Riding a Wave of Consolidation: Dealers Have 2 Choices -- Sell or Grow

July 23, 2019

The dealerships on the 2019 Modern Tire Dealer 100 did a lot of buying and building in the last 12 months to strengthen their market positions in a consolidating industry.

And more transactions and projects are in the works as the nation’s largest independent tire dealers expand their brands in both new and existing markets.

Reinalt-Thomas Corp. surpassed 1,000 stores in 2018. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company leads the Modern Tire Dealer 100 with 1,033 Discount Tire/America’s Tire outlets. All of the 51 stores opened since July 2018 are greenfield construction. The company opened its first store in South Dakota, expanding into its 35th state.

The company added 11 stores in Texas, bringing its presence in that state to 256 outlets. Florida and Georgia each gained five Discount Tire stores for a total of 33 in Florida and 36 in Georgia. Discount Tire also opened stores in Arkansas, North Carolina, Utah, Indiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon.

At No. 3-ranked Monro Inc., acquisitions on average represent the opportunity for 10% annual sales growth. The company added 91 tire stores over the last 12 months. The latest purchases included 40 Certified Tire & Service Centers Inc. stores in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles in March 2019. Monro now has 712 stores in 30 states and says it plans to continue new store openings in existing markets at a pace of 20 to 40 stores per year, as well as expand geographically into new markets. The company has begun a multiyear remodeling project for all of its retail locations, relaunched its retail websites and introduced a new electronic training platform for employees.Private equity firm buys 3

Three Modern Tire Dealer 100 list makers were bought by a private equity firm, Greenbriar Equity Group LP based in Rye, N.Y. The equity firm bought 17 stores from Ramona Tire Inc., 18 stores from Evans Tire & Service Centers Inc., and 15 Tire Works Total Car Care stores from Morpheus Investments Inc. The stores are operated by a Greenbriar company, GB Auto Service Inc., which now holds the No. 19 spot. GB Auto Service also operates 15 Brakemax Tire & Service Centers and plans to add tire sales to its 18 Driver’s Edge Complete Auto Care stores.

GB Auto Service is led by Frank Kneller, CEO, who expects industry consolidation to continue.

“We see a tremendous opportunity to be the trusted service provider for our customers in a market environment where repairs are becoming increasingly complex, vehicles are aging and being driven longer, and many years of robust new car sales will meaningfully expand the addressable market for independent repair shops for years to come,” he says. “Our primary challenge, like many of our peers, is in filling our demand for technicians as we continue aggressively growing our business.”

Increasing complexity and specialization to meet customer needs is an opportunity for growth for all independents, according to Kneller.

“We think independent repair providers are well-positioned to benefit from the market tailwinds, in particular those players who have the scale to invest in training, equipment, and digital tools which have become increasingly important to successfully compete. As a result, we expect to see continued consolidation within the industry over time.”

Kneller says his company is pursuing a variety of initiatives to continue its rapid pace of growth, including building new stores in key markets, identifying high quality independent dealers as candidates for acquisition, and investing in its people, processes, and systems to create a consistent experience for customers across its network.

“We are excited about the opportunity for continued consolidation, and we are focused on preserving the entrepreneurial cultures that make these businesses so successful, while leveraging the benefits of scale and best practices that come with an integrated platform.”

A tire company, not an equity firm, is responsible for the disappearance of 20 Express Tire Auto Service Centers stores in Southern California from the Modern Tire Dealer 100. The Escondido-based chain was purchased by Bridgestone Retail Operations LLC in October 2018. At the time of the transaction, Bridgestone said the acquisition was part of its strategy to provide increased access to Bridgestone and Firestone products through company-owned retail stores and the independent dealer channel.Investments in the future

Bauer Built Inc. acquired the commercial tire division of Allied Oil & Tire Co. on April 1, 2019. The purchase adds seven commercial tire centers in Omaha, Neb.; Kansas City and Joplin, Mo.; Wichita, Kan.; Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa; and Sioux Falls, S.D. It also includes a Michelin Retread Technologies retread plant and a wheel-refinishing operation, both in Omaha.

Geographically, the acquisition helps Bauer Built strengthen its current position in existing markets, fill some voids in its current footprint, and provides some expansion into new areas, according to President Tad Bauer. The Durand, Wis.-based company is No. 30 in the Modern Tire Dealer 100 rankings with 39 outlets.

Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc. added eight company-owned stores for a total of 429 and the No. 5 spot. “As Les Schwab continues to grow, we’re continually looking for new ways to meet the evolving needs of our customers,” says Dale Thompson, chief marketing officer.

In addition to remodeling 10 stores in the last 12 months, Bend, Ore.-based Les Schwab introduced two premium products, the Open Range A/T tire and the Reputation passenger tire, and launched online appointment scheduling for all of its stores.

“Les Schwab plans to continue growing in our existing markets with new store openings planned in 2019,” says Thompson. “We’ll continue to explore other opportunities that would help us provide optimal service locations for our customers, and we’re also looking at new ways to leverage digital tools and channels to further enhance the customer experience.”

Superior Tire & Rubber Co., which does business as Superior Tire and Service, added four locations in Boise, Idaho. The Santa Ana, Calif.-based dealership is tied for No. 66 on the Modern Tire Dealer 100 with 17 stores.

Pete’s Tire Barns Inc. completed a 25,000-square-foot addition to its distribution center. The building now measures 127,000 square feet, or about seven acres of tire storage space, according to Art LeBlanc, vice president. The Orange, Mass.-based dealership also added six service trucks, two off-the-road trucks and a second industrial press truck. With 21 retail/commercial outlets, Pete’s Tire Barns is tied for the No. 53 spot on the Modern Tire Dealer 100.

Robertson Tire Co. Inc. is in the process of remodeling the showrooms and waiting areas in many of its 13 locations in the Tulsa, Okla., area, according to Shane Robertson, corporate development director. He says two store remodels will be completed this year, as well as signage and parking lot upgrades at multiple outlets. The company, under the leadership of its second generation of owners, also operates a wholesale division. The dealership is tied for the No. 92 spot on the Modern Tire Dealer 100.

Graham Tire Co. remodeled the showrooms at several of its 31 locations. The dealership purchased new service trucks to better serve its agricultural customers and added a “no-credit-check-needed” finance option that has helped increase overall sales, according to David Mickelson. “We also brought in some lower price Tier 3 products that have helped us reach a new customer segment that is very focused on price,” says Mickelson, who is CEO and president of Graham Tire’s South Dakota and Nebraska locations. The company is tied for No. 35 in the Modern Tire Dealer 100 rankings.

Mountain View Tire & Service Inc. completed a three-year-long rebranding project at all of its 30 stores. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based dealership has opened three stores, all in Southern California, over a nine-month span. Stores were opened in Wildomar in April 2018, in Murrieta in November 2018, and in Menifee in January 2019. A store in Chatsworth and an outlet in Fontana will be opened by fall. Due to non-renewal of a lease, the company’s store count will be 31 when the two newest locations are opened, according to Chris Mitsos, vice president. Mountain View Tire is tied for the No. 37 spot in the rankings.

Forest Park, Ga.-based Action Tire Co. completely remodeled three of its 12 stores. In addition, 95% of the dealership’s technicians are Tire Industry Association (TIA) certified, according to Jason Stewart, vice president. The company is tied for the No. 96 spot.Commercial Tire Inc. celebrated its 50th year in business in 2018. The dealership opened a new location in Eagle, Idaho, invested in more employee training, and increased car count and sales, according to Brady Hansen, marketing coordinator. With 46 outlets, the Meridian, Idaho-based dealership is tied for No. 25 on the Modern Tire Dealer 100.

Jim Ramsey, CEO and president of Lamb Ventures LLC, says it’s been a busy year for Lamb’s Tire & Automotive Centers. The dealership has opened two outlets since January 2019 for a total of 18 stores and a tie for No. 62 in the rankings. In addition, the company remodeled two locations as part of a seven-year-long rebranding project. One more store is set to be remodeled, and Ramsey plans to open at least two more stores in 2019.

“We saw healthy growth last year in same-store sales, as some of our more challenging locations stepped up their game,” he says.

Dealers buy GCR stores

Three Modern Tire Dealer 100 companies acquired more than 70 GCR Tires & Service stores and retread plants from Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations LLC. The most recent buyer is McCarthy Tire Service Co. Inc., which purchased 13 GCR stores and three GCR retread plants in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The deal, which is expected to close in mid-August 2019, gives McCarthy Tire 67 stores and a tie for No. 17 in the rankings. Bridgestone says its GCR business will operate about 100 stores and 15 retread plants in the U.S. and Canada once the transaction is finalized.

