“Probably the greatest blessing that ever happened to us was that our dad taught us to work. That proved to be our saving grace.”
Ron Burt and his brother Wendel Burt worked side by side nearly every day of their adult lives. Most know them as the founders of Burt Brothers Tire & Service, a single-store tire dealership they opened in 1991 that has since grown into a 19-store operation in Utah. (The 20th location will open in September.) But their working relationship actually began decades earlier – when they were in elementary school.
Ron talked about his brother with Modern Tire Dealer following Wendel’s unexpected death on April 26th.
When they were boys, Wendel, three years older than Ron, got a job working for a family who owned a dairy farm near their home. And Ron said he decided to go to work, too. They milked cows and helped take care of the corrals. “It was not a real prestigious job,” but it earned them both a little spending money.
Wendel moved from farm hand to house painter, and again, Ron tagged along. He was hired as the painting crew’s gopher. He doesn’t think he had yet turned 12.
So, it’s probably not a surprise that once Wendel landed a job in the tire industry, he convinced his brother to join him. Wendel was working for David Early Tire in the Salt Lake City area and had risen to senior management. Ron had started his own painting business and was hesitant to make the switch. He liked the flexibility of making his own schedule and was making good money.
“But that didn’t last long, because the pressure he put on me to work with him was great,” Ron recalled. “Retreads were a big deal. Twelve-inch tires were a big deal. The Tiempo radial from Goodyear had been out just a little while. This sounds like the Dark Ages, but this was not that long ago.”
Wendel told him, “You don’t need to know anything about tires. You’ve already been taught everything you need to know. You’ll gain the other experience.”
Soon, Ron found himself as an assistant store manager, and just as his brother had predicted, he picked up the business quickly. After a few years working for the independent tire dealer, the brothers decided they should strike out on their own. They found a store for sale in Bountiful, Utah, but because of the store’s poor performance, they couldn’t secure a bank loan. So the owner agreed to hold onto the store for one more year and the Burts took over operations.
“It was amazing. In all the years the best that store had ever done was $56,000 a month. Our first month we took it over we did $250,000, and that’s all because we paid attention, we knew how to work and we loved people. Our mantra was customer service. We were not mechanics, either one of us, but we could sell what we believed in. We knew how to take care of people.”
The one-year agreement dragged on for seven years and the brothers never took ownership. But the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. had taken notice, and the tiremaker had a store in Bountiful that needed new operators.
“Back in the day Goodyear didn’t give you any money, but they did tell you they would support you and sell you tires. In 1991 we mortgaged everything we had. We took documents home to our wives (and) they had no idea what they were signing. But we never looked back. Here were the little Burt Brothers.”
Eighteen months later, Goodyear came to them with another proposition – a second store, in Farmington, Utah. They had no idea how to operate two stores 10 miles apart. And yet, they did it.
The two brothers divided up responsibilities and shared equal stakes in the company. Wendel was the tire buyer and he took care of the advertising. Ron managed the retail operations and accounting. They both hustled to make sure their employees were selling tires and service.
“We never took a day off except Sundays for probably 15 years. There were stretches here and there, months we never took a paycheck. But never in our history did we bounce a check or not pay anybody. Our mechanics were making way more money than we were, but we had to have them.”
They realized early that women were making more of the buying decisions at home, and Ron says, “that was good for us. We had the cleanest bathrooms ever because we knew that’s what women wanted. We’re still big on cleanliness. We taught our guys, when people drive by at night if they see a cluster of junk everywhere, that is a deterrent.”
Their early focuses still drive the business today, even as their sons, the second generation of Burts, have taken over. Customer service remains the top priority, and Ron believes the company’s tag line still tells their story: “Burt Brothers does it better.”
“Our boys are doing a fabulous job taking this to the next level. I have complete trust and admiration for all five of those boys. They all have different assignments and they’re doing amazing, and we are growing.”
Ron said he and Wendel were so close, and over the years he can count their serious disagreements on two hands. They were similar, but also had their own strengths, “which is why it worked.
“We had a vision,” but Wendel was better at seeing a bigger picture., he says. “I was always the guy with the money sense (wondering) how are we going to afford to do this? How are we going to bring the dream to fruition? But we know that we were blessed beyond our own ability. There was power from another world, heaven, (that) blessed our lives to be able to survive and thrive and take care of our families and take care of other people’s families, our employees.
“When we first got started, people said you will never be able to do this with your brother,” Ron said. “We said so many times, we would never want to do this without each other.”