MTD Flashback: Larry Nicholls Changed With the Times

Oct. 6, 2023

The late Larry Nicholls, past owner of Plains Tire and Wholesale Tire Distributors, was “willing to change with the times," former MTD Editor Lloyd Stoyer wrote in the November 1999 issue of MTD. Here's Stoyer's full feature ("Changing With the Times: It's One Secret to Nicholls' Success"), which detailed how Nicholls built his businesses.

Flexibility and willingness to change with the times have paid off handsomely for Larry Nicholls and his Logan, Utah-based tire dealership. The fact that he’s a heck of a salesmanhasn’t hurt either. 

Nicholls began his career in tire sales in Salt Lake City in 1963 with a discount chain called Thrift City and survived the early turmoil among mass merchant store chains because of his ability to move product. 

Today, his independent tire dealership operates eight retail tire stores – Discount Tire & Auto in Logan and seven Plains Tire outlets in Wyoming – plus Wholesale Tire Distributors, a company that supplies more than 3,000 customers in a 270,000-square-mile area encompassing all or part of seven states. 

Not a bad achievement for a boy orphaned at six and raised by an older sister. 

His first job was selling vacuum cleaners. Even peddling an off-brand and making cold calls to housewives in Salt Lake City, he made a good living. 

After that, selling tires was easy.

Though the large discount merchants of the time kept merging and shifting markets, Nicholls kept earning promotions and more responsibility. 

For a time, he managed a tire store in Casper, Wyo., for Kmart Automotive. Then Uniroyal, a shareholder in the chain, took over and began expanding its tire store holdings. That was in 1968. 

Nicholls kept moving up and became a district manager. And when Uniroyal bought out Florida-based Pan American Tire, he was chosen to run that chain, helping it grow from 30 to 42 stores. 

Advancements continued and Nicholls became West Coast zone vice president, responsible for 240 Uniroyal Tire & Auto stores spread from St. Louis to Hawaii. 

But Goodyear and Firestone stores dominated most major markets and Uniroyal officials decided to back off. 

Nicholls suggested the company concentrate its stores in smaller towns. Adapt to the competition, don’t surrender to it, he counseled.

But Uniroyal brass decided instead to begin phasing the company out of the tire store business. 

That’s when Nicholls decided he’d be better off determining his future as an independent tire dealer.  

This took some courage, since he and his wife, Vickie, had two young children at the time and little cash to invest. 

After careful study, the couple decided there was opportunity for success by building a 10-store dealership somewhere in Idaho, Wyoming or northern Utah – areas familiar to Nicholls. 

Their final choice for the first store was in Logan, a pleasant city in a beautiful region not far from the Bear Lake area, where Nicholls was born. 

They opened Discount Tire & Automotive in June 1976 and have expanded the building since into the headquarters for all dealership business today. 

Logan is in the northeast corner of Utah, not far from the Wyoming and Idaho borders and also within easy reach of the Nevada line. 

It’s not a heavily populated area, but Nicholls was confident it was ripe for a successful tire business. 

He put to work his sales ability and tire experience and Vickie handled office functions. The tire store grew quickly. 

In the following year, they purchased a second store in Laramie, Wyo., taking over a Plains Tire outlet that was the oldest tire dealership in the state.

Six more stores followed in Wyoming, in towns like Rock Springs, Casper (two stores),Gillette, Sheridan and Douglas.  

All are operated under the Plains Tire name and the dealership is now not only the oldest, but the largest tire store chain in Wyoming. 

The stores are quite some distance from Logan, so Nicholls called on a number of men he had worked with earlier in the tire business and in whom he had trust and confidence. 

By 1980, the retail stores and some wholesale business were generating more than $8 million in annual sales. 

That’s when Nicholls opened a warehouse in Salt Lake City and his Wholesale Tire Distributors (WTD) operation was born.

At the time, he had exclusive rights to distribute Uniroyal tires in Wyoming and Utah. 

Though both his retail and wholesale businesses prospered, Nicholls looked to the future and saw disturbing signs that competition in the tire business was changing. 

Some of his most successful small tire dealers were faced with the influx of larger, multi-store tire dealerships with more programs and clout that hurt their business. The little guys began having trouble paying their bills. 