In May 2019, Bridgestone sold 10 GCR locations in Florida and southern Georgia to Earl W. Colvard Inc. The Deland, Fla.-based dealership, which does business as Boulevard Tire Center, is tied for No. 32 on the Modern Tire Dealer 100 list with 36 outlets.

 In March 2019, 46 GCR stores and six GCR retread plants were sold to Southern Tire Mart LLC, which holds the No. 8 spot with 115 stores.

The purchase gave Southern Tire Mart new locations in 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. Southern Tire Mart also added another dozen or so locations, and plans to open 20 to 30 new stores in the next 12 to 18 months, according to John Boynton.

The company is building new outlets as well as acquiring existing facilities. “We find that a lot of our success comes when we take an older facility in a prime location and basically gut the whole thing and build it up all over. It’s almost unrecognizable to what it was in its former life when we’re done with it,” says Boynton.

Southern Tire Mart is adding retail

Southern Tire Mart has added retail/light truck service bays at about 50 of its formerly commercial-only outlets.

     “Our primary footprint is certainly in commercial service, but we’ve been expanding quite a bit on the retail side,” says Boynton, who joined Southern Tire Mart in October 2018 after leading the commercial operations at Tredroc Tire Services and Bridgestone.

The company is also expanding its light mechanical offerings to provide a single source for tires, alignments and repairs to regional light truck fleets.

“Light mechanical is an area that’s growing, especially when it comes to regional light truck fleets; they definitely are looking more for that service,” says Boynton.

Southern Tire Mart’s footprint spans 14 states. The company is investing in existing outlets as it adds new ones. “Almost all of our customers are spread across many locations,” says Boynton.

“We want their experience to be very, very consistent whenever they touch Southern Tire Mart. A tremendous amount of our capital goes back into our current facilities to help modernize them and help them to be more accommodating to the changing needs of the market.”

Although Boynton expects consolidation to continue at a rapid pace, he sees a bright future for independent tire dealers, many of whom are at a turning point in their businesses.

“On the commercial side there are a lot of traditional dealerships getting to that point of asking, ‘Do I grow or do I stay where I’m at?’”

At the same time, he says dealerships without strong succession plans for the next generation of ownership are prime opportunities for consolidation.“It can be a challengi ng future for smaller operators competing against the buying strength of the bigger operators. They have to have plans for growth. If they are not looking at their business and asking how do I change, how do I modify my offering and how do I grow in a market that’s changing around me, then I think that the future is going to be very challenging.”

Tire Discounters expands to new markets

No. 7-ranked Tire Discounters Inc. expanded into two new markets in the last 12 months: Knoxville, Tenn., and Indianapolis, Ind.

     The company now has 125 stores, up from 112 a year ago.

Tire Discounters has opened four of seven locations planned for Indiana’s capital city. The first store opened in the suburb of Greenwood. It serves retail customers and also functions as a training center for new employees before they are permanently placed at one of the company’s seven area stores.

The company has training hubs in Cincinnati and Nashville, but Greenwood is different, according to Tiffany Murphy, senior manager of talent acquisition and communications.

“Indianapolis is the first time we’ve led with a retail and training store before our new builds come out. We renovated an existing facility to be able to get all of our Indianapolis employees trained so when those first stores open, they’re hitting the ground running without having to do a lot of traveling. It’s great for our employees. They can do their training right there in Indianapolis without having to travel to another store in a different market before a store is open.”

Murphy says Tire Discounters prefers to hire local people for technician and sales roles as it expands into new markets. “We think of ourselves as the neighborhood experts, so the way to be the neighborhood expert is to hire people from that neighborhood. We work hard to make sure that we are finding the best people for the job who already know their neighbors and the community.”

Tire Discounters wants people who want successful careers in the automotive business, not just a job. “It’s a balance of hiring new and then training up from within on the technician side and on the sales side to help our employees grow into their careers,” says Murphy.

As part of its commitment to the careers of its employees, the company promoted David Cahill to the newly created position of director of training, research and development. His priority is to expand the company’s training program.

In addition, the company recently introduced a “Toolbox” program to encourage entry-level tire technicians to advance in their careers to service technicians.“Tools can be big barrier, especially as you’re coming from entry-level,” says Murphy. “We created a program to help remove that barrier for them. They have those tools from day one. They’re ready to run and grow their career to the service technician level.”

