The late Bill Walsh, long-time coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was one of Alpio Barbara’s friends. So is former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, whose mom once worked for Barbara.
But unlike the NFL, there is no off-season for Barbara’s Redwood General in Redwood City, Calif., a Top Shop Award finalist. “If the month ends on a Tuesday, a new month starts on Wednesday and we have new goals to reach,” he says. “If the end of the month comes on Saturday, we take the rare occasion to celebrate on Sunday.
“We understand the meaning of the word ‘focus,’ as much as an offensive lineman when he jumps before the snap count.”
In Barbara’s mind there is no excuse for a lack of focus. “When we lose our focus and make a mistake, we call a meeting and break it all down from the time a vehicle entered our store until it was released. That’s the only way to locate the problem and eliminate it,” he says.
Simply put, that’s how his single location dealership gets better, how Redwood’s outstanding reputation was established, and how it keeps the phone ringing each and every day.
“There was a time when I advertised tires and prices until I got a wake up call. A fellow tire dealer asked me to drop into his place of business for some friendly advice. The first thing I saw was my ad next to his telephone,” he says. “Today I advertise Redwood General and I tell people what we are all about rather than what we sell.”
Like the other Top Shop Finalists, Barbara puts lots of emphasis on building his brand and making a lasting impression. And the little things really mean a lot. “That’s what the customer is going to remember,” he says. “Let’s say we just performed about $1,800 of service on your Mercedes-Benz, but I can’t locate your car keys or your car. What will that customer think about Redwood General? Answer: We probably won’t see that customer again.”
The suburban San Francisco area is a tough market, and Redwood General’s location is sandwiched between another independent dealer on one side and a mass merchant on the other.
But even with one store in a sprawling region, Redwood General has built a solid, successful reputation – so much so that it recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Because of its vast and varied customer base, Redwood carries a vast array of tire brands – Bridgestone, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Goodyear, Continental, Kumho, Pirelli, Hankook, Yokohama, Dunlop, Runway and, of course, General. Sixty percent of its retail business comes from tire sales, and it is aligned with both American Car Care Centers and Tire Pros. In addition, Redwood General gains 38% of its sales from wholesale business.
“Generally we process 150 work orders a day,” says Redwood General’s Store Manager Dennis Reiser. “It’s our job to know everything about each car, every step of the way. We must be ready to track down the work progress on the vehicle and even know exactly where it has been parked on our lot.”
“Around here we believe good systems generate good habits,” says Barbara. “When I started in this business in 1969, tire salesmen wore suits before slowly gravitating to sport coats, ties and slacks. Both were acceptable, and the guys looked sharp.
“Then some of them began wearing a sport shirt and slacks and still later shirts and slacks or shirts and jeans, almost anything was acceptable. Customers were confusing other customers with our staff, so I decided to stop that trend.”
When a customer walks into Redwood General, they will find its 45 employees dressed smartly in black slacks and white shirts with a company logo. To keep things fresh every day, they might wear all blue one day or variations of colors on other days, but it is all coordinated and managed. “We worked out a deal with a nearby dry cleaner who takes care of our cleaning needs and keeps us looking sharp and ready to take care of the customer’s needs,” Barbara says.
“Like the 49ers under Walsh I want everything at Redwood General to operate as smoothly as a Jerry Rice pass pattern. It’s all about precision over and over again,” says Barbara. “If we can do that we will win and we are winning.”
Like other Top Shop Finalists, Redwood General never talks about its competition and rarely advertises tire prices. Rather, the dealership focuses on the fundamentals, and giving back to the community that has been so good to the company.
Giving Back to the Community
Barbara and his team believe strongly in giving back, whether it’s through an unpublicized donation to the family of a six-year-old cancer patient, or providing free vehicle maintenance to the Redwood City YMCA, or the donations to the Police Athletic League, the Sequoia Hospital, or the 330 Squad of the California State Highway Patrol, or the dozens of other individuals and groups Redwood General supports.
“Every dime we donate is given directly to the person, family or organization in trouble. That way I am certain that the money ends up in the right hands,” Barbara says of his company’s enthusiasm for the community.
Enthusiasm, in fact, is the backbone of the entire operation.
Listen to what store manager Reiser has to say. “We know that expressing enthusiasm to our customers is half the battle. The remainder of the battle is to build a lasting relationship.”
“For me, the most important thing is the customer. I want every customer to respect Redwood General,” says Barbara. “Number two is the financial health of the store. And number three is me; if I do my job correctly we will all prosper.”
Obviously, long-term customer retention is vital to any dealer. So is generating a constant flow of new customers. That’s where an established reputation for excellent service comes into play, and the various methods used to spread the word.
Redwood General does a lot of direct mail, with rotation and tire service reminders sent to customers every 90 days – like clockwork – and quarterly coupon packs to all area residents. A lot of emphasis is placed on educating customers through newspaper and magazine ads and its TV commercials, and of course, in-store rebates and other specials are promoted through the local papers.
Redwood’s spacious showroom and waiting area gets fresh flowers every day, and customers can enjoy a cup of fresh coffee, or take advantage of Redwood’s free loaner vehicles and shuttle service.
“Our daily efforts as employees are all about image, image, image,” says Reiser. “Thanks to Alpio, we have learned that our emphasis on enthusiasm rubs off not only on our fellow employees, but our customers as well.
“It’s an indisputable fact that it is easier to sell a high-price premium high performance tire than it is to sell an inexpensive private brand tire,” Reiser says. “Most of our customers are not acquainted with low-priced tires. Some are brands they may never have heard of, so we have to spend more time explaining the merits of a less expensive choice.
“We must explain clearly and slowly with total honesty who makes this tire, how it will perform, and determine if it is the right tire for the customer and is it right for the customer financially,” he says. “Once these questions have been completely understood we are going to make a sale and that sale might end up being the upscale tire. We know everything there is to know about our products and we spend the necessary time with the customer to make sure they know what we know. It works.”
Meanwhile, Barbara keeps a close eye on the “Xs” and “Os” of his business. “As Coach Walsh used to say to his very expensive offensive unit: ‘I want you to walk with me for 10 yards. That’s all, just 10 yards. You have three plays as the best players in this league to make such a tiny distance into a first down. Then we go to work on the next 10 yards. Please don’t tell me you can’t do it.’”
Barbara approaches his business systems like Walsh. “We march down the field in the same way,” he says. “This year we have been named one of this country’s Top Shops, and it is a great honor, but I’m not overly pleased that we weren’t first.
“It tells me that our store must be more consistent than it is, we must do more for our community, we must be able to handle any customer question including everything there is to know about TPMS and we must always work as a team.”
Continuing with that philosophy, Barbara is a stickler when it comes to test driving a customer’s vehicle. “What good does it do to check vehicle vibration on a rough road,” he says. “When we pick a route for a vehicle test drive, we test it first. I want to see that vehicle turning right, turning left, stopping, encountering a few bumps and enough smooth pavement to rule out vibration issues.
“We can’t be scattered in our thinking at this point. This is the time for all of us to think together and work together at solving the customer’s issue. Our job is to continue working on fine-tuning this store.”
This is the way to do business in 2007, especially in a highly competitive and large market area. Sure Redwood General wants to sell tires and service, but more than that it wants customers to understand the level of service and follow-through they will experience. “That’s how you get customers through the front door,” he says, “not by selling on price alone.”