The day that Henry Hay was criticized for being "too damned honest to be in the retail tire business" was the day he made one of the best decisions of his life.
"I was operating a tire store as a minority stockholder," recalls the elder co-owner of the Charleston, S.C.-based father-and-son dealership, Hay Tire Pros. "The majority owner was operating another business and was never on site. He came in one Monday morning to talk: He had three issues to discuss about my management style.
“He complained that I talked with my employees and frequently listened to their comments and suggestions,” Hay lists. “He said I should just tell them what to do, and if they didn’t follow orders, fire them. Then he criticized the way I left the office door open and encouraged customers to just walk in any time and talk. He said that they are just customers, that they’ll come to the store anyway, and that they didn’t need to know or like me.
“His final comment was that I was just ‘too damned honest to be in the retail tire business,’” Hay says.
That dealership, then 20 years old and expected by the majority owner to survive indefinitely, shut down 18 months later.
Lucky for Hay, he decided with his wife on the night of his chastisement in 1981 to start his own business. And now, Hay Tire grosses more than $4 million annually and employs 26 full-timers and five part-timers at two locations.
“Back then, I had one son just starting medical school and two sons still in college,” he says. “They had all attended private grade and high school, and all my savings were fully invested in providing them with the best educations possible. To start our business, I sold my home, an apartment building and my boat. I also borrowed funds from family members and faced commercial interest rates of 18.5%. I leased an abandoned restaurant, remodeled it, ordered equipment and tires, and launched the store 45 days after leaving the other business.
“What a profound and rewarding impact those three complaints all those years ago have had,” Hay reflects, “on my life and so many others.”
And now the business can add yet another accomplishment: earning the distinction of being a 2011 Tire Review Top Shop Award Finalist.
Treat ’em Like Mom
One might not think that good customer service would be hard to find in the mecca of Southern hospitality and charm that is Charleston. But David Hay, Henry’s son and the dealership’s other co-owner, says that’s the case.
“Even in a city well-known for its graciousness and politeness, auto-repair shops have a reputation for being just the opposite,” he says. “When we started Hay Tire in 1981, we realized that we, along with all of our employees, would have to work hard to earn the trust and loyalty of customers. Our customer service philosophy has not changed in the 30 years since.”
David says his enduring formula for success, like his father’s, revolves around people.
“You have to like people and interacting with them,” he explains. “You have to genuinely enjoy working with people and surround yourself with those you enjoy being with, realizing that we spend more time with co-workers than with family. Challenge your folks to do the best they can. Delegate and then let them manage their responsibilities. Provide a happy, humorous work environment. If you spend those hours with the right folks, then all that’s left to do is serve the customers.
“We get to know our customers and their cars, their families and their interests,” he adds. “And treating new customers as if we already know them makes them feel comfortable and at ease. They enjoy the experience and will return.”
Among the things Hay Tire offers to cultivate customer satisfaction are complimentary shuttle service, free Wi-Fi and coffee in a clean waiting room, and recognizable, long-term employees behind the counter. Last year, it also joined the Tire Pros network of independent dealers, allowing the company to maintain managerial and operational independence while providing nationwide warranties, free roadside assistance and other added values of membership in a large alliance to its customers.
“We have always focused on treating our customers as we would want our mothers to be treated,” David says. “My wife Mariana’s 100-year-old family jewelry store has the same philosophy regarding customer service. We both believe that if you take care of a customer the first and every time, they and their family and friends will keep returning, generation after generation. In many cases, we will see the same customers in both our store and hers on the same day. When you’re fully immersed in your community for so many years, you’re rewarded with wonderful, loyal customers.”
That formula has been as good for Hay Tire’s bottom line as its image.
“We have diligently cultivated a business reputation for honesty and integrity in a community where we are well-known and respected personally,” David says. “Until 2007, our growth was gradual and consistent, with an emphasis on face-to-face contact with customers. We opened a second location in November 2007 that incorporates all the features our customers have come to expect.
“Even during the recent economic downturn, we have avoided the layoffs and hour reductions other companies have experienced. The success of our expansion has led us to plan for the addition of more shops when opportunities become available.”
Where the Bucks Stop
Recognizing those potential opportunities and knowing when to pursue them and when not to has also been key to Hay Tire’s success.
“When the economy began its downturn several years ago, we didn’t feel the effects immediately,” David recalls. “Realizing that tough times would eventually hit our business, we began to budget for what we thought might happen. We had opened our second store in November 2007 and the strong sales from that store began to help cover a fair amount of our administrative costs. We looked at our personnel and really analyzed what we could do to survive the shaky economy.”
Cutting employees wasn’t a feasible approach to cost saving for the Hays, however, largely because the co-owners say they’re selective employers in the first place.
“Recruiting and retaining good folks is very difficult,” David says. “Most importantly, we look for people with the right attitude. Many of our folks have started at entry-level positions and, by demonstrating a willingness to learn and a great attitude, have ad-vanced to higher levels of responsibility. We offer continuous training in all aspects of our business, offering advanced training to help people expand their skills. We train them and pay them well, caring for and about them and their success.
“We say, ‘Welcome to your last job,’ when we hire folks,” he adds.
The floundering economy tested that loyalty, and the company passed with impressive marks.
