and the truck would have to be washed again.)

Planning for the future

Bolting on all these different businesses has also helped expand the company’s customer base. Rietman said roughly 20% of K&R Tire’s customers are what he called “transient” — that’s someone who has a flat tire or a blow out while they happen to be in the K&R Tire service area.

Over time that service area has grown, too. Rietman said the company’s 260 employees cover a territory that fans out 100 miles in any direction from Grand Rapids. Customers are a mix of independent operators, local fleets and national fleets. Rietman said the large national fleets like J.B. Hunt account for 60% of the company’s after-hours service calls.

But what all of those customers have in common is a need for a specific service or product. And Rietman said his employees have a genuine desire to answer that need.

“The biggest part of the success is the people and their willingness to want to help people,” he said. “I can’t do this myself. So you really have to surround yourself with good people that have the same mindset (to) help others.”

Rietman said his wife Jane deserves credit not for just holding down the fort at home, but also because she “gives into a lot of things I’m trying.” The couple’s three daughters have all joined the business, as have their two sons-in-law. The oldest grandchild is 14, but Rietman told him he had to work somewhere else before he could join the family business.

He has no plans to retire, and instead has worked to ensure the entire K&R operation has a gameplan for the future.

“Sometimes we are probably too quick to jump on things, and sometimes we’re too late to jump on things, but this whole EV thing, EV trucks (are) going to change our world dramatically if it catches on,” he said. “The mechanical side is going to slow down. Anything to do with parts for those vehicles will slow down because they’re just like running a forklift. They just don’t seem to break. So we have to start looking at different ways to generate revenue.”

It was that mentality that led Rietman into the tire business a decade ago.

“That is one thing that we always keep looking at — what is the constant that keeps needing to be replaced?”

He believes electrification will continue, but it’s “just a matter of how fast and to what degree. I don’t know if I’ll ever see electric semis take over the diesel world, but our kids might someday, if they make them compact enough and with enough power to go a whole day without having to be charged.”

Continuing to help customers when they need it requires a steady workforce. For now, “I would say we’re sitting pretty good,” Rietman said.

“Technicians are always going to be (tough) because there’s not that many people coming up through the ranks. There’s a few younger ones that are starting to look at it (as a career path) again, but for the longest time, our systems pushed everybody to be a doctor, lawyer or go on to get a degree of some sort. They kind of bypass the trades, but I think that’s starting to reverse a little bit. But, there’s that gap in age groups, especially in that 30- to 45-age group.”

Rietman said K&R Tire no longer waits to talk to students about the automotive industry when they reach high school. “We actually go down to the sixth grade kids in school.” They also visit high school tech centers and offer job shadow opportunities.

“The younger generation wants a career path,” he said, and they ask where they will be a year from now and five years from now. “We help them lay that plan out.”

It’s a starkly different world than when Rietman searched for his first job. He was fresh out of college and he couldn’t find a job as a diesel mechanic. “Every place I went to, you had to have two years of experience before they even talked to you.”

He finally found a trucking company that gave him a chance. But first he had to pass a test. There was a box with engine parts inside of it. He was told to reassemble the engine and make it run. If he did, he could have a job.

He passed the test. “Talk about pressure.”

The dynamics are dramatically different today.

“The future for any company is their employee situation. How can you attract and keep employees? You have to treat them right.”

About the Author

Joy Kopcha | Managing Editor

After more than a dozen years working as a newspaper reporter in Kansas, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, Joy Kopcha joined Modern Tire Dealer as senior editor in 2014. She has covered murder trials, a prison riot and more city council, county commission, and school board meetings than she cares to remember.