Golf on Friday, race on Saturday and win every day: Black's Tire charity weekend builds good will first. Sales come later

Nov. 1, 2006

"Your name should speak for itself," Ricky Benton, president of Black's Tire & Auto Service, is fond of saying. In North and South Carolina, the Black's Tire name speaks volumes.

The Whiteville, S.C.-based dealership is a household name in many of the towns where it operates. The company's philosophy of providing exceptional service is one reason. The other is the generosity of Benton and his employees.

Black's Tire was giving back to the community long before the practice became a business world cliche.

Each year at the end of June, the 20-outlet dealership sponsors a charity golf tournament and stock car race in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The events are held back-to-back.

The golf tournament raises money for the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina Inc., an organization that provides residential care for abused children. Approximately than $38,000 was raised this year.(More money was collected later.)

The race -- which is held at the Myrtle Beach Speedway and is part of the Hooters Pro Cup Series -- is more of a tip of the hat to existing customers and the greater Myrtle Beach community. It also includes a Black's Tire-sponsored pre-race tent party that's free and open to the public.


Fore a good cause

Black's Tire has sponsored the charity golf scramble since 2002. That year, it raised $6,000 for the Boys and Girls Homes, which is located 12 miles east of Whiteville. The next year, the tournament raised $12,750. In 2004, the total jumped to $26,250. Last year's event generated a whopping $45,000.

Proceeds have been used to pay for personnel, electricity, vehicles and other expenses at the non-profit group's facility, which houses 70 children.

Black's Tire's golf tournament is the biggest fund-raising event for the organization.

This year, nearly 160 golfers, including reps from many of Black's Tire suppliers, participated in the day-long scramble.

The relationship between Black's Tire and the Boys and Girls Homes dates back to the 1950s, when the dealership's founder, Crowell Black, sat on the charity's original board of directors. The group relies solely on private donations. Benton gained sole ownership of Black's Tire in 1996.

"When Ricky took over he started the golf tournament and decided to turn it into a charity event," says Boys and Girls Homes Executive Vice President Larry Hewett. "He's a very kind-hearted individual. He's always doing things for people.

"I have a note in my pocket from a mother asking us to help with her daughter," Hewett told MTD at the golf tournament. "She said, 'I hate to admit this, but I'm not fit to be a mother to my child. Will you please help me?' It's children like that who benefit from what Black's Tire does."

Benton doesn't hold the tournament to bring attention to his company. The whole idea, he says, is to help a good cause.

But if Benton can find a way to sell a tire or two while raising money for charity, he'll do it.


Rather than golf this year, he stationed himself at the starting point to help his employees distribute food and drinks and joke with scramble participants as they motored by in their carts.

He also offered refreshments to non-participants who were passing through. One of them, an older man who had just finished 18 holes, wasn't hungry. However, he was tired and sat down with Benton on a picnic table.

After some small talk, Benton asked where the man was from.

"Right here in Myrtle Beach," said the man.

"Where do you buy your tires? We need your business."

"I have 64,000 miles on my Cadillac. I'll need new tires soon." He asked Benton what he was doing at the golf course.

"We're holding a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Homes," replied Benton. "And we're holding a race tomorrow night at the Speedway. Do you want to come to the race with us?"

"Well, I don't like racing..."

"...then come down to our hospitality tent tomorrow night. And bring your family."

The man said he might stop by, shook Benton's hand and then headed for the clubhouse.

There's no way to track whether he made good on Benton's invitation. But there's a good chance he'll think of Black's Tire when his Cadillac needs a new set of broad-lines.


Start your engines

Golf tournament in the bag, Benton, his family and many of his employees wasted no time driving to the Myrtle Beach Speedway, where they began the task of preparing for the giant pre-race party.

Two large tents and a stage had already been erected. Benton and his team proceeded to set up chairs, speaker systems, banners, buffet lines, coolers, trash cans and everything else needed to host a party for 3,000 people.

Most preparations for the party and race had been made several months in advance, says eldest son Rick Benton II, who quarterbacks the dealership's marketing activities. (Sons Ryan, 30, and Jeremy, 26, also work in the family business, which includes a wholesale division, BTS Tire & Wholesale Distributors.) "This is our biggest promotion of the year."

Like charity work, racing is a long-time Benton passion.

As a teenager, Ricky raced go-karts at local tracks. "My uncle, David Frank, was a race car driver. When I was a little kid, I washed his car."

Family and business responsibilities prevented Ricky from racing a car of his own, but he's become very involved on the sponsorship side.

