'Retail is Detail:' Belle Tire Builds Presence in New Markets

Aug. 23, 2021

Allen Park, Mich.-based Belle Tire Distributors Inc. will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Between now and then, however, the dealership is focused on establishing a foothold in the Chicago, Ill., market, which it recently entered, while maintaining momentum in central and northern Indiana, where it has added more than 30 stores over the last several years. 

In this interview, Belle Tire President Don Barnes III answers the question, “Why Chicago?” He also discusses the key to the dealership's rapid growth in Indiana, if Belle Tire plans to move into other markets and why he is "bullish on our industry" as demand for tires and auto service increases.

Listen to Don Barnes III talk about Belle Tire's strategy on The Modern Tire Dealer Show.

MTD: It’s been an extremely busy year for Belle Tire. The company is continuing to build its presence in the Indianapolis market, which it entered a couple of years ago. And more recently, Belle Tire entered the Chicago market, which is brand new territory for the dealership. Can you bring us up to speed on what’s happening in Chicago and why that’s an attractive market for the company? 

Barnes: We recently broke ground in Chicagoland. We’re really excited to enter our fourth state, Illinois, and (are) really excited to start having a presence in the Chicagoland market. (Editor’s note: Belle also has a presence in Michigan and Ohio.) 

We see the Chicagoland market as a very fragmented market with really no dominant player and we’re excited to bring our model: tires and service ... (and) really focusing on the customer experience to deliver a top-level experience for all of our customers and create more opportunities and create more jobs in the Chicagoland area

MTD: In Chicago, are you targeting inner-city areas or are you attempting to blanket the suburbs first?

Barnes: We’re focusing on all of the Chicago suburbs first. That’s where we see the greatest opportunity.

MTD: Chicago is a massive market — lots of people with lots of vehicles and it also seems like an extension of Belle’s entry into the Indianapolis market. How are things going in Indianapolis?

Barnes: We entered the state of Indiana in 2015 via South Bend. We did very well in South Bend and started to make our way south through Fort Wayne and more of the northern Indianapolis markets. And over the last two to three years, we’ve built more than 30 stores in the area. 

The stores we built are doing very, very well and it’s really just because of the amazing people (we’ve placed) inside (those locations.)

We’ve been very lucky and blessed to be able to recruit, hire, train and ‘Belle Tire-ize’ the teams that are inside. That’s where the magic happens. It’s not the brick-and-mortar. It’s the people inside (who are) taking care of the customers. 

Whether it be South Bend, Fort Wayne or Indianapolis, we’ve been able to grow those markets very well and significantly. 

And we want to continue to grow in contiguous markets, so Chicagoland was a natural fit, seeing as we’re in southwest Michigan, as well as northwest Indiana. 

MTD: What’s the secret to moving into a new market and finding the right people right off the bat? What has worked for Belle in the past? 

Barnes: There’s really no one thing or one secret thing. It’s really just us being true to ourselves — knowing who we are and the kind of people we want and truly being focused on hiring nice people. 

We can teach people tires. It’s often hard to teach people to be nice. We want to hire people whom we know are going to represent our brand well and if they have experience in the tire industry, great. If they don’t, we can teach them. 

And we’ve been able to recruit people from all different types of industries — whether it’s the hospitality industry, whether it’s our industry … anything and everything. 

We’ve been very lucky that we have a strong culture that focuses on our customers. And when I say customers, it’s not just the external customers who come in and buy things from us. It’s our internal customers.

Our internal customers are our employees and we know that our internal customers are only going to treat our external customers as well as we treat them. 

MTD: You once said, ‘Retail is detail’ and it seems that certainly applies here. 

Barnes: ‘Retail is detail’ is probably my favorite line because it truly is. Whether you are in the tire business or you’re selling computers or TVs, any competitor can probably get 90% of the way there — or even 95% — but that last 5% or 10%... that’s what really separates the best operators or world-class operators. It’s attention to detail. 

Everything we do needs to be important because our consumers are judging us every day. We have to earn their business every time they walk in. 

MTD: Belle also has an extremely robust wholesale-distribution business. (Editor’s note: The company operates a distribution center near Cleveland, Ohio.) What has your wholesale business been like this year? What are you hearing from your wholesale customers? 

Barnes: Our wholesale customers and our wholesale business have really ebbed and flowed with the market. As the market was down a year ago with COVID-19, so was our wholesale business, but as demand has picked up - just as Belle Tire has - so has our wholesale business. Really, our concentration right now has been clearly about building more retail locations and recruiting, hiring and training people who will represent our brand well. 

MTD: Are you planning to enter any new retail markets during the rest of the year or into next year?

Barnes: The market that we’re really focused on right now is Chicagoland. We’re always looking at different areas in Michigan and Indiana to help augment or supplement the stores we have. But right now, the market that we’re most focused on in our growth is Chicago. 

MTD: What’s your take on the general state of the retail tire market as we enter the second half of the year? 

Barnes: I’m very bullish on our industry over the next six to seven months. Demand has been very strong. There have been challenges from the supply side. 

I think our manufacturers are working on things to get supply figured out. They want to participate as much as we do in this big push in demand, so I’m very bullish that demand will continue to be strong. 

COVID-19 pretty much seems done and over with. Obviously, more people are getting vaccinated and across different states, different restrictions are coming off, so there is greater certainty in the future and that’s really exciting. 

About the Author

Mike Manges | Editor

Mike Manges is Modern Tire Dealer’s editor. A 25-year tire industry veteran, he is a three-time International Automotive Media Association award winner and holds a Gold Award from the Association of Automotive Publication Editors. Mike has traveled the world in pursuit of stories that will help independent tire dealers move their businesses forward. Before rejoining MTD in September 2019, he held corporate communications positions at two Fortune 500 companies and served as MTD’s senior editor from 2000 to 2010.