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2007 Top Shop Finalist: Chapel Hill Tire Car Care Center

December 17, 2010
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As the oldest family-owned tire and auto repair facility in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Chatham County, North Carolina, Chapel Hill Tire Car Care Center greets customers by their first names and sends them out the door with a friendly smile.

Although the business prides itself on old-fashioned values with regard to customer relationships, each shop location is up to date on the latest industry technology and offers a variety of services to its customers. What was once a single store founded in 1953 has become a chain of three shops that house 44 employees and earned $5.1 million in gross sales in 2006.

Owned by Marc Pons, as well as his brother, Britt, and sister, Neill Bellamy, Chapel Hill Tire is 75% service-based and 25% tire sales-based, offering customers a choice between Kumho, Cooper, Uniroyal, Pirelli and Michelin.

“We try to be the best in our area,” Marc stresses. “We work hard to make ourselves stand out from the competition with our convenience, professionalism and trust.”

Being the best is one key reason why Chapel Hill Tire Car Care Center was a Top Shop Award Finalist. But the road to success wasn’t always pothole-free, Marc says.

His father, Al Pons, bought Chapel Hill Tire in 1964 from its founder, Sion Jennings, and successfully built up and ran the business for over 30 years. Both Al and the shop became town fixtures, Marc says.

Because he didn’t want to work at the dealership and be pegged as “the boss’ son,” Marc went in another direction. After completing college, he moved to New York City and worked for Chase Manhattan Bank. He was three years out of college when his father died unexpectedly in December 1996. Marc immediately knew that he’d move back home to join Britt in the business, and honor their father’s memory by keeping alive the business that he had loved and that had always provided for their family.

Thrown into a business he knew nothing about, Marc, then all of 26, struggled to earn respect and learn to manage others. Thanks to a hard-working and respectful attitude, plus the guidance of two of his father’s former employees who had previously moved on to open their own shops, Marc began grasping the financial and managerial issues of owning his own company. And although some employees left while Chapel Hill Tire went through the transition, many waited it out and still work for the company today, he says.

“My father had a big personality and he was larger than life,” Marc recounts. “To this day, people still come into the store and say nice things about him and that they still miss him. I knew there was no way I could measure up to him.”

He notes the keys to his success have been to sell his vision and get all the employees to start looking forward while still being true to Chapel Hill Tire’s past.

A large part of looking forward has been to keep staff trained on the ever-changing industry technology. All full-time employees are required to obtain 40 hours of training per year. As of August, over 860 cumulative training hours
had been completed in 2007, including two weeklong trips, one for a service advisor to attend an advanced selling skills class and another for a technician to attend an air conditioning course. Another technician is scheduled to attend a weeklong brake course at the Raybestos headquarters in Chicago, Marc says.

The More Things Change...
“I’m paranoid that we will become antiquated,” he says. “That’s because things are changing so fast in the industry now. It’s just like any other industry, technology is coming and going, and before you even get a grip on last year’s thing, this year’s thing comes along. What’s essential to staying competitive is having a culture of learning, a culture that embraces these things and wants to tackle them.”

Aside from a culture of learning, Chapel Hill Tire’s staff prides itself on several other key business values – trust, professionalism and remaining true to the community. The company’s values statement is extensive, but hinges on honesty, quality service, improvement and treating people with the utmost respect, Marc says.

Dozens of customer testimonials back up his statement and recall instances when Chapel Hill Tire employees lent a courteous, helping hand, sometimes refusing to accept money and at other times going out of their way to provide an extra service.

Marc explains that no matter how much technology and computers will change the world, people will always choose a tire and automotive service provider based on personal interaction and trust.

“We’re not pushy,” he says. “We’re professional and courteous. We go out of our way to be very conscious of people’s time, like with our shuttle vans and appointments. We are numbers-focused and intense in the financial area, but at the end of the day, what it really comes down to is the relationships with our customers.”

Chapel Hill Tire is as equally focused on earning the trust of new customers as it is in retaining its relationships with established clientele.

“New customers don’t come at the expense of serving old customers,” Marc says. “If that happens, we’re not doing something right. We want to continue to grow and build for families, and that means accepting new people.”

Through a marketing program that involves advertisements, discounts and coupons, a referral program and the promise of convenience, the shops are continually gaining new customers. Their target customers are females between the ages of 30 and 60 with an average annual household income of between $75,000 and $150,000.

“We had some strategy sessions a few years ago, where we worked with a consultant,” Marc explains. “It just came to the fact that those customers are the ones we enjoy serving the most.”

Because of the showroom designs, marketing and the way the staff approaches people, women are very comfortable at Chapel Hill Tire. Females make up at least 60% of the customer base.

“It all has to do with the interaction,” Marc says. “We’ve never been accused of talking down to female customers or treating them differently.”

The company’s promise of convenience encompasses many aspects, one of which is the location of each of the three shops – in downtown Chapel Hill, downtown Carrboro and a location in the fast-growing part of southern Chapel Hill. They take both waiting and drop-off appointments for quick services like rotations, new tires, alignments, oil changes and state inspections. More time-intensive repairs can be scheduled for drop off and pick up by the end of the day, and each branch offers a complimentary shuttle service. Each week, the company sends out 700-plus mail and e-mail appointment reminders, he says.

To build a trusting customer base, Chapel Hill Tire backs up its services with guarantees. All tire sales include free rotations and flat tire repairs for life, as well as complimentary road hazard service that covers the first 2/32nds of tread wear. All parts carry a two-year/24,000 mile warranty, which Marc says is twice as long as any dealership in the area.

After each job is completed, one of the owners places a follow-up phone call to customers to ask whether they were pleased with the friendliness and timeliness of their experience and if they were satisfied enough to recommend the shop to a friend, he says.

Staying Involved
As a well-known fixture in the community, Chapel Hill Tire is a member of several local organizations, including the Independent Garage Owners of North Carolina, the Chapel Hill Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, the chamber’s Economic Development Committee and AAA of North Carolina, among many, many others.

Each year the company chooses a few nonprofit organizations to support, often involving children or causes for which employees feel a passion. The shop has been a silver sponsor of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life for two years, and a group of employees walked in the event and sold refreshments to raise even more money this year. They also donated funds twice to the Carrboro Arts Center’s Youth Performing Arts Conservatory and recently began their fourth consecutive year with Uniroyal’s soccer ball giveaway program. Because of Chapel Hill’s involvement, children in two local soccer leagues will receive free soccer balls, Marc says.

“Giving to the community is our heritage,” he explains. “It’s something we’ve done for such a long time. We want to give back as a way of showing our appreciation for the success we’ve had.”

That success is tangible, considering the company had one location in 1996 with revenue of $1.5 million, and is aiming for a sales record of $5.5 million this year from its three shops. Additionally, land has already been purchased for a fourth location and the company is negotiating a land deal for a fifth store. The 10-year goal is to have seven stores in operation with total annual sales of $14 million, Marc says.

Considering all the struggles his family overcame to get Chapel Hill Tire where it is today, Marc is glad he rose to the challenge.

“I definitely feel like it’s one of those really, really hard things that happens to you in life that when you come through it, you come out a better person,” he says. “I’m a better person for it.”