Guerrilla warfare in the concrete jungle: Fox Tire 'takes no prisoners' selling performance tires and wheels

July 1, 2003

A teenager who looks barely old enough to drive saunters into Eric Fox's tire dealership. He slowly walks around the showroom, inspecting wheel after custom wheel.

Suddenly, he makes a decision. "I'll take that," he says, pointing to a $2,000 set of chrome-plated Feretti's. Fox (in photo) writes up a work order, sends it to the garage, and within 30 minutes, the customer's vehicle is ready to go.

The kid walks up to the cash register, pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket and nonchalantly peels off two grand.

Years ago, Fox might have blinked at such a transaction. Not anymore. They happen nearly every day at his Buffalo, N.Y., store.

"The mentality is 'flash the cash,'" says Fox. "Everybody wants to out-do everyone else. A good percentage of our customers are young kids whom you wouldn't think would have the money. A lot of times the package they buy is worth more than their vehicle."

A slight exaggeration? Maybe. But Fox is doing exceptionally well catering to the tuner customer's impulse-buy mentality.

"We're like a freight train out of control," he says with contagious enthusiasm. "We're so busy, it's almost frustrating! But that's a great problem to have."

Tuner gold mine

Mr. Fox Tire Co. was founded by Eric's father, Don Fox, in 1955. Eric, 39, and his younger brother, Jordan, 34, grew up in the business. "I used to clean the stock room at five or six years old, organizing valves and weights all day. I thought it was my store!"

Later, during high school and college, he worked at the shop. He left college in the mid-1980s and returned to Buffalo when his dad fell ill. "That was my obligation," he says. Don passed away in 1992, and Eric took over.

The company carried a variety of products at that point, including medium truck tires, but found a highly profitable niche six or seven years later selling performance tires and custom wheels. Employee Vic DeGeorge persuaded Fox to set up a rack of American Racing brand rims on consignment, "and it grew a life of its own."

Last year, Fox Tire sold $700,000 in tuner tires and wheels -- not bad for operating in a part of the country that sees snow, sleet, ice and torrential rain more often than sunshine and high thermometer readings. "I only have a five-month season -- March through August. Your West Coast players have 365 days a year; my window is closing right now."

But he makes the most of it. Fox Tire sells an average of four tire and wheel packages a day. A typical 14-inch set sells for $800; an 18-inch sale rings in around $1,700.

In early June, Fox Tire techs mounted a $9,400 package on a new H-4 Hummer. The vehicle's owner paid cash. Last March, the dealership sold $20,000 worth of tires and wheels in one day! Sixteen-thousand-dollar to $18,000 days aren't unusual. "That's respectable by any standard."

The key is stocking a wide variety of brands, types and styles that can be accessed within minutes, says Fox. "The average (tire dealership) has 10 or 15 wheels on the wall. If they don't have what you want, you place an order and wait. When you leave here, you leave with your wheels."

Fox also inventories a mind-boggling selection of wheel accessories, including more than 6,000 lug nuts in all shapes, sizes and designs. "You can't go to a parts store and buy an acorn lug nut. Car dealerships won't even stock them. It almost gives us a monopoly."

On the pulse

The tuner craze extends beyond cars and tires and wheels, according to Fox. For many of his customers, it's a lifestyle choice, replete with its own music, fashion, slang and an overpowering thirst for instant gratification. Celebrity-worship also plays a major part. "You wouldn't see a celebrity today in his Hummer or Escalade without a set of custom wheels," he says. "It's pop culture."

Fox Tire's reputation as a source for tuner tires and wheels has extended beyond the inner city. Suburban kids who want to tap into the tuner subculture often drive to Fox's store -- probably behind their parents' backs, he jokes -- for a set of hot rubber and flashy rims.

Fox doesn't neglect the more mature, conservative segments of the high performance tire buying public either. "We have 17-inch wheels in stock for the lawyer with the $100,000 BMW." Buffalo's mayor, Tony Masiello, and other local politicians also frequent the dealership.

Fox shuns television, radio and print advertising other than a Yellow Page ad he takes out in two phone books. "My total ad budget is $23,000 a year: $11,000 in one phone book and the rest in another one." He relies almost exclusively on personal referrals. "We're old-school, we take care of people. It's been a happy marriage for 48 years."

