What Jack Smiley does not do is try to sell to everybody. Like all successful business owners, his marketing efforts are aimed at the most lucrative customers most likely to return again and again.
In the southwestern corner of Oklahoma, those customers are shopping for high performance upgrades to their vehicles. They usually, but not always, start with tires.
“Once you have their trust for specialty work, you have that customer for all their upgrade needs,” says Smiley. He and his 10 employees sell high performance products out of a 15,000-square-foot shop called Smiley’s Tires, Tunes and Tints, located in the city of Altus.
Many customers are from Altus Air Force Base just three miles away. The base is the United States military’s premier pilot training facility.
As a corporate pilot with more than 8,000 hours in the air, Smiley has a unique understanding of the world in which these pilots, his customers, live. He’s been flying planes since 1983 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot rating. He also owned a flight school for a period of time. He simply loves to fly.
“When pilots come in the shop, we have something in common,” says Smiley. “They relate to my experiences because of the plane I fly. The military calls it the C-12. Civilians call it the King Air 200.”
Air Force pilots come to Altus for initial qualification, leave for a base assignment, return for aircraft commander training, leave for another base assignment and return for instructor training. Some remain at Altus as instructors. The cycle covers about eight years and brings the pilots back to Smiley’s Tires as well.
“We meet them when they are young officers and again when they come back to Altus for their upgrade training.”
Used to superior performance in the air, the pilots like their personal vehicles to perform better than the manufacturer provided. They want high performance tires, exhaust and sound systems, and the privacy and looks tinted windows add to their high performance machines.
In addition to the Air Force base, Smiley’s Tires, Tunes and Tints draws customers from a huge farming community.
“This is truck country,” says Smiley. “It’s not unusual for a husband to drive a truck, his wife a Suburban, and their kids pickup trucks. We probably do more modifications to pickup trucks than to Camaros. The truck business in this part of the world is extremely lucrative.”
Like the pilots and their cars, the people who buy custom wheels for their trucks eventually add a custom exhaust and stereo system.
“First a customer wants 22-inch tires, then dual exhaust, then upgrade for the factory stereo system. So we had that customer coming into the store.
“We kept adding services he wanted. Now he comes to one place for everything. But he doesn’t buy all at one time. If we do his tires well, he comes back for the exhaust, stereo, and window tint.”
Shrinking margins on tires prompted Smiley to add “tunes and tint” to the operation.
“At a big box like Walmart, the goal is to get a customer to shop in the store, not to do a quick lube. It’s a good practice from Walmart’s perspective,” he says.
For an independent tire store, areas such as electronics provide a more profitable revenue stream.
“Walmart can sell a radio but cannot install it. If it involves any manufacturing, they’ll never be able to do it. They’ll never be able to train their employees to install window tints and custom stereos.
“We’ve moved into areas they’ll never be able to breach. Branching into areas that complement tires and doing custom and specialty work for customers who want to upgrade has made up for areas where big box stores have eroded profits from tires.”
Do not assume people want the lowest price, he cautions.
“Those customers are out there, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of people get in the trap that they have to be the cheapest. If customers trust you to stand behind the product, they will pay you. The $10 more you charge will not bother them.”
The electronics and window tint portions of the business represent about 25 % of gross sales for Smiley’s Tires. The remainder comes from tires and traditional services for exhausts, oil changes, brakes, suspension, shocks and struts.
“The customer who comes in because I sold a certain stereo he wanted also looked at my tires and my tint equipment. When he’s ready for tires, I bet I get a shot at his business.
“Branching out brings more customers to your core business. Custom exhaust, window tint, and car electronics bring me customers I did not have before,” says Smiley.
Look beyond the tires
Smiley’s Tires, Tunes and Tints exists today because of Smiley’s willingness to look beyond tires to draw in customers. “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be (just) a tire store,” he advises.
His expansion into electronics came about through a chance meeting with a man named Don Chaffin, owner of Jackie Cooper Tire and Electronics in Oklahoma City. The men met on a plane ride to Arizona for a Dayton tire meeting.
“Don asked me if I’d ever thought about getting into electronics. He told me it went well with the tire business.”
In 1998, he added cell phones, pagers, car alarms and car stereos to his product offerings. He eventually dropped the cell phones and pagers.
Smiley began attending consumer electronic trade shows to keep up with trends and products. At a show in 2003, he again ran into Chaffin, the same man who suggested he venture into electronics.
“During the plane ride, he asked if we do window tints. He told me about a new system offered by a company called Digicut Systems in Tulsa which machine-cuts window film. All the installers have to do is take out the film and install it. I bought the computer and software.”
With that purchase, Smiley’s Tires, Tunes and Tints was born. The business had come a long way from its origins as a motor oil distributor.
Raised in the tire business
In August 1955, Smiley’s father owned a building and formed a partnership with a man who owned a motor oil distributorship. The pair sold motor oil to service stations. They called their enterprise Morrison Wholesale and did not sell to the public.
Smiley picks up the story. “Back then, service stations were service stations. They checked the oil in a customer’s car. People also bought tires from them. So my father and his partner decided to branch out to distributing tires. They got into the El Dorado buying group because they wanted to sell their own tires.”
