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2010 Top Shop Finalist: Robertson Tire Co.

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As a third-generation, family-owned tire and service dealer based in Tulsa, Okla., Robert­son Tire Co. is one of the most recognizable retail brands in the northeastern part of the state.

In its nearly 50 years of existence, Robertson Tire has established a strong connection with its customers and has built countless relationships with people throughout the community. Despite the downturn in the economy, the company is experiencing record monthly sales and higher customer traffic – a credit to the trust and loyalty of thousands of satisfied customers.

By aggressively remaining in front of potential obstacles, preparing for any situation and creating a resiliency throughout the organization, Robertson Tire not only has survived, it’s thrived. These strengths are among the reasons why Robertson Tire is a 2010 Tire Review Top Shop Finalist.

Building the Base

In 1962,Ted Robertson opened a two-bay tire shop near downtown Tulsa. He built the company’s reputation by creating personal relationships with every customer who walked through the door. “There are hundreds of people, still today, who use Robertson Tire because of those relationships created nearly 50 years ago,” says Ted’s son, current company president and COO Mark Robertson. “Our goal has been to uphold that type of customer service, even though our company has grown to be much larger.

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“When it comes down to it, cust­omers really only remember one thing: ‘How did I feel when I left the store?’ If we can be sure to shower them with kindness, service their vehicle efficiently for a great price and make them feel like they have a friend in the auto business, then we’ve succeeded once again,” Mark says. He summarizes the company’s success this way: “It would be impossible for a company to last as long as we have without treating customers with honesty and integrity on every level.”

A Family Business

robertsontiretires2Founder, Ted, 79, still comes into the office part-time, even though he officially announced his retirement in 1998. Mark’s brother, Rick, is vice president and Mark’s son, Shane, serves as corporate development director. In all, seven members of the family work for the company, from tire shop to store management to boardroom.

The Robertson family recognized early on the challenges of running a multi-generational business, and made a decision to always keep an open line of communication on every business matter, to not take business disagreements personally and to always work toward the same goal. “Having members of the family in every segment of the business at any given time has been the key to understanding the day-to-day operations,” says Mark. “This way, issues are always addressed quickly.”

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Running a family business is widely considered an obstacle as a company becomes larger, but for the Robertson family, it is consistently used as an advantage. Each person’s strengths and preferences complement the other’s. For example, Mark likes being out front, making sales and dealing with customers; Rick prefers the back office and handling payroll, accounts and the warehouse.

Still Growing

In 1987, Robertson Tire opened its second location in Tulsa, followed by a third store in 1994 in Broken Arrow, Okla. Since then, the company has averaged a new store opening approximately every two years and has increased in size to 115 employees. With 10 retail locations, and an 11th scheduled to open next month, Robertson Tire has grown to be one of the most successful independent tire retailers in the country, and is recognized as one of the 100 largest independent tire dealers in the U.S.

robertsontirecounterIn addition to the retail operations, the company includes a powerful wholesale division, a corporate office and data center. With a sales mix of 70% tires and 30% service, the company’s total sales for 2009 pushed $20 million. Retail sales accounted for 85% of the total, with 15% coming from wholesale. Robertson Tire handles all buying and marketing in-house, making decisions using input from employees, customers and the rest of the family. The tire brands the company offers include: Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Riken, Goodyear, Kelly, Dunlop, Hankook and Pirelli.

And when it comes to brands, Robertson itself has become one of the most recognizable in the Tulsa area. The company was named Tulsa’s Best Tire Dealer by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It also was recently voted “the best tire dealer” in Owasso by that town’s citizens, as well as Claremore’s “favorite tire dealer” by a vote in that community. Robertson maintains membership in the chambers of commerce in the towns it does business, plus the Better Business Bureau, Tulsa Exec­utives Association and Executive Women International.

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Customers Keep Rollin’ In

Robertson Tire boasts a carefully crafted marketing plan. The company’s slogan, “Keep Rollin’ with Robertson,” was created to encompass what it is trying to communicate to the community. “Using the word ‘rollin’ to create a visual image of a rolling tire was the first key element,” Shane explains. “Next, we wanted our slogan to remind people of how long we’ve been around by asking them to ‘keep rollin’ with us. It’s rare to find a tire company the size of ours that has lasted nearly 50 years, especially one that has lasted through three generations of family.”

robertsontireinteriorThe company’s annual advertising budget rises by a small amount each year. For 2010, the total ad budget is $305,000; for 2011, it will be $335,000. More than 70% is earmarked for radio. Robertson Tire has a memorable advertising jingle that has become a Tulsa trademark. “It is not uncommon to hear a person humming or singing the jingle at the supermarket, the bank, or anywhere else,” says Shane. “This is our strongest advertising method. Because of our catchy jingle, and the fact that people listening to the radio are usually in their vehicles, we are able to not only brand ourselves, but we are catching our customers while they might be noticing issues with their car.”

Mark Robertson says the company advertises on the top 12 or 13 stations, from classical and easy-listening to hard rock and rap, because “Anyone who can buy tires is our demographic, age 16 to 85.”

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The remainder of the media mix includes phonebook advertising to maintain a presence for the population that continues to use this medium, and college and high school sports sponsorships, including University of Tulsa football and basketball, plus Oral Roberts University basketball and baseball. Robertson advertises on schedules, stadium and arena signs, and special promotions like the “Race to 3,000 Yards” with TU football.

robertsontireoutsideDirect mail, with Valpak Advertising distributed to 160,000 homes per month in every zip code in Tulsa, and Internet advertising – including search engine optimization, targeted behavioral advertising and mobile phone advertising – is also part of the mix.

Robertson Tire recently gave its website a major facelift. Shane explains, “Our goal for the website was first to show that our company was strong and stable with clean design and friendly graphics, and secondly, to make it easy for customers to find a location and to contact us quickly via e-mail or phone.”

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Rounding out the redesign was added content on car care tips and education for customers. “We inform customers of what we have to offer them, and encourage them to come into a store today,” Shane enthuses.

As part of its social media strategy, Robertson has a page on Facebook and a steady following on Twitter. “These sites serve as a way to communicate car care tips, exclusive online discounts and corporate announcements to our most loyal customers,” says Shane.

Community Involvement

Besides customer outreach via social media, Robertson reaches out to customers through various community and charitable endeavors. Whether it’s sponsoring school and church events or donating to a local fundraiser, it’s not uncommon to see Robertson Tire’s name connected to a worthy cause. “As a rule, we always donate at least one free oil change certificate to any cause that requests our support,” according to Shane.

robertsontirecoffeeAmong other examples of what Robertson does to serve its community is the Uniroyal Soccer Program, in which the company partners with Michelin to donate a portion