Rough but ready

Fox Tire is located in a tough, low-income neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo. Across the street, a Colossus-like train terminal that once served as one of the city's major transportation hubs is now a make-shift home for vagrants and squatters. Fox can see the high-rise office buildings that dominate the city's skyline from the front door of his showroom, but the structures might as well be oceans away. The economic power and excess they represent certainly are.

While the immediate area surrounding Fox's two-and-a-half acre complex has held its own, "go five blocks the other way, and it's gotten worse." Many businesses have boarded up shop, properties have fallen into disarray and crack houses have sprouted up like weeds.

Despite first impressions, Fox Tire's location is more of an asset than a liability, according to the highly confident dealer. "The beauty of being in the inner city is that nobody wants to take me on! Nobody else would dare."

When "corporate guys" from other independent tire dealerships and operations like Pep Boys and NTB "start sharpening their pencils and look at (the neighborhood's) demographics, they run!"

But appearances are deceiving, says Fox. Incidents of crime at the dealership, including theft, have been low, "and there's never been a stabbing here, or even a fist fight. We treat our customers with respect and we get their respect. We keep control." Two guard dogs -- "Zeus," a 160-pound Rottweiler, and "King," a 100-pound Kane Corso -- also help ensure an orderly atmosphere.

Tranquil store conditions allow Fox to concentrate on other issues like how to contend with the Internet, which he calls his "biggest competitor." A growing number of his customers are surfing the Web for tires and wheels. "We try to match Internet prices as best we can," he says, but admits that's hard to do given the buying power of companies like The Tire Rack. "The more dominant the Internet has gotten, the more competitive our prices have gotten."

Fox also has streamlined payment options; only 20% of his customers now pay with plastic. "We're very selective with credit cards. When we first got into the tuner market, we got burned" by people using stolen credit card numbers. "Now we make customers jump through hoops."

Fox also has eliminated the option of paying over the phone. It hasn't affected his business at all -- merchandise keeps flying off the racks "We sell close to 200 tires a day."

The extra mile

Buffalo remains an independent tire dealer's market, according to Fox. NTB closed all three of its Buffalo-area stores last year, only one year after opening them. Pep Boys has closed half of its six outlets in the city within the last 12 months.

"We've already seen the influx of chains. I thought 'four for $99' was going to hurt our business, but it didn't really exist; it was an illusion to get people in the door. People got pissed off when they saw (their final bills) were closer to $200 than $100" after retailers tacked on labor, parts and other hidden costs.

"I invite any (competitor) to come into this area -- bring it on! I'm not being cocky, but I'm secure in the way we do business. We've been here 50-plus years. People like NTB have come and gone. I consider it guerilla warfare. I know the neighborhood, I know the people, I know the terrain."

Fox Tire derives 80% of its total revenue from tire and wheel sales; the rest comes from automotive service like brake jobs, front-end work, and engine and transmission repairs. "We do 15 to 20 alignments a day at $50 apiece, just due to the sheer number of tires we sell."

Bucking current industry trends, Fox's goal is to make service a smaller part of his bottom line. "We offer it as a courtesy to our customers -- only if they want it," he says.

Ideally, Fox likes to move customers in and out within a half-hour. "There are Saturdays when there are eight or 10 cars on deck and 10 cars in the garage." The end of the day tends to be the shop's busiest time during the week. "Three o'clock to 5:30 is just insane," says Fox Tire General Manager Tom Bello. "Last week we did three sets of wheels at 5:30.

"If someone comes in at 5:20 and wants wheels -- and we close at 5:30 -- we'll stay 'til 6:30 in order to do it," says Fox.

Long-time customer Willie Williams appreciates the dealership's willingness to bend. "It's a good place. They have a great selection, plus they'll give you a break."

All in a day's work, according to Fox. "I tell people personally, 'I'm the owner. We'll take care of you.' We try not to let anyone walk.

"I'm not in the corporate mind-set," he continues. "I just know how to make money. And I know that with hard work and perseverance, we'll succeed."