“We knew that our people were working as hard as they could, that most employees had families who were dependent on them, that each person was as important to the business as any other, and, finally, that any reduction in wages would have huge consequences for everyone involved,” he explains. “We resolved to continue with the same employees, same hours, and the same approach to customer service. We put greater emphasis on expense management to minimize waste, but never at the expense of customer service.”
Protecting both customer service and employees, however, could only have been accomplished by Hay Tire in conjunction with strengthening the company itself.
“We actually increased our advertising budget and acquired new diagnostic tools and software,” David says. “We also invested in new equipment, including new alignment machines and racks, tire changers, balancers and nitrogen machines. We remained committed to delivering the best service with the best people and equipment in our industry. We have never wavered from that commitment, because that is what our customers have come to expect from us.”
David calls the addition of Hay Tire’s second money-making store as “providential” in relation to the company’s continued success since then. “That, along with the fact that dad and I have not had a raise in several years, has helped us get through.”
Dogs and Kids
So, with as folksy as Hay Tire’s approaches are to customer service, employee relations and business strategy, it only makes sense that the company would promote that image and market itself accordingly. And that’s what it has done, with award-winning success.
Most notable in the company’s mix of marketing products and advertisements is a long-standing series of image-oriented television commercials that have won local Addy Awards. Shot in tranquil, scenic landscapes from the region’s “low country,” they offer welcoming messages from the Hays, often featuring three generations of the family casting fishing nets in slow-mo. Meanwhile, the company pet and mascot, Remus the black labrador who basks in the loving attention of customers at the shops frolicks along with a cute pile of pups.
It’s shamelessly sweet, perhaps, but hugely successful.
“Every week customers tell our staff or write on our Facebook wall expressing their adoration of our commercials,” David says. “They were designed to evoke feelings of comfort and relaxation without a strong ‘buy now’ message and an emphasis on good ol’, down-home customer service.
“We’re often flattered to hear that some other ad agency or business wants to develop an ad campaign ‘just like Hay Tire’s,’” adds David, who developed the content, setting and message of the series himself. “Right away, we began to earn awards and glowing comments on our style of ads. Our placement was as intentional as our style, selecting local morning and evening news slots on the major networks. For several years, we even advertised in the local slots during the Super Bowl. It really generated some buzz.”
But, for Hay Tire, creating a buzz seems secondary to ringing true. “We want people to see us as we are local folks running a family-owned business for more than 30 years,” David says. “Often, we’re not advertising a specific offer; we just want to show people who we are. If you’re comfortable with what you see on TV, then come in and give us a try. You’ll find our stores to be just like our ads: honest, relaxed and hassle-free.”
Down-home, however, doesn’t mean backward when it comes to the Hays. “As our marketing environment has evolved, so has our willingness to consider new forms of marketing,” David explains. “Our attitude has become, ‘If we don’t understand it, maybe we should try it.’”
As a result, Hay Tire has dabbled with mover mailers, bulk-mail coupons, internally and externally produced customer retention mailings, neighborhood magazines and group discounts. It has a frequently-updated website, a 400-plus-fan Facebook page (which often highlights Remus) and a YouTube channel.
More recently, the company has even ventured into Google AdWords, pay-per-click, Facebook ads and Living Social campaigns.
“Another way we are taking advantage of social media and positioning ourselves as trusted advisors in the community is through the release of a series of short, educational, raw home videos,” David says of the footage that features him speaking about tire and auto care issues in a conversational tone.
“They weren’t created to sell anything, but designed to educate our customers and provide an honest, open look at getting the best value out of their car and tires.” One particularly well-received installment stars David and his daughter discussing the dangers of texting while driving.
And then, of course, are the custom-designed bumper stickers that constantly are reordered due to their popularity. The catchphrases? “Save the Planet: Run on Hay,” or “Charlestonians Run on Hay,” or “My Truck Runs on Hay.”
It’s a family name, and a business name, that gets a lot of mileage in Charleston.
Community and Family
Charleston is, in fact, an integral part of Hay Tire and vice versa, according to the Hays. The co-owners ultimately (and repeatedly) attribute what they give as well as what they get to community and family.
After all, David and Henry have served on a combined total of 40 Charleston-area organizations, and in the last year alone the company has been recognized by two local publications and an area non-profit group. Hay Tire also gives nearly $8,000 annually to local schools, churches and charitable organizations through contributions, donations and gift certificates.
“We emphasize the fact that we are a local business,” David says. “There is a growing national awareness of just how important locally-owned businesses are to the success of communities. This awareness fits perfectly with what we’ve been trying to do for all these years. Long before we ever began TV advertising, our family was involved in our community.”
And long before Hay Tire was founded, Henry and David were family. It’s yet another Hay partnership that seems to endure, improve and succeed.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with my father for all these years,” David says. “Our desks sit literally side-by-side. He has been so supportive over the years as he has encouraged me to take on more and more of the leadership of the company. He has a great attitude and work ethic and he still beats me to work every morning, even at age 80.
“So much of what our business is and stands for is the direct result of his patient, courteous, generous personality,” he adds. “It is truly an honor to have been so blessed with this great relationship.”
And for these reasons, we are honored to count Hay Tire among the 2011 Tire Review Top Shop Award Finalists.
For a better look at Hay Tire Co., visit Tire Review's exclusive Facebook photo album from the 2011 Top Shop Award.