White glove treatment for your ultra-high performance customers

Feb. 1, 2002

Here's a scary thought for every tire technician. At any given moment a vehicle can roll into your dealership with $15,000 worth of custom wheels and low profile tires. The owner wants new tires. Are you ready for that?

Today's high and ultra-high performance vehicles now come equipped with 17-, 18-, 19-, 20- and 22-inch tires with a few 23 and 24 inchers out there -- and 25s on the horizon. Wheels can cost as much as $3,000 each and tires anywhere from $150 to more than $600.

But if you damage a wheel, it's going to cost you. Your customers will look for damage to the rim face and the inside of the rim, and if you have scuffed either they will find it unacceptable.

Fortunately, the people who manufacture tire changers have come up with the kinds of solutions you need to handle your high-end customers. Corghi and its recently introduced Artiglio Master is among the state-of-the-art equipment available to you.

But new machines are just part of the story. It takes the dealer and his technicians who must operate the equipment properly and market their ability to service the ultra-high performance customer to complete this picture.

Selling ultra performance

He wears a blue lab coat and white rubber gloves when he mounts and demounts his customers' tires. He cleans the back of his customer's wheels until they are shiny smooth before he balances them. Then, for good measure, he makes sure there are no smudges on the car or the wheels and then puts dressing on the tires before releasing the vehicle.

Meet George Osborne, general manager of Meadow Creek Tire in Denver, Colo., the man who mounts and balances tires for 60% of the S-Type Jaguars in the city (see photo). "I also mount and balance tires for hundreds and hundreds of Audi owners from A4s to A6s to A8s, plus BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Porsches and many other upscale vehicles," he says.

"My customers expect me to be totally focused on taking care of the investment they have made in their automobiles. It's why we see our ultra-high performance customers by appointment only. Walk-in price shoppers are not part of our business plan."

Sometimes that means Osborne will have a customer's car for an hour and a half. "We do not rush a job, we don't take shortcuts, we get it right." To that end, Osborne directs price shoppers to go down the street and buy four for $100. Predictably, his business mix of 90% to 95% ultra-high-end customers is no surprise. It's the segment he's after.

"I constantly remind my employees that people buy from people and that price isn't everything," he says. "Their instructions are to sell themselves first, then the tire."

Important to his style is the ability to read the customer. "When I detect that a customer has saved 20 years to buy his dream car, I know he is serious about how I'm going to treat that car.

"The other day I had a customer in here with a '99 CLK 430. He stood over my shoulder and watched me demount his tires, mount his new tires and balance all four. I did the work myself and I can tell you that this man will never go anywhere else for tires or service."

Osborne says cars like the CLK 430, the BMW 330I and twin turbo Porsche S4s are particularly sensitive to a tire/wheel assembly that is out of balance by as little as half a gram. "At 90 mph they'll shake like a leaf. The Porsche Boxter owner will hate you and that's why we take the time needed to prepare the wheel for a proper balance and mounting process, one that is as exacting as it has to be."

As much as anything else, the Denver tire man enjoys the challenge of working with the "carriage trade. It's fun to work with customers who are excited about their vehicles, customers who ask me to make their vehicles handle better, look better and ride better.

"I will never sell as many tires as Discount Tire and I don't want to," he says. "Here, it's all about quality, not quantity. If I do eight or nine cars a day, that's good."

Osborne even notes on his invoices that all lug nuts have been hand torqued to 90 foot pounds and the tires inflated to 39 psi, or whatever specification applies. He also invites customers to return for a free re-torquing the next time they're in for service.

"Every extra little thing I can do I do," he says. "Quality is a dying part of this business and there is too much bad information being put out there for the public to consume. I'm the expert and I can answer any question a customer has within seconds."

When a Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL showed up with the wrong size replacement tires and a cruise control that would no longer work, Osborne was puzzled, but only for a while. The OE size was 225/45ZR17 front and 245/40ZR17 rear. "I put on a set of Nokians, but the cruise control still wouldn't work. After a bit of measuring, I changed the rear size to a 255/40ZR17, just 3mm difference in the O.D., and the problem was solved."