Ricky started sponsoring cars at the Myrtle Beach Speedway 12 years ago. He now owns two race cars, which run in 18 Hooters Pro Cup events each year. "We race in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee."

In 1998, one of his drivers won the Winston Racing Series Track Championship in Myrtle Beach. In 2002, another racer, Jason Sarvis, took the Hooters Pro Cup Championship. (Sarvis is the son of Caspar Sarvis, service manager at the Myrtle Beach store.) The following year, Benton protŽgŽ Dange Hanniford won the Hooters Rookie of the Year award.

Racing is a team effort, says Ricky. "I have guys who work in my stores who repair and modify the race cars."

Other employees -- including Rick II -- serve as pit crewmen for the racers, changing tires, refueling cars and fixing problems that may develop.


When Black's Tire began sponsoring the June Myrtle Beach race 11 years ago, the event was barely drawing 600 people. Last year some 11,000 came out for it. In 2006, even more people attended.

Black's Tire launched a promotional blitz one week before this year's race. Rick II brought in DJs from several radio stations to do live remotes at several of its stores.

Mitch Adams, a DJ for 92.1 FM, a local rock station, signed on from the Myrtle Beach store the day before the race.

Every 20 minutes, he cut into the station's normal programming with a live plug for the race and pre-race party. He also interviewed Hanniford, whose race car was parked in front of the busy, multi-bay outlet.

"Black's Tire has a running association with our station," says Adams. "We've had a long relationship with them. They're good customers of ours." Inside the store, tickets were moving briskly. Five people within a 10-minute span approached Myrtle Beach store Office Manager Samantha Neill and bought at least two tickets apiece.

"What we do this weekend will generate sales down the road," she says. "It may be two months from now, but customers will come in and say, 'I met you at the track.' It builds long-term business."

Black's Tire also bought a block of tickets and gave them to employees and their families. "They look forward to this event," says Ryan. "It gives everyone a chance to get together. It's a morale booster."

Another party that benefits from the race is United Speed Alliance Racing (USAR), which sanctions the Hooters Pro Cup Series.

"It's great for us in the way Black's promotes the race to their clientele," says Series Director Tony Cox, who explains that Black's Tire and the series target the same audience. "They have such good local ties with their stores and the advertising they do on a local basis."

"We couldn't even come close to accomplishing what Black's can accomplish," says Tim Southers, the USAR's public relations director. "We travel throughout the country and it's hard to build relationships with the local media. I wish we had a Black's Tire in every market."


Real go-getters

Market presence like the kind that Black's Tire enjoys isn't built overnight.

"Ricky's a hustler," says Claude Collins, who works as an outside sales representative for Black's Tire.

After high school, Benton, now age 51, began leasing an old service station in Cerro Gordo, N.C., from area businessman Crowell Black.

Benton pumped gas and fixed cars while his wife, Diane, washed customers' cars and took care of paperwork.

They worked long hours and even set up a crib in the station for Ryan! (Diane still works in the family business.)

Benton impressed Black with his drive and "can-do" spirit, and in 1981 hired him to manage his struggling Whiteville store.

Collins met Benton there in the early '80s while making a sales call for Target Tire.

He was bowled over by Benton's worth ethic. "In the early days, he would call on truckers in the middle of the night! He put in a lot of hours."

Benton soon bought into Black's Tire and opened the dealership's second retail store, a shop in Myrtle Beach, in late 1984.

John Malpass, now a sales rep for Falken Tire Corp., a Black's Tire supplier, has known Benton since 1983, when he went to work for him. (Black's Tire also sells Goodyear, Federal, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Dean, Dunlop and Cooper brand tires.)

The two met through a mutual friend. "Ricky was looking for someone to start a wholesale route."


Malpass wasn't even in the tire business, but Benton was willing to take a chance on him.

"When I came on-board in 1982, he had one retail store and one wholesale manager. When I left this past February, he had 18 retail stores and two distribution centers!"

Like Collins, Malpass knew Benton's work ethic would carry him to bigger things, despite the fierce level of competition among South Carolina tire wholesalers at the time.

"Back then there were six or seven wholesalers crossing every path." Freddie Norris manages the original Black's Tire store in Whiteville. (The dealership's corporate office and South Carolina warehouse are located in a newer facility across the road. The company's other warehouse is in Monroe, N.C., near Charlotte.)

Norris and Benton have known each other since high school. Benton hired him more than 20 years ago.

Despite its size, the company's "family atmosphere" culture has stayed the same, says Norris. "Ricky cooks for his employees. He has us over to his house. You know, the bigger a company gets, the harder it is to do stuff like that."