Other top dealers across the country were reaching the same conclusion and decided that for long-term survival, wholesalers had to provide tools to help the dealers they served to compete. 

In 1998, Jim Matthews of Merchant’s Tire in Manassas, Va., and Phil Costello and David and Jerry Strauss of Strauss-Franks in San Antonio, Texas, met to discuss ways of addressing the problem. 

Early on, they were joined by Nicholls and others – also eager to find new ways to compete. 

Discussions were difficult because each participant was already successful and had strong ideas on how to run a business. But all recognized the need to match the national warranties, credit cards and familiar signage of their big competitors. 

The group sought a way to combine many functions and services without losing their own independence or jeopardizing the independence of the dealers they supplied. 

Out of a series of meetings, the American Car Care Centers (ACCC) concept group was born later in the same year. 

The goal of the ACCC founders was to establish a national network of carefully selected dealer/distributors. They recognized the group would only be as strong as its weakest member. 

ACCC set out to provide members with national services – such as warranties and a credit card – and to establish and promote a coast-to-coast name they helped would become “as recognizable as McDonalds.” 

Buying clout was not a major concern in the beginning, Nicholls recalls. 

Members also insisted on retaining the freedom to sell the tire brands they had promoted in their dealerships. It was agreed that dealers should promote ACCC tire brands. 

At first, Bridgestone/Firestone was the primary supplier, but after several years, ACCC switched to Michelin Americas Small Tires (MAST), which agreed to supply a wider selection of multiple tire brands. (TBC provides wholesale tire lines and the group has its own private label American brand built by MAST.) 

Once the dealer group was established, Nicholls again adjusted the strategy in his own business and became one of the ACCC program’s strongest supporters. 

In addition to his own eight stores, which now have annual sales of $12.5 million, he has signed up 44 associate dealers. However, ACCC membership is not a requirement to do business with WTD. 

All told, WTD services more than 3,000 customers in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho; all of Nevada, except the Las Vegas area; and six counties each in Nebraska and North Dakota. 

In the areas they serve, ACCC outlets have about an 8% market share. 

Nicholls also has organized a strong distribution system supplying tires to member/dealers from twice a week to daily in some urban areas, depending on needs. 

Twenty-two vehicles in a fleet of 24-foot box trucks serve WTD dealers spread over an 880-mile stretch east to west and north to south. 

WTD also hires another trucking company for long-distance hauls that even include pick-up of tires at the TBC warehouse in Memphis, Tenn., and delivery cross-country to the three WTD warehouses. 

Dealers who join Nicholls’ ACCC network get six days of intensive, 10-hours-a-day training sessions, plus a six-day visit from WTD headquarters in their own store to get started. The sessions cover merchandising, product screens, personnel polices, comparative shopping of competitors – 38 points in all that Nicholls has found contribute to a profitable operation. 

All these policies have been worked out over the years and are used in Nicholls’ own stores, as well. 

Nicholls himself runs a lean operation, About 20 employees work at Logan headquarters and about 167 in all are employees in the far-flung retail and warehouse operations. 

It’s a family enterprise, with Nicholls as president. Vickie is secretary-treasurer. Their daughter, Christie Stock, is vice president for both retail stores and wholesale operations. Her younger sister, Billie, is in charge of customer service. And a brother, Clint, is president of Business Management Co. (This business is located in the Logan headquarters and provides sophisticated computer services for stores affiliated with the dealership, as well as similar services to other clients.) 

About four million people live in the huge area served by WTD and Nicholls would like to see more ACCC dealerships to serve them. 

Originally, Nicholls figured there would be room for about one ACCC per 100,000 population. But experience has raised his expectations. He feels an ACCC store for each 25,000 persons could operate successfully and has future plans for some 80 to 100 member/dealers and an overall market share of up to 20%. 

Big dreams perhaps, but those who know Nicholls say they’re far from impossible. 

After all, he has spent a lifetime overcoming some pretty big odds. 

He says his present ACCC dealers have profits two-and-a-half times the average of those benchmarked by Michelin in a national study. Average annual sales per store are $856,000. 

That gives Nicholls a persuasive message in taking his ACCC pitch to member/dealer prospects. 

For someone who made a good living selling off-brand vacuum cleaners, putting across this message should be easy.