Osborne never lets a customer leave without specific instructions. "Call me when you get home and tell me how you like your new tires and wheels. Did we do OK? Talk to me about ride, handling and performance.' I care about my customers and they know it. That's why they come back."

For all of this, Osborne gets his price: $10.99 per wheel for balancing 16-inch and lower, $15.99 per wheel for 17-inch and higher. Mounting is free if the tires are purchased at Osborne's. "But if they buy them from The Tire Rack, I charge $4 per tire for mounting."

The Denver dealer also owns a full-service dealership in Frisco, Colo., and handles a wide range of tires from Nokian, Gislaved, Dunlop, Falken and Yokohama. "We cherry-pick Pirellis and Goodyears to round out our offering."

Brooklyn sensibility

Fifty-three years ago, his dad started the business that now occupies a city block in Brooklyn, N.Y. Mario Crociata, vice president of Whitey's Tire Service, brings the best of those 50-plus years of experience to his ultra-high performance business, which accounts for half of his retail tire business. "And out of that 50%, some 30% is in SUVs," he says.

"We see a lot of Yukons, Tahoes, Expeditions, Escalades and Navigators in here, along with such passenger car marques as the Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus, Cadillac and plenty of Maximas and Altimas."

With enough service bays to handle 20 or more vehicles, Crociata relies on Coats tire changers to handle wheels up to 24-inches in diameter and a Corghi balancer. "I regularly handle Jaguars and Porsches with ultra-low-profile tires and new custom wheels," he says.

"You gotta know rim flange designs and how to mount the wheel properly. We put certain OE and custom wheels on the mounting table upside down to protect the rim flanges against damage."

To keep his customers happy, Crociata has 22 employees, 10 of whom he has designated as his tire service people and four of those as his ultra-high performance tire people. "I can throw anything at these guys and they know what to do.

"It's why people drive down here from Vermont to let me take care of their tire mounting, demounting and balancing needs," he says. "Word-of-mouth advertising travels fast and far and our reputation is solid."

Crociata says some of his customers like to come up with their own wheel/tire combinations and then they ask him for his opinion. "Ninety percent of them take my advice because I'm better than the computer. I'm hands on."

Out in the shop, Crociata always tells his techs what he pays for a new changer or balancer. "Look," he tells them, "I just paid about $10,000 for this machine. It's all about my future and your future, so take care of it and it will take care of you."

To be competitive today, you need to take a hands-on approach to doing business, according to Crociata. "And you need to have the most modern tire changing and balancing equipment or you will be out of business."

He buys tire changers with plastic or neoprene parts. "I've got plastic on the bar, plastic on the teeth and jaws because I can't afford to scuff the rim face. We take great care when dealing with our ultra-high performance customers. We know that every car and its tire/wheel combination presents a new challenge, and that happens at our dealership every day."

Whitey's charges $10 and up per wheel for mounting. Balancing charges are $7.50 per wheel for 17-inch tires and lower, $10 and up for 18-inch tires and higher.

Crociata handles Nitto, Toyo, Aurora, Falken, Continental, General, Goodyear and Michelin tires and a wide variety of wheels including American Racing, Concept Neeper, Foose and MHT. "From the 20,000 tires in our warehouse to our large wheel inventory, we can handle everything from a Neon up to and including an 18-wheeler," he says. His store has sales of $2 million-plus a year.

Bring it on!

Torrance, California's Dave Fox says other tire dealers, car dealers and independent garages refer their ultra-high performance customers to him every week. Although they can change wheels with diameters up to 20 inches, they turn to the president of Performance Plus Tire and Automotive Center to handle super expensive wheels and the most delicate fitments.

"Last week a tire dealer sent me a Lincoln Navigator with new 18-inch tires and new aftermarket rims," says Fox. "We mounted the new tires on the new rims. Other tire dealers just send their high-end customers to Performance Plus as a matter of course."