Benton gives store managers plenty of freedom, he says. "As long as you make your numbers, he doesn't care what you sell."

The Whiteville shop supplements tire sales and auto service work by selling lift kits, bed liners, fender covers and other accessories. "They'll do anything here!" jokes Jeremy Benton.

Customer Jim Hinkle appreciates the dealership's honesty. "They don't gouge anybody."

Hinkle started coming to Black's Tire one year ago. "I've had all sorts of problems that they have solved. I once thought my transmission was going bad.

Freddie said it was probably a spark plug."

Sure enough, that was the problem. "They replaced the plug and I've never had a problem."

Hinkle, who works as economic development director for Columbus County, where Whiteville sits, says Black's Tire's dedication to customer satisfaction is rare.

"Forty years ago, you could get good service pretty much anywhere, but that isn't the case anymore. Here, they're honest and very reasonably priced."


Personal touch

Whiteville serves as the hub store for Black's Tire, says Ryan, who works out of the company's Wilmington, N.C., location. All of the other stores are within an hour's drive of Whiteville.

"Our business is pretty evenly distributed. We have towns with 3,000 people and towns with 100,000 people. You want to keep that down-home family feel but also (maintain a high degree of) professionalism."

Black's Tire competes with a broad spectrum of mom-and-pop tire dealerships as well as numerous mass merchandisers like Sam's Club and Costco.

"We've had 25 Wal-Marts open around our stores in the last 10 years, but we've still been able to grow," says Ricky.

"Wal-Mart is one-time shopping. If a lug nut comes off, they're not going to fix it; you're just a number. When customers come to Black's Tire, they come to Ricky Benton."

It's the same for Black's Tire employees, says Neill, who started with the dealership in 1988, retired and then came out of retirement to work for them again.

"I missed Black's," she explains. "It's still a family business. You're still treated like a human being. They haven't lost that personal touch.

"And once you've shown them your work ethic and that you have integrity, you become part of their family."


Race day excitement

Black's Tire's race day events ran like a well-oiled stock car.

The pre-race party was supposed to start at 4 p.m. but so many people showed up that tents were opened 30 minutes early.

No problem, though; the thousands of burgers, hot dogs and cans of soda Black's Tire had ordered for the party were ready to go.

Meanwhile, two country and western bands entertained the crowd (Black's Tire even provided its own PA system) and freebies were handed out.

As the day went on, attendees and Black's Tire employees filtered over to the Speedway. The race was scheduled to start at 7:30.

By 6 p.m., two Black's Tire pit crews -- one for Sarvis' car and the other for Hanniford's car -- began to suit up. Tool boxes were moved to each car's pit stop position and both cars were rolled out onto the track.

As drivers signed autographs, Ricky walked the interior of the track, talking with customers, VIPs and Speedway officials.

Twenty minutes before the race started, Ricky, on behalf of his employees, presented a check from the golf tournament to a representative from the Boys and Girls Homes.

After a prayer by the track chaplain and the singing of the national anthem, the green flag dropped and the 250-lap race started.

Ricky spent most of his time in the pit, wearing a headphone and directing action.

Once in a while, he climbed to the top of the Black's Tire racing trailer to get a glimpse of what was happening on the other side of the track.

That's where Sarvis and Hanniford found themselves in the middle of a multi-vehicle bang-up.

Nobody was hurt, but both vehicles sustained enough front end damage to eventually take them out of contention, despite the best efforts of Black's pit crews.


"That's racing," shrugged Kenny Bullard, a Black's Tire store manager, after Sarvis' car was pulled off the track.

Like the rest of the Black's Tire team, Ricky was disappointed that his drivers didn't finish. But contacted a week after the race, he says the weekend served a bigger purpose.

"I think the Boys and Girls Homes were very satisfied. We're actually collecting more money than we gave them (at the race).

"We made a lot of people happy. That's what we like to do."

Does racing help sell UHP tires and wheels? Yes, but indirectly, says Black's Tire

Does Black's Tire & Auto Service's participation in motorsports help it sell more performance and ultra-high performance tires? How about custom wheels?

"I'd say it does," says Rick Benton II, who oversees the dealership's marketing activities. "We get a lot of exposure, and I think people perceive us as a little more high-tech."

That said, it's hard to point to a specific correlation, he explains. One thing that's certain, however, is that in Black's Tire’s markets, high performance and ultra-high performance tire sales have become a year-round proposition.

"Years ago, (sales) were big after tax time. Now it continues through the rest of the year. We haven't seen the slowdown that we used to see," says Benton.

"Business has been good, and I like to think it stems from things we do on the marketing side."