The voluntary program is open to technicians across the company and feedback has been amazing, according to Murphy. “It’s giving them the opportunity to take their career to the next level and to make more money by expanding their earning potential.”

Cincinnati, Ohio-based Tire Discounters is adding stores in existing markets as well as expanding into new ones. For example, a new store is under construction in Independence, Ky., a Cincinnati suburb. The dealership already has more than 30 stores in the Cincinnati area. “That particular part of town was underserved and the opportunity was right for us to build an additional store in the area,” says Murphy.

The company also recently opened its 14th store in the Nashville, Tenn., market. “It’s not just about finding growth in new markets; it’s rounding out existing markets and serving our current customers more completely with more convenient locations,” says Murphy.

New services appeal to the company’s existing and potential customers. For example, a windshield glass repair service has been introduced in several markets and the company plans to expand the offering. Repairs can be done in a store or at a customer’s location. “We’ve optimized for mobile so customers can get it done at our store or, if they do not need a tire or other repair service, we can go to them,” says Murphy.

More new services aimed at making life easier for customers are being tested. “Tire Discounters moves very fast. We’re a very nimble organization,” says Murphy. “Because we’re family-owned and operated, it gives us the ability to drill down to what’s most important to our customers and move from test to live very quickly.”

New markets for Belle Tire

Belle Tire Distributors Inc. opened a store in Indiana in the fall of 2015. It was the first time in 30 years the Allen Park, Mich.-based company had entered a new state.

The first four Belle Tire stores in Indiana were all near South Bend in the northwest corner of the state. The company expanded to Fort Wayne and then turned toward Indianapolis. In June 2019, Belle Tire opened outlets in Camby, Greenfield and Plainfield, all Indianapolis suburbs, to bring the number of stores in Indiana to 25. Three of eight Belle Tire stores currently under construction are in the Indianapolis area. When those projects are completed, there will be 15 Belle Tire stores serving the Indianapolis market.

“We saw Indianapolis as a highly fragmented area without any single dominant player, and we felt the entire market was underserved from a customer experience standpoint.” says Don Barnes III, president.

Belle Tire has 114 stores and holds the No. 9 spot on the Modern Tire Dealer 100. The company is finding growth in existing markets as well as new geographic areas. A Belle Tire store opened in Big Rapids, Mich., in November 2018 and in Gaylord, Mich., a month later. A store is scheduled to open in Petoskey, Mich., in the fall of 2019.

Where will Belle Tire go next? Barnes says the Cincinnati, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; and Chicago, Ill., markets would be “natural growth opportunities” that are contiguous to where the company currently has stores. “Those are the big markets we are looking at that we think are highly fragmented without a single entity delivering best-in-class tire and automotive service solutions.”Improving the experience

Like all Modern Tire Dealer 100 dealerships, Belle Tire is focused on improving the customer experience in material ways. “All of our locations are brand new so we are developing the sites and building state-of-the-art facilities with the newest and latest equipment,” says Barnes. “As we do so, we are constantly trying to tweak how we can improve our customer experience, not just the personal one-on-one connection with employees and the amenities, but the overall look and feel of the stores.”

The company also prioritizes how customers want to interact with their tire store. “We’re constantly looking at how we can continue to evolve our showroom and embrace and infuse technology in the selling process.” The goal is to create an environment where customers are more engaged and participating in the sale rather than “your grandpa’s tire store, where they were told what to do.”

Barnes says Belle Tire emphasizes collaboration with customers. “The more we can empower our customers to make an educated decision while using technology to make it easier for our teammates is a great opportunity and a great win.”

Belle Tire has a strong and clear career path for tire installers who want to move on to performing alignments and light end repair or become full-fledged auto technicians. The company operates an auto technician training school in Allen Park and is planning to establish a second school at its Whitestown store near Indianapolis. “As we continue to expand in Indy, we’ll have a second school there so we can bring in and advance people within the market they work and serve.”

Barnes says the company’s trainers are phenomenal at staying in front of the latest technology. The 400 auto technicians also share their experiences with different technologies with each other. “We try to create a work environment where all teammates, whether they be tire technicians or auto technicians or salespeople or managers, can share ideas, best practices and how to continuously get better. And that forum allows us to understand what’s going on other than what we may hear from manufacturers or our trade schools.

“If we focus on the things we can control, on delivering a better experience for our customer, and figuring out how we can be a little bit better today than we were yesterday, we’ll beat our competitors, and we’ll continue to be the premium retailer in the industry.”

