It’s hard to miss the sprawling 20,000-square-foot Sylvester Truck and Tire Service Inc. building when traveling along I-90 in the Cleveland suburb of Avon, Ohio.
Interstate 90 is the longest interstate highway in the United States, stretching from Boston all the way to Seattle, with millions of vehicles traveling along the thoroughfare each year. When a piece of land nestled alongside the highway came up for sale more than 20 years ago, Dave Sylvester jumped on the opportunity.
“The visibility and location is what drew me here,” says Sylvester, owner of Sylvester’s. “I have an excellent location in the state of Ohio.”
Sylvester Truck and Tire Service Inc. is both a full service commercial truck tire and repair shop as well as a car and light truck tire and auto repair shop all under one roof.
About eight years ago Sylvester also became a certified Mitsubishi Fuso truck sales and service specialist. “We’ve been doing very well with them,” he says.
Sylvester, a G3X Goodyear dealer, sources his Goodyear, Kelly and Dunlop brands from Capital Tire Inc. while sourcing his other major tire brands, including Continental, Firestone, Hankook, Toyo, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Cooper and Roadmaster, from K&M Tire Inc. He also is a member of K&M’s Big 3 marketing program.
Sylvester keeps about $1 million worth of inventory at the shop with twice-a-day deliveries from both of his key suppliers. His inventory includes some 2,000 truck, light truck and passenger tires.
The commercial truck work makes up about 70% of business, while the retail side makes up about 30%, according to Sylvester. The retail side features six bays capable of working on all aspects of tires as well as everything underneath the vehicle and engine work.
“Diagnostics, brake work, muffler work, tune-up work and that kind of stuff,” he says.
Sylvester’s employs about 16 technicians, some of whom are cross-trained to work on both sides of the shop.
“If the retail side is quiet and they need some work, we have it set up where they can take some of our lighter truck business and vice versa. If the truck side is very busy, I have a few cross-trained technicians who can come over to the truck side and help us out,” he says.
The truck side features eight large bays that can hold up to four trucks per bay or trucks with trailers attached. The shop can perform work on everything from tires to brakes to welding on trucks and trailers.
“From morning until night there’s never an empty bay,” he says.Over the years Sylvester has grown his commercial truck customer base to roughly 800 fleet accounts, many of which are from out of state. “We have a good, strong local customer base, but my stronger base is out of town,” he says. “For example, let’s say there’s a fleet out of New Jersey and they have 400 trucks and they’re servicing an account in the Columbus area and I-90 is on their route. They’ll stop here and we handle whatever their needs are.”
Typically, the out-of-town fleet’s maintenance manager will email Sylvester’s and let them know what work needs to be done as well as what their turnaround time is. That customer goes to the top of the shop’s to-do list.
“On the truck side we’re focused on fleets and the local business accounts,” Sylvester says. “Yes, we have some independent operators that we’ve had long-standing relationships with, and on the retail side we have a lot of walk-in business and a lot of fleet business.”
In order to handle its heavy volume of business, Sylvester’s is equipped with the latest tools and technology to get the job done quickly and correctly the first time so busy trucks can get back on the road. “Between the Fuso trucks and the heavy truck repair and heavy truck alignment, we have two different alignment racks. We have a full pit for heavy trucks and a medium area for medium trucks. We also have a frame rack for frame straightening, and a fabricating area for truck-related fabrication. We do everything bumper-to-bumper on the trucks. That’s what the fleets like.”
The tire techs are Tire Industry Association (TIA) trained, and some techs are factory trained to work on the Fuso line. He also has truck technicians who can handle just about anything that rolls through the garage doors.
“It’s all about giving them the right tools to perform truck repair,” Sylvester says. “Nowadays it doesn’t change monthly, it changes daily and we spend the money to keep up with the technology. That is very important. I utilize state-of-the-art equipment, computers and diagnostic equipment and my people are all trained.”Whether it’s a long-haul, regional or mixed service truck, Sylvester’s has the right tire. If for some reason a truck can’t get to the shop, Sylvester’s will come to them.
“If that truck is in Toledo (95 miles away) or Akron or Canton and they have issues, we’ll send a service truck out and do the repair or tire service,” he says. “We go out and perform roadside service for tires, off-road and we do mechanical truck service.”
They also have towing capabilities. “We have heavy towing trucks and light trucks for the auto side. We don’t advertise the towing, but we utilize it for the customer base that we have,” he says.
There’s a humble sense of pride that emanates from Sylvester when he talks about his early days in the truck tire industry.
“My junior and senior year of high school, I played sports, and on the weekends I washed trucks and greased trucks for Leaseway Transportation,” he says. “That was my initial insight on the trucking business.”
He worked his way up from truck washer to tire changer to diesel technician for Leaseway. At the time, Leaseway was one of the largest transportation logistics companies in the world. Sylvester knew he wanted to work in the transportation industry and took a full-time job with Leaseway after high school.
“I was doing some night school at Cleveland State University, and Leaseway asked me to come on board full-time and I did that,” he says. “I worked out of their corporate headquarters in Beachwood, Ohio. I was involved in operations so wherever they needed us, they would send us.”
Sylvester provided assistance for whatever fleets needed from mechanical issues to tire issues to union issues. “It taught me all of the fundamentals of transportation and logistics and trucks,” he says.
While things were going well for Sylvester’s career, Leaseway was heading into financial trouble in the late 1980s.“One day they came in and fired the whole department. They fired the whole company,” Sylvester says.
