In each industry you’ll find those rare individuals who by their very presence seem to elevate those around them, encouraging others to strive for a level of excellence otherwise not thought possible. In our business, one name comes to mind – Alpio. A single-location tire dealer based on the northern edge of Silicon Valley near San Francisco, Alpio Barbara elevates the industry thanks to meticulous standards fueled by passion, determination and an unquenchable desire to be the best of the best.
From a 12,500-square-foot location in Redwood City, Calif., Alpio’s business, Redwood General Tire, is a case-study example of dealership excellence. This year, Redwood is a “three-peat” Top Shop Finalist – taking honors in 2007, 2014 and 2017 – which demonstrates the company’s consistent commitment to exceed expectations both of customers and within this competition.
While much has been said over the years about Alpio Barbara and his business (see page 82 for an overview), we opted to take a slightly different approach to provide some perspective on what motivates this iconic tire dealer to consistently receive industry accolades – how one dealer in a single location can make a difference in the industry.
2017 Top Shop Finalist:
Redwood General Tire
Founded: 1957 by Ernie Redfern
Owner: Alpio Barbara
Headquarters: Redwood City, Calif.
Number of Locations: 1
Years in Business: 60 (32 under current leadership)
Sales Mix: 50% Tires/50% Service
2016 Gross Sales: $12 million
Number of employees: 43
The Alpio Effect
Few will argue that Alpio is a big personality – a unique blend of moxie, determination, and compassion. His name alone makes him memorable – and then he opens his mouth.
“There isn’t a dealer that’s any better than me, and that’s how I look at it,” said Alpio in a matter-of-fact voice, lacking any sense of bravado. “Ok, now I’m not being boastful – I’m just good. I just want to be the best of the best.”
This intensity for excellence translates into year-over-year success for his Redwood General Tire operation.
“For those who do not know Alpio, he sometimes is looked at as arrogant,” explains Howard Fleischmann, owner of Community Tire Pros, the 2012 Top Shop Winner, and a tire dealer who Alpio says inspires him. “In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I hear there’s an arrogance about him, but I’ve never seen it. All I’ve seen is a real person with great ideas.”
Tire Industry Association’s Roy Littlefield agrees, describing Alpio as an industry leader who simply sets a higher standard than most.
“[You have] mergers and acquisitions and takeovers, but here’s somebody who has taken the model of a pure independent and has one of the top shops in the country,” shares Littlefield about the former TIA board member. “He has stuck to the model that so many dealers wanted to do but weren’t able to stick with it, and I think it’s incredibly impressive.”
While some people may get defensive when faced with Alpio’s “blunt honesty” and perspective on certain matters, Littlefield said no offence should be taken.
“Yes, he has a very strong personality, but he is very honest,” Littlefield said. “He doesn’t just go along with anybody. He examines [the issue] himself, he challenges it, and he asks questions. If the group is going in the other direction and he thinks it’s wrong, he’s one who’s not afraid to speak up.”
In fact, some industry sources (who preferred not to be named) say that it was Alpio’s strong beliefs regarding the under-representation of independent tire dealers on the TIA board of directors contributed to his decision to resign as a board member.
At the time, he and Chris Monroe, owner of Monroe Tire in Shelby, N.C., were the only two tire dealers on the board, the “only ones who write their own checks,” according to Alpio.
As the two got to know each other, Monroe said the initial gap between them lessened. “He’s deeper than people give him credit for,” Monroe said. “I think he has this ability to listen to your situation, comprehend where you are, and relate it to his [for advice]. You start drawing all these parallels; that’s what he and I get into a lot. We truly have a left-coast right-coast thing. We have two different markets, two entirely different worlds, but we experience a lot of the same concerns – probably 90% of the same [stuff],” he says.
Monroe continues, “When I think of Alpio, the first thing that comes to my mind is his lack of a frontal lobe – I mean he has no restraint in saying what’s on his mind,” Monroe laughs. “He’s very, very forthright – with me, in front of audiences, in front of the group, the whole program. He’s just brutally honest; I completely appreciate that.”
When asked about Alpio’s success, Fleischmann says it was hard work and dedication to his craft. “Yes, you can say that he was in the right place at the right time,” says Fleischmann, referring to Alpio purchasing an existing tire dealer near Silicon Valley in 1985 prior to the tech boom. “What most people don’t know about Alpio is that everything he has he’s built for himself from scratch. There were a lot of rumors that he’d married into money but none of that is true – he did it all himself.”
Born in Malta and the youngest in a large family, Alpio’s drive to succeed is rooted in sibling rivalry and a desire to be viewed as a professional.
“Being the last one, being the baby, I always [had to] prove myself. I’ve got a brother who is superintendent of schools. And I’m in the tire business. So I’m the tire guy and my brother is an educator, and it was my brother that got my mom’s attention, so she didn’t mean it in any way, but there was a lot of teasing. But I’m the tire man. Then it’s the same thing in the community. This guy is a banker and this guy’s a lawyer – like the tire business is second-string or something. I said ‘no way.’ We’ve got to keep your second most expensive investment you’ve made on the road – your first one is your house…. So give us the credit for what we do.”