Manufacturers made and packaged products under the El Dorado name. Smiley’s dad and his partner sold El Dorado batteries, shock absorbers and tires. Although Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. eventually bought and ended the buying group, the El Dorado brand is still marketed today by Treadways Corp.
The store began to sell tires to the public and became known as Morrison Tire. The partner passed away in 1995. Smiley, his brother-in-law and his dad bought the business and changed the name to Smiley’s Tire.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Smiley was raised in the tire business.
“When my parents got into it, my crib was in the store. I was on the company payroll at age 12.”
From the start, he was always looking for new selling opportunities, which his dad often resisted. For instance, in 1986, he was pushing to expand into wheels.
“I wanted to buy wheels and mount tires on them. A customer who saw them would make a decision to buy both the tire and wheel in a split second. But my dad did not want to get into wheels because we had always sold tires.
“Not being open-minded and thinking you have to be a tire store is a trap. Why sell a customer only high performance tires? Why send them down the road?”
Smiley and his employees are determined to identify and meet customer needs for high performance products. The effort is apparent in the store’s showroom.
Along with standard tire and wheel displays, the chrome tips of Flowmaster and V Force exhaust accessories catch the eye of customers browsing in the 3,000-square-foot showroom. A 12x12-foot enclosed space is set aside where customers listen to the quality of subwoofers and speakers without disturbing others. There also are interactive displays of audio, DVD and navigation systems.
Smiley notes that upgrades are not age-specific.
“I have a customer with a new grandchild who already wants to talk about a video system for his new Suburban. It’s not just for kids. Grandparents want in-dash navigation and flip-down CD players for their passengers.”
Customers also can watch as a technician uses a Macintosh computer to generate a window tint pattern and a 40-inch cutter to trim the film. “The window tint machine is right on the showroom floor. It’s very interesting to watch the tint material being cut. We plug in a car’s VIN number and the machine cuts the film to fit.”
Customers also have the option of a comfortable waiting room with free Wi-Fi access for laptop computing.
There’s a welcoming ambience to the showroom. Purple neon lights softly punctuate the glass block counter. Neon lights shine in the windows. Smiley hired an interior designer to select the gray, red and black color combination of the floor and counter.
“She suggested simple things like setting the tile on point instead of 90 degrees. It makes the showroom look fresh and modern.”
Smiley says the design reflects the best of the tire showrooms he has ever seen. Also a corporate pilot for Candid Color Systems, his job takes him to locations throughout the U.S., eight to 10 days every month. Between flights, he looks up addresses of local tire stores and visits them to get ideas for his own store.
The only feature he likes that he was unable to include was a playroom for children of customers.
Construction of the new home for Smiley’s Tires, Tunes and Tints was completed 13 years ago. The 15,000-square-foot building includes the showroom, seven service bays that are two cars deep, and a tire warehouse.
Caring for customers
There’s an advertisement for Smiley’s Tires on cable television 365 days a year. The television ads cover 10 counties, attracting customers up to 70 miles away.
In local theaters, ads comprised of shots from the TV spots are shown to audiences before the feature film. Smiley’s Tires also is advertised aggressively on local radio stations.
Online, Smiley limits the company’s presence to dealer locators on the Web sites of product manufacturers. He briefly tried a Web site, but shut it down when keeping information current took too much time from other activities.
To raise awareness of the store while supporting worthy causes, he donates oil changes as prizes in fund raising events sponsored by local charities and Air Force base squadrons. By far, however, satisfied customers who share their experiences are the most effective marketing tool for the dealership.
Smiley credits the company’s success to his extremely loyal and highly skilled employees and their ability to build relationships with customers.
“A customer will say, ‘I need a wheel alignment. Have Duane do it.’ When customers come in and see the same manager, the same salesperson, and the same mechanic year after year, you are going to have relationships, you are going to have a level of trust.”
The store is managed by Daniel Carrisalez. There are two tire technicians, two service technicians, two salespeople and one person who handles both tire technician and sales duties.
Although they sell high-tech products, all rely on a low-tech, person-to-person approach to close on a sale.
Smiley shares ownership of the store with his brother-in-law, Charles Ortega. The state representative for District 52, Ortega is the first Hispanic elected to the Oklahoma state legislature.
As Carrisalez took over more of the company’s day-to-day operation, Smiley decided to enter politics at the local level. He ran for city council two years ago. Today, he serves on the city council and is vice mayor of the city of Altus.
“Because Daniel does such a wonderful job running the store, Charles and I have time to take care of our constituents, the local level for me, and Charles on the state level. It is an important civic duty we would not have time to perform without a great manager like Daniel.”
“We provide a lot of service,” says Carrisalez. “We like to build a rapport with customers. We are not here just to make a dollar. We are here to take care of customers.
“Usually people who drive high performance vehicles know what they want. Our job is to ask the right questions and place them with the right tires suitable for their needs. We look forward to taking care of their kids. We have some young adults as customers I first knew as children who came in the store with their parents.”
Smiley’s Tires, Tunes and Tints gives customers something they increasingly want and expect — good, fast, dependable and knowledgeable service for their vehicles’ high performance products. That’s the reason lucrative customers return again and again.
“Everybody wants to say Walmart is a competitor,” says Carrisalez. “As far as price they are, but not in service.”
Ann Neal is a freelance writer with more than two decades of experience managing employee, financial and marketing communications and Web content in the commercial trucking industry.