Belle Tire has grown by building new stores over the last 15 years. But in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, most of the company’s growth came through acquisition. The company could take that route again, if conditions were right.

“If and when a strategic acquisition were to come up that would make sense, we would entertain that,” says Barnes. “As we explore new markets and different areas, if there is a strong regional independent player there that could be looking to get out and fits our culture, yes, we’d seriously consider that.”

However, the company’s plan is to continue to grow at a pace of about 20 stores a year through new construction. “We’re not going to plant as many flags as we can on the ground. We want to grow the right way, and we want to make sure we have the right people on our team,” says Barnes.

“Our industry is kind of made for consolidation. It’s very regionalized, and a lot of owners are at the end of their career cycle. When you look at succession planning and synergies that can be leveraged through putting together different strong regional retailers, financially it makes sense to do some of those things.”

4 stores in 2019

Virginia Tire & Auto LLC has opened two stores so far in 2019, with two more stores on the way. In January 2019, the company opened its first store outside of northern Virginia in Chesterfield, a Richmond suburb. In late March 2019, a store was opened in Vienna. Construction is underway at the store in Herndon, slated to open this fall, and the Tysons location is scheduled to open by the end of the year. The Vienna, Herndon and Tysons locations are in northern Virginia. When all four stores are open by the end of 2019, Virginia Tire & Auto will have 17 locations.

To help support its plans for growth, Virginia Tire hired its first chief financial officer. Kevin Whitton will deliver leadership, direction and management of company finances, provide strategic recommendations to the executive management team and advise them on long-term business and financial planning.

“As Virginia Tire & Auto continues to expand its service offerings and reach, we look to Kevin to bring his keen strategic vision for the company as we continue to deliver outstanding services for our customers in the northern Virginia and Richmond markets,” says Mike Holmes, CEO. Virginia Tire is tied for 74th on the Modern Tire Dealer 100 list.

Chabill’s chooses to grow

Louisiana gained two new Chabill’s Tire & Auto Service stores in 2018, and more are on the way. An outlet in Baton Rouge opened in April 2018, and a store in Port Allen opened four months later. With 18 stores, the dealership is tied for the No. 62 spot on the Modern Tire Dealer 100.

The company will continue to build its geographical footprint, according to Beth Barron, CEO of Chabill’s Tire Service LLC. Two more stores are planned for 2020. “We think we have a lot of opportunities for expansion in south Louisiana. Some areas are a bit underserved in our industry, and we’re trying to build that footprint.”

Finding people who embrace the importance Chabill’s places on customer service and the customer experience is the biggest challenge for the company. “We’re looking for people who can drive that vision home with our customers. The customer is king in our world. The challenge is to find good, strong people to be able to service our customers the way that we think they deserve to be serviced.”

The dealership, which provides light mechanical services, created a trainer position about 10 months ago. “We don’t get into heavy diagnostics and heavy mechanical so that probably makes it a little bit easier to train people up into roles that we can utilize and help them become higher earners themselves,” says Barron.

The company trainer is a master certified technician who has also managed a Chabill’s store. “He talks to the employees at the entry level to gauge their interest level in learning the field,” says Barron. “He’s got a large breadth of knowledge to help us from a training aspect. We have to have people in the back who can produce that same customer experience as the people in the front.”

Barron became CEO of Chabill’s Tire Service on Jan. 1, 2019, when her father, Charley Gowland, retired. He founded Chabill’s with Billy Parker. In 1968 BF-Goodrich approached Gowland and Parker about selling tires in Morgan City, La. They combined their first names into the store name. Gowland died a few weeks after his retirement.

Barron feels the consolidation going on in the industry is a good thing. “It’s great that people who want to get out of the business have a way to get out. I also think it’s great for the people who have decided not to sell their business and continue to grow their footprints.” 

Barron says she is asked if she will sell the company “all the time.” Her answer is no.

“If there’s a day I come to work and I’m not having fun anymore maybe I’ll think about it. My dad built an awesome business. He allowed me to work with him all these years, and it’s something special. This industry is really exciting right now. There are a lot of growth opportunities and there are a lot of improvements we all can make to better service our customers. I think it’s great, and I’m enjoying it.”

Chabill’s is tied for 62nd place on the Modern Tire Dealer 100.

All 100 tire dealer listings can be found here.   ■

About the Author

Ann Neal

Ann Neal is a former senior editor at Modern Tire Dealer.