On the Rise: Jeff Cheek

Nov. 1, 2016

Jeff Cheek

Owner and manager | Countryside Tire and Auto Service Inc. | Age: 37

What was your first job in the industry?

My first and only job in the industry has been as a shop owner. But over the last five years as owner I have done everything from clean bathrooms to change oil to develop marketing plans.

What attracted you to the industry?

While working as an accountant at the University of Florida my wife and I were making plans to become small business owners. We worked with a business broker who suggested we look at a tire dealership. We are both car people so we took a look and the business seemed to fit our needs. Five years later it is hard to imagine doing anything different. We initially thought the business was about cars but have been happy to discover that it is really about people and the community we live in.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Having no experience! Five years ago I walked in to a tire dealership for the first time not as a customer, and I was in charge. I had a technician quit my first morning before we opened the doors. Less than three months in we had a computer hard drive failure one morning and 30 minutes later our air compressor caught fire. I had to quickly learn the ins and outs of the tire industry, small business ownership and a million other things. But having no safety net, no corporate owner, or franchisor to fall back on or reach out to was a great motivator. Our sales dropped slightly that first year but every year since we have increased our business more than 10% on average each year.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

Norm Gaither from Dealership Strategic Planning Twenty Group has had a tremendous impact on my career as a shop owner. Being an independent shop owner is very rewarding, but it has its challenges, too. It's great to be able to talk with other small business owners in town, but the challenges of a shop owner can be much different than those of a restauranteur or landscape contractor. Norm and DSP have helped to provide guidance and accountability specific to what I do every day.

What is your biggest accomplishment in the industry?

I would like to say not failing, but what I'm most proud of is our growth. In less than five years my business has increased almost 50% over the previous owner. We have gone from comfortably fitting in a 3,000-square-foot, four-bay shop to really bursting at the seams. We’ve purchased a new location, our very own 6,300 square-foot, eight-bay shop. This success has allowed us to double our number of employees and become a large supporter of our community.

What do you expect to be doing 20 years from now?

I hope to still be in the tire business, ideally expanding to multiple stores.  I have wanted to be a small business owner for a long time. Now that I’m here I intend on staying.

What’s the biggest issue facing the industry today?

I think understanding new technologies and the impacts that will have on our business.  We are already seeing a substantial amount of hybrid and electric cars; these will only grow as a percentage of the overall fleet. These create educational and training challenges for our staff to be able to comfortably and competently work on different vehicles. To be successful I believe you will have to be an early adopter and embrace these new challenges rather than continuing to focus on conventional vehicles. Furthermore, with the increase in ride-sharing like Uber and the promise of self-driving vehicles I believe it is likely that the issue of tomorrow is a transforming customer base where a much larger percentage of the miles driven will be on fleet owned vehicles rather than individual consumers.

What’s the one thing you wish someone would have told you before you entered the industry?

Nothing! I have had several opportunities to listen to industry veterans and many of them talk about the “good old days” when margins were high and competition was low. I love what I do and if I had heard some of the negative outlooks I may not have taken the leap. In all seriousness though, I wish I had a better understanding of how sophisticated the competition can be in this industry and some of the threats to the independent tire dealer. Dealerships and tire manufacturers are huge, well-funded competitors to the independent tire dealer. They are a force to be reckoned with and the sooner the independent tire dealer is aware of this, and starts to alter their business to protect themselves from it the better.

How do you encourage others to enter the industry?

I haven’t had much opportunity to do so but I would certainly encourage others to check out this industry. I would say it is not the greasy wrench service station model of the past. On the sales and customer service side our industry is every bit as sophisticated and competitive as most other industries, while we may not be the most glamorous, we are certainly a great industry to be in. On the technical side, understand that being a technician is no longer just turning wrenches. It is ultra-high tech and can be as challenging and rewarding as anything else out there.

Tell us about your family.

My wife Marilyn and I have been married eight years. We have two sons, Collier and Parrish.

What’s your favorite weekend activity?

That all changed two-and-a-half years ago with the birth of our first child.  Now my weekends consist of spending as much time with my family as possible. We like to go out to breakfast on Saturday morning, then maybe go to a playground.  And church for the whole family on Sunday.

What keeps you up at night?

I struggle with what my business will look like in the future. I sometimes feel like we are stuck in the middle as a tire dealer and auto service facility and wonder if that is a reasonable business strategy for the future. Will we all be forced to either become a Discount Tire, excellent at tires and stay away from everything else? Experts at everything, investing heavily in education and expensive technology to meet all of our customers’ needs? Or is there some profitable middle ground that looks something like what I do today?

Tell us something about yourself others might not know.

I’m a huge history buff and probably read three books a month about everything from ancient civilizations right up through the Cold War. American history over the last 150 years is my favorite.  

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Formula One racing and college football. I’ll wake up a 6 a.m. on a Sunday to watch an F1 race live, and before kids I could spend an entire Saturday watching almost non-stop college football.

Name a talent you wish you had.

I feel like I’m one of the few people in this industry who has never worked on cars myself. I understand how vehicles work, I can pick out problems and explain them to customers, but I can’t do much more than mount and balance a tire.

What’s your favorite food?

Almost any kind of seafood. I grew up in Florida and had easy access to fresh seafood most of my life. Now that I’m in Tennessee it is one of the things I miss the most.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

Jesus is a pretty standard answer and I certainly agree with that wholeheartedly. If I were forced to make a second pick the history buff in me would probably pick George Patton or Douglas MacArthur. Their characters and place in history fascinate me.

If we took your cell phone away and said it would cost you $1,000 to get it back, how long would you survive until you paid the ransom?

Not long at all, maybe half an hour. My schedule, email, connection to my family, everything is on that phone. I wouldn’t know where to go or who to talk to without it.