Sylvester had several other job offers on the table, but his wife and two teenage daughters were not fans of moving away from home.
“They said, ‘We’re not moving,’ because they were in high school,” he says. “So I had one option and that was to start my own business, and that’s what I did.”
Sylvester’s first day working for himself entailed a call from a national breakdown system out of the South who dispatched him to put on a truck tire.
“And it was the wrong-sized tire,” he jokes. “I started off as the only person in the business. I did the tire service, I did the truck service, I did the tire repair, I did the truck repair. I kept my sales clothes in my vehicle and sometimes I didn’t make it home for three days.”
Sylvester initially worked out of his service vehicle and had his inventory delivered to a farm field in neighboring Avon Lake.
“I rented a spot from a farmer, and I parked my vehicles there and I had my inventory delivered to me there. They rolled the tires out into the mud and snow and that’s where they landed.”
He eventually rented a building, grew some large accounts and saved enough money to purchase a building in a nearby industrial park. “Then we grew out of that and I purchased the property here where we are now,” he says.
The building took three years to construct and is separated into two wings — the trucking side and the auto tire and service side. The middle of the building houses his office as well as the sales and accounting staff.
“From my office I can see both shops. That was part of the vision and the design,” he explains. “I used to sketch the building when I worked at Leaseway.”
Sylvester has nearly 30 employees including himself and his wife, Rhea, who has been with him from day one. She now runs the front office. Sylvester’s son-in-law, Jason, also works in the office part-time.
Whether it’s a new technician, salesperson or someone in the front office, Sylvester says he looks for a positive attitude and good attendance when hiring someone.
“I know their qualifications when I interview them. That’s why they’re here. But when they’re sitting in the seat and I interview them, it’s all about attitude. When we bring them in we put them through a six-month training program before we let them go on their own.”
Sylvester has a mix of younger employees as well as employees who have been with him for more than 20 years. He tends to have a harder time training and retaining the younger generation.
“The younger generation has a hard time taking direction and taking constructive criticism,” he says. “Their attendance stinks, but once we work through that, it’s all about building responsibility. Their pay reflects their responsibility. Within a year we usually have a decent employee.”
He uses a mix of platforms to attract new employees, including online ads, word-of-mouth and occasionally contacting the local tech schools.
“I’ve utilized all of the tech schools in the past, but they’re not my favorite place to go,” he explains. “My issue with tech schools is that the students are taught that they’re going to make $37 an hour to start and that’s not reality, and they have a hard time with that.”
When he does find a good employee, Sylvester says he does what he can to keep them around.
“It’s hard to find people, let alone qualified people,” he says. “That’s an expense that we pick up every day in training... hoping they stay with us. I let them know that I’m here and if they need to exit for something else, then we need to talk. We stress that.”
BUILDING CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIPS
Building a successful business doesn’t happen overnight. One of the ways Sylvester has built his success is by building strong relationships with customers. Whether it’s someone with a single truck or a corporation with a fleet of trucks, Sylvester values every account.
“It’s all about relationships and good quality service and a fair price,” he says.
On the truck side, Sylvester’s top salesman, Mark Carpenter, has been with him for 20 years and handles fleet accounts.
“He not only sells the tire brands that we sell, but he also sells our service and that, of course, helps him in his sales because they utilize the tire service and everything else that we offer,” Sylvester says.
About three-and-a-half years ago, John Bishop joined the business to handle commercial tire sales and Fuso truck sales.
“He was with Continental General for years out in the Dakotas,” Sylvester says. “He’s doing a good job for us.”
Sylvester’s has built a reputation of providing quick, reliable service, and a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make sure customers are 100% satisfied. Sylvester says having a one-on-one relationship is key to keeping customers from seeking out your competitors.
“This building has been here 21 years, and we counted not too long ago that there’s 36 competitors who have moved into my immediate area, within a four-mile radius, that do some type of my business — retail, truck, off-road, leasing, rental business or towing.”
Although Sylvester’s has a strong reputation in the local community, he still advertises in the local paper and sends out coupons for the retail side. On the commercial truck tire side of the business, he’ll run a few local billboard ads. “And we’re out there on systems through the major tire brands, and then our truck marketing is through the manufacturer themselves.”
Another way he gets customers in the door is through online shopping. “You’d be surprised at the business that comes through e-commerce,” he says. “It doubles every year.”
Many customers will purchase a set of tires through a third party website and have them shipped to the store for installation. “We have a set price for the install,” he says.
Once the customer is in the door, it gives his retail staff a chance to build a relationship with the customer, hear additional concerns that the customer might have about the vehicle, and recommend further service.
If a customer buys a set of tires directly from Sylvester’s, they offer one-hour installation and free lifetime rotations.
Dave Sylvester has come a long way in the 32 years since he made the decision to go out on his own.
Thanks to his hard work, ambition and best practices, his days renting space in a farm field for his tire inventory are almost forgotten. His impressive facility, top tier technicians and a willingness to go above and beyond for his customers have set up the business for future success.
And with a lifetime of experience under his belt, Sylvester shows no signs of slowing down. The business owner still goes out and personally meets with customers on a weekly basis.
“I go out a few days a week and keep in touch with our fleet customers,” Sylvester says.
“If there’s any issues we discuss it. If we haven’t done any business in a while I like to get out and meet with them.
“If there’s a problem I hear about it. If they have to fix a customer’s tire twice, I hear about it.”
All of this is in keeping with his business philosophy of perseverance, having good employees and providing strong customer service. ■