Alpio started working on cars when he was a kid alongside his older brother, Joe, who was a mechanic. “When you come from a family of six, we didn’t have a whole lot of money so we worked on our cars, or I should say my brother worked on those cars,” Alpio recalls. “I would always be hanging around, whether I was fetching the parts or whether I’d go to the parts store with him. That drew me into it. And we were all good with our hands – except my brother, Manuel. He’s the superintendent of schools so we give him a hard time because he probably doesn’t even know what side of the screwdriver to hold,” he laughs. “We always have so much fun, but that’s what drove me.”
When Alpio was 28 working in the industry, he attended a tire dealer council meeting. At the table, he noticed something that bothered him.
“Everyone at those meetings was wearing a Rolex,” he recalls. “And I said to myself, I’m going to get rid of this Timex and I’m going to get a Rolex. And that was my goal.”
At the age of 40, he finally bought his first Rolex, a watch that he still has today. “It took me 12 years, but I did it,” he said.
“You know, being the youngest I just wanted to prove that I could do it, that’s all. I’m still just as driven.”
Monroe says he can relate to Alpio’s passion to prove himself. “I think what drives guys like Alpio and myself, bottom line, is the fear of failure, coming from absolutely nothing. And that’s where it comes from. It is so important to him to have all the I’s dotted all the T’s crossed. You know I’ve heard him tell a story about they clean their bathrooms like every 10 minutes or something.”
True. At Redwood General Tire, every detail matters – from the condition of the shop to the way employees present themselves. All of those details build a sense of integrity, which translates into a goal of providing a “perfect” customer experience – exactly what the team works hard each day to achieve.
“We have to have a clean store – a very clean store. Our bathrooms are known to be spotless,” said Alpio. “Customers tell us that ‘I wish I had a bathroom this nice and clean.’”
Focusing On Success
But operating a tire business in California comes with its own set of challenges. According to TIA’s Littlefield, environmental challenges, financial concerns, real estate costs and the temptation of expanding a successful business too quickly all could’ve easily derailed Alpio’s success, but instead he stayed true to his vision.
“Alpio focused on what he was doing and made it the best it could be, and didn’t worry about expanding, didn’t worry about being in three states, didn’t worry about any of that. He took what he had, and he wanted to make it a model for the country.”
People attribute Alpio’s success to his business’ talented team members, excellent customer service and reputation for giving back so generously to the community. Yet Fleischmann thinks Redwood General’s success is also based on Alpio’s high expectations in others – it’s how he operates.
“He’s got a very high standard of conduct,” said Fleischmann. “He’s very old guard when it comes to making sure that people are dressed a certain way, that they’re conducting themselves a certain way, which is a hard thing to do being an owner today. Obviously I love the fact that he as an old-school feeling in his store, even as he’s got a lot of competition.”
To maintain that classic image, Redwood General Tire provides its team members five shirts per season, each a different color and all employees are to wear the same color that coordinates by day of week. He even scored a deal with a local dry cleaner so his team could get their shirts professionally cleaned and pressed each week at a discount.
For Alpio, professionalism is paramount.
“If you have tattoos, you’re wearing a long-sleeved shirt. If you want to wear a hat and you’re going to wear it with Redwood General attire, then you’re going to wear it straight – you’re not going to wear it backwards and you won’t wear it crooked,” explains Alpio. “If you wear a size 34 or 36 pants then you’re not going to wear a 38, and you’re not going to wear a 40. They’re not going to go below your belt line. You have to look like a pro. Your tools, your work area – it’s going to be clean.”
Fleischmann went on to say that Alpio is best at giving people the empowerment to make decisions to take care of the customer. Plus, he treats people like old friends.
“We take the time with each customer, so much so that we kid each other at our store,” shares Alpio. “We always say, ‘Okay, but did you get invited for Thanksgiving dinner? You already know everything about her family!’ And that’s because we take so long with each customer to explain what we know.” Alpio adds that it’s those customer relationships and being part of the community that keeps Redwood on top.
Honesty and Passion
When asked what advice he would give to others in the industry who might be starting out or taking over a legacy family dealership, he said running a successful tire dealership comes down into two things: honesty and passion.
“Be very honest and be very committed, and you have to have the passion. But the tire business is not glamorous. You’re going to get your hands dirty, your fingernails dirty and everything else. But it’s a very successful business and [it’s been] very lucrative to me. It’s a great business. I love it. I just love it.”
When asked for an example of what it means to make honesty part of your culture, Alpio said mistakes are part of the business but having the honesty to admit it and fix it can go a long way with building trust with customers.
“And let me tell you, in our business we’re going to make mistakes. Cars are complex; you have to fix them and admit it if you made a mistake. [If you only do tires, it’s hard to screw that up.] But for us independent tire dealers who do mechanical work, it can be tough.”