His advice to dealers is to maintain your tire changing and balancing equipment so it lasts. "We have a Coats tire balancer, the newest Hunter tire changer, the TC3500, and a few older Corghi changers for smaller diameter tires," he says. "But at some point you must buy new, state-of-the-art equipment to maintain your reputation and your customer base."

The high-end business is anything but routine, according to Fox. "These customers are well educated, they make good money and cost to them is not as important as the outcome of the work I perform.

"It is not unusual for us to change Goodyear's EMT tire/wheel package, one of the toughest jobs in the aftermarket. Fortunately, we are very good at it, as well as (with) lower-profile, 30-series tires, which are pretty tough also," says Fox. "All my guys are trained to change EMTs, and each is rightly called a senior technician.

"They know that as a tire airs up on the changer it can also pop the chrome from the face of the rim if the chrome plating has wrapped itself over the edge of the bead. We look for that kind of trouble and eliminate it before we make a mistake."

Fox also requires his techs to be fully trained. "If you are going to be in the high performance tire business, you have to be good at what you do. We do $2 million a year out of one five-bay location; that doesn't happen by accident."

His formula for success is pretty basic. "You must have the proper equipment to do the job, your employees must be well trained and you must understand that the sales department doesn't do it all. Most of the money is made out in the shop. At Performance Plus our techs are as important as our sales staff."

At the end of the day Fox knows many of his competitors ask themselves, "Why face the liability of ruining someone's custom wheels?" In contrast, he welcomes the business.

"We have a $10 mounting charge if the tires are purchased here. If they don't buy from me the price goes up to $15. That includes balancing. People tell me I'm too low, but it sure keeps the business coming."

The right stuff

A new wave of tire changers and balancers is changing the face of high performance tire and wheel installation, according to Norman Prinzo, marketing manager for Myers Tire Supply Co. "If you are willing to pay the money for the newest tire changer a tire tool isn't needed, nor any physical effort required. The machine lifts the tire off the floor and onto the mounting bracket. This makes a big difference when your tech is asked to change a 70 to 80 lb. EMT.

Metal parts no longer have to touch the wheel, only neoprene, so the possibility of damaging a rim is nearly gone. At McCourt Industries, Fred Ison, technical field sales support, says paying for one damaged wheel a month makes the payment on Corghi's new Artiglio Master tire changer.

Accu-Turn's 5402 HP tire changer has a pneumatic tilt tower, outside clamping to 21 inches, inside clamping to 24 inches, and a plastic jaw insert to prevent damage to clear-coat alloy and chrome rims.

On the tire balancing side of things, the new breed of equipment can measure the thickness of a business card purposely stuck on the back of a wheel as a half ounce out on each plane, outside and inside. "That's why dealers must clean the back surface of each wheel," says Ison.

John Bean Co.'s VPI (Virtual Plane Imaging) System III, introduced at the SEMA show in Las Vegas, Nev., last November, has a spring-held weight holder located on the wheel balancer's weight placement arm. When the wheel stops with our stop at the top feature, the operator holds the wheel in place with a spindle lock foot pedal.

"The tape-a-weight adhesive weight, with tape removed, is moved into position for hidden placement behind a spoke by the arm which places it exactly where it is supposed to go."

Hunter Engineering Co. has created a Web site for its GSP9700 tire balancer (GSP9700.com), which it calls a Vibration Control System. You will also find a complete Hunter Merchandising kit that tells you how to let your customers know you have purchased a state-of-the-art diagnostic tire balancer and what that means to the quality of their ride comfort. A quick review of Hunter's TC3500 tire changer is at hunter.com.

Hennessy Industries Inc.'s new Coats Pin Plate System eliminates the usage of cones during the balancing process by centering the wheel on its lug pattern, says Bob Heisner, Hennessy's vice president of marketing. The company also offers offset adapters that are shaped like cylinders and come in specific diameters for specific vehicle models, including some Ford and GM pickup trucks.

Laura Lynch, marketing manager for Accu-Turn, reports the company currently promotes the Model 1200 tire balancer with virtual plane impaging, and will have two more models, the 1400 and 1500, available at the end of the quarter.