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North America's Top Shop Winner: Enger Tire & Auto

October 14, 2009
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Jim Enger is no control freak. When you have 20 retail stores, three warehouses, two parts outlets and associated business interests spread over 10 of the largest and busiest counties in Northeast Ohio, you can't micro-manage every little thing. He doesn't even try. But he does want to control his own destiny, and his approach – a unique corporate structure, absolute trust in his team and a burning desire to make every customer visit special – is part of the reason why Enger Tire & Auto Service was selected as the winner of the 2009 Tire Review Top Shop Award, presented by Ammco/Coats.

Everything with Enger Tire is intertwined in some fashion. Great employees mean great customer service, which delivers great customers who become the shop’s greatest promotional asset. Top management keeps store managers engaged, accountable and well-trained, and they, in turn, pass that attitude and focus along to the rest of the team to the extent that the good vibe bounces all the way back to the top. The stores are entirely ingrained into their local communities, schools and groups, and the residents and businesses see Enger Tire as integral to the neighborhood.

And the tire stores are part of a self-perpetuating, interwoven organization that secures real estate, constructs stores and keeps them stocked with tires, parts and accessories.

Even with all of these complex interdependencies, everything begins and ends with customer service, according to Jim Enger. “The goal is to make our customers our most loyal and active promoters. The rest of our goals and objectives will come as a result.”

And, in Enger’s eyes, every aspect of Enger Companies – the corporate umbrella – is focused on the customer.

Building an Empire
Jim Enger’s path to being an independent tire dealer was not that unusual. After a decade as a service tech and store manager for a Goodyear company-owned store, in 1995 Enger took a $50,000 home equity loan and bought his first store.

After three years of the usual first-time-business-owner trials and trepidations, Enger added a second location, leasing a purpose-built store just blocks from his childhood home. It also became a lesson he would apply later.

“I learned a lot from that one,” Enger says of the second store. “I watched how the contractor did it, and took a very hands-on approach, meeting with the contractors and architects, working with the city, reading blueprints. The owner of the building really opened up and let me see how they did it.”

The next thing Enger did was become a licensed general contractor, and then build a Rolodex of reliable, established local builders and tradesmen.

Then he took it one step further. “We looked at Baskin-Robbins. They sell great products and are very consistent, from top to bottom. We studied their franchise agreements in great detail,” he says. “We realized just how much control they had over a franchisee – from the napkins to straws to pencils to the cups and paper – everything came from corporate. Baskin-Robbins was not just in the business of selling ice cream, but selling supplies, goods and services.”

That served as the blueprint for Enger Companies. Now Enger can build a new location at substantial savings, and leverage the real estate and buildings as a revenue stream while charging the individual stores a fair rent and fair product prices that allow them to be competitive.

The all-in-one approach also helps build brand identity and consistency of products and services that help build customer loyalty, he says.

And in 2008, that approach yielded gross sales of $16.4 million, 45% of which were from tire sales.

Continued Growth
In 2002, Enger bought an empty shell in a strip mall. “We did all of the work ourselves with our own construction team that included myself, some friends, technicians and a lot of employees who wanted to make some extra money at night and on weekends.”

Enger Tire added four Lou’s Tire Mart locations in 2005, again handling all of the renovations internally. The store names were retained, Enger says, because Lou’s Tire Mart had a “strong name in the community.”

“We left off the Enger Tire name and Goodyear banner,” he says. “In Lake County, everyone knows Lou’s Tire. They had a good reputation and delivered good service. That acquisition helped us with access to other brands and we taught them about auto service and how to better merchandise that.”

More locations followed, some in existing buildings that required renovation. The rest were greenfield builds where Enger located and bought the property, then brought in outside professionals to lay the foundations, raise the structures, install utilities and grade and pave lots. Enger employees did the rest, from drywalling to laying floor tiles, painting, installing counters, shop equipment and computer systems, and landscaping.

On the architectural side, one basic store design is used, tweaked as needed to meet local requirements and necessary building footprints.

Enger estimates that the company saves some $500,000 per store by keeping the entire process in-house.

“For every store we built, I must have looked at a minimum of 10-20 locations in that area,” he says. “It’s only a good deal if it’s a good deal. You have to be firm in your negotiations and walk away if it’s not a good deal.”

Enger says he gets calls from real estate brokers all the time, and is constantly doing research on real estate opportunities. He carefully studies every aspect of every parcel, including traffic flows, the housing and business growth plans for the immediate area, and he consults with local governments to keep tabs on their business plans.

By 2018, Enger wants to have 100 retail stores, an audacious goal even in good times. Its corporate structure and in-house focus will go a long way toward realizing such rapid expansion, but Enger also knows that it takes willing and supportive suppliers to really make it work. He offers effusive praise about all of the company’s business partners, not the least of which is Goodyear. “It has always been a very strong supporter and it’s a local company, which means a lot. It has a great program in G3Express with very good dealer support, and they really helped us through our expansion program.”

The current composition of Enger Companies is a mini-version of what the company could look like as it reaches 100 locations, where every part of the group serves each other, with strong support by key parts, equipment and tire vendors like NAPA, TCI, Kaufmann Tire, Terry’s Tire Town and Flynn’s Tire, all of which “have the ability to help us grow and meet our needs in those markets.”

“Those markets” might include places like Pittsburgh, Erie, Detroit, Indianapolis and Lexington, as well as the entire state of Ohio, Enger says. He sees opportunity across the state, and 100 miles into neighboring states. Not all growth will be organic; Enger doesn’t discount acquisitions, though he has no immediate irons in that fire.

At the Shop Level
The newer Enger Tire locations, the ones built in-house, are not palaces but they are far from plain. Neat and clean, easily accessible and highly functional, they are a standard six-bay design; based on local zoning some have bay doors on both sides to allow easy pass through and additional workspace. The bay doors are precisely the size of standard strip mall windows, an intentional design feature that Enger says makes the property more saleable – just in case.

Inside, the sweeping showrooms – with ceramic tile floors and a mix of brick and painted walls (in Goodyear blue and gold) – are open and inviting. The customer waiting area, while plain, features ample family room-quality seating, flat-screen TVs, WiFi, a small collection of children’s toys, free coffee and a soda vending machine.

Tire displays cover only a portion of the walls, with plenty of space devoted to Goodyear and Dunlop lines, while stand-alone displays of Hankook and Kenda lines dot the floor. Enger also carries Bridgestone, Firestone, Michelin, BFGoodrich and Nexen. Most stores have separate restrooms for men and women, and the restrooms and showrooms are cleaned daily.

The service bays are spacious so the techs aren’t walking over each other. There is ample room for tool boxes, and diagnostic and shop tools. Each store has road force measurement equipment (“real life savers,” according to one of the district managers) in addition to changers and balancers. Based on space, the individual locations keep around 500 tires on hand, as well as a selection of fast moving parts – filters, fluids, brake components, belts and hoses, rotors, spark plugs and wires, wiper blades and courtesy products.

Trusted Support
While he is the president and owner, Enger always deflects the attention away from himself and onto his team. Day-to-day management of Enger Tire is left in the hands of two general managers, Jerry Zivoder and Ted Joseph. The three are all good friends and worked together at Goodyear.

Each day starts with a quick meeting between the three, reviewing the previous day, going over problems and setting future agendas. And that’s it until the next day. Zivoder and Joseph go off to take care of the tire stores, and Enger goes off to deal with the 10,000-foot stuff – bankers, real estate brokers, local business schools, you name it.

Supporting the GMs are two district managers, George Theodore and Joe Guglielmo, who deal day-to-day with store managers and staffs, handling training, sales promotions, job interviews, whatever is necessary to make sure everything runs smoothly between the store and the customer.

Theodore, another ex-Wingfoot who Enger describes as an Energizer Bunny, is a blur of motion and words. Neither is wasted, whether it’s a five-minute sales technique rehash for a store manager, a quick word with a customer in the waiting area, or grabbing a ringing phone while the staff is busy handling customers.

The five together have a simple, straight-forward belief: Good customers – happy, returning buyers who extol your virtues to their friends and family – are only possible if you have good, motivated and well-trained people and the right environment for them to thrive. That is the framework for everything that is Enger Tire and Enger Companies.

“Great people do great things, and we have a lot of great employees and, as a result, great customers,” he says.

Enger and his GMs and DMs know that being a retail store manager is not an easy job. So they do all they can to help each manager be successful.

First and foremost, store managers hire their own staffs. Enger wants store employees to have a close relationship with the manager, not top management, so that the employee’s loyalty is to the manager and the store. New managers are promoted from within or brought in from the outside. New locations get an experienced manager, who transfers from another Enger Tire location.

Enger Tire requires all techs and sales staff to get at least 40 hours of advanced training each year, including tire product knowledge, vehicle technical and specialized training, and OEM-specific training, as well as sales and management training programs offered by tiremakers. Service techs are required to be ASE certified, and maintain the certification. And it doesn’t hurt if they live in the neighborhood.

“We do like to have employees who live in the local communities, the markets we are in,” Enger says. “That helps them feel more a part of the store, and gives the store a greater connection locally.” Employees are encouraged to be active locally, whether it’s in churches, PTAs or even local politics, if they wish. “They become the face of Enger Tire, and have a better sense of the pulse of the community.”

He says overall employee turnover is low, though it tends to be higher at new locations, where the stress of getting started, working with new people and a new system in a new location often takes its toll on new hires. “The first 90 days is all about ‘storming, norming and performing,’” he says. It takes about 30 days for each of those employees and managers to get used to each other, go through training, understand what we are trying to do and how they fit in. If all goes well, that process builds a strong, unified team, he says. If it doesn’t, then changes can be made without long-term harm to either the employee or the store.

Each operation and store is a stand-alone profit center. They are charged rent, pay their own utilities, and buy tires, parts and supplies from other Enger Companies arms. “The stores are expected to make a profit,” he says. Store-by-store sales results are shared across the board, and sales contests dot the calendar. “That helps keep store managers hungry, keep their eyes on the ball.”

Enger and top management give their people the room to do their jobs, succeed from their own efforts, and the opportunity to do more and grow.

Jim Childs, an Enger Tire store manager, is also Enger’s Web guru. He volunteered for the Internet job, and Enger gave him the tools and encouraged him to make that task his own. As a result, Childs has undertaken a full-scale redesign of the Enger Tire Web site, including the addition of an e-commerce option so that customers can buy their tires and make installation appoints right online.

Another store manager worked out a deal with a local pizzeria. In exchange for a handful of oil changes, Enger Tire flyers now accompany every pizza the shop delivers; more than 1,000 have reached potential customers thus far. Top management wasn’t consulted, the manager just did it and was willing to accept the results.

Enger also tells the story of a young 19-year-old service tech that one of the DMs saw something in. The young man was talented and a good team player, but was a bit timid about taking on more responsibility. The DM wanted to make him the store’s parts manager, but it took weeks to convince him to take on the additional duties. There was no pay raise or extra time involved, just simply keeping track of store parts usage and making sure that parts orders were placed each day.

“He finally took the job, and he grabbed it with both hands,” Enger recounts. “He made that job his own, and really gained a lot of confidence in himself. That little thing brought up his level of pride in his job and the company. And we found someone who could make a great store manager some day.”

To Enger, it’s all about the people, and all of the little things. Add them all up and you have a strong foundation for the future.

Community Connections
As big as it is, not many people in the greater Cleveland and Akron area have heard of Enger Tire. But those local communities surrounding an Enger Tire store sure know them.

The company places great faith in the power of highly satisfied customers. Enger sees each store’s market area as a one-mile radius from the front door, a small focus by most standards, but Enger wants to stay under the radar, at least right now.

His stores are surrounded by able competition. There is the well-established Conrad’s chain, which advertises heavily to support its 30 locations, and a healthy number of NTB, Goodyear- and Bridgestone-owned stores, Sears and Walmart locations, plus dozens of smaller independents.

Heavily blue-collar, northeast Ohio has been devastated by the current economic conditions. The tire business there has been more than tough; in the past year three underperforming Enger Tire stores were closed, moves Enger did not enjoy. Given the conditions and competition, Enger is happy to stay in his own lane.

“We really focus on local markets and do those community relations things that are really meaningful to that local area,” he says, “whether its supporting Massillon Tiger football or the local festivals or the local softball and baseball teams.”

Each store is required to do two community outreach events per year, Enger says, one at the store location, like a tent sale, and another out in the community, such as having a booth at a local event. They are free to do more, and many of them do. Enger Tire is also an active member of the chambers of commerce in each community they do business in, often leading membership drives.

Women’s car care clinics, blood drives, involvement in NHRA events, support for local police associations, and dozens of school group car washes also fill the schedule. And Enger Tire has raised thousands for local charities, including the Akron Children’s Hospital Burn Unit and to help a local man who needed expensive surgery. Earlier this year, Enger Tire gave away some 200 child safety seats to needy families.

The company also works with a number of local universities, community colleges and technical schools. Right now, Enger is working with the Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management on a graduate program that can help his company “execute store expansion, marketing and strategy initiatives.” Work with Cleveland State University’s business school yielded new media approaches that Enger has employed. In return, the universities get real-world experience for students.

Enger doesn’t think it really hurts his business to not be a household name across the entire Cleveland area, even when going into a new market. “I don’t need to have my name on everything,” he says. “If we acquire a dealer that has a great reputation and has been around a long time it makes sense to keep that name.”

The long-term plan, he says, is to build toward being a household name. “It’s expensive, and it’s going to take a lot of time, but that is our plan.”

His active use of social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – might shorten that timeframe – and save some dollars. Enger Tire uses social media to communicate with customers and prospects on a regular basis – any time and from anywhere. When news broke of the 35% added tariff on China-made tires, Enger picked up his cell phone and banged out a quick “tweet” urging people to get their tires soon before prices increased.
Store and community events get the same treatment, and post-event photos, videos and information reinforce the impact of the events.

Social networks quickly and efficiently touch many people, he says, including friends, family and customers. “We want our employees to be active in this while at work,” he says. “If they have some downtime, they can go online and post something to our Facebook page or send a tweet. We post videos from events on YouTube and point people to them using Facebook and Twitter. We want to leverage all of these tools to reach as broad a base as we can, to be where customers are at any given point in time.

“Most of this isn’t really selling, but informing them about what we are involved in,” he says. “We’re promoting to them without them knowing they are being promoted to.”

Being connected has another benefit. As they wrap up their purchases, customers are encouraged to visit enger-tire.com and complete a customer service survey. Those are instantly e-mailed to the cell phones of the store manager, the GMs and DMs, and to Enger for immediate follow-up and response as needed. Enger will not allow a bad taste to linger in the mouth of any customer.

Even if they don’t respond online, all customers get a follow-up thank you card the day after their visit, and the store manager makes a personal phone call to them after a week.

“One guy once told me that I don’t have to do anything because my name is on the building,” he recalls. “I resented that statement because that is just the wrong mindset. That prevents you from succeeding, from expanding. Worst of all, that kind of mindset takes customer service and what the customer wants out of the equation.

“You’ve got to make that customer yours,” he says. “That is the beginning and end of what we are all about.”


Support on the Home Front
Raised in a single parent home by his schoolteacher mom, Helene, and mentored by his grandfather, Enger grew up loving cars – everything about them. That love took him to dozens of local races, and encouraged his career.

He has also had tremendous support at home. Unlike a lot of  independents, Enger Tire is not a family affair. At least not yet. The oldest of his four children, twin sons, are just 15 and are worried more about getting their driver’s licenses than long-term careers.

Wife, Dawn, is also a busy entrepreneur. A successful radiologist, she is managing partner of a Cleveland-area radiology firm.


Top Shop Judging

The 2009 Tire Review Top Shop Award winner and three finalists were selected through a rigorous multi-stage judging system. The first team of judges went through the dozens of original entries, selecting 20 semi-finalists.

That group of entrants completed additional entry requirements and underwent a detailed review. After that round of judging, seven semi-finalists were submitted for final judging.

Finalist Judges for the 2009 Top Shop Award represent a range of disciplines, including advertising and merchandising, customer service, vehicle service and service operations, business operations, and community service.

Based on the materials submitted, judges used a five-point scale to rate each semi-finalist on their merchandising, customer service, community service, achievement, expertise/training and appearance. Judges could award up to five discretionary points, as well.

Serving as judges this year were:

Jody DeVere, president of women’s automotive and tire and service advice Web site and certification service AskPatty.com

Chuck Seeley, vice president of marketing communications agency Crowl, Montgomery & Clark Inc.

Mitch Schneider, Babcox columnist, ASE-certified master technician and repair shop owner, and director of Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association’s   Car Care Professionals Network

David Swan, president of market intelligence and competitive data analyst InteliChek LLC

Stu Zurcher, former independent tire dealer and founder and co-owner of Dealer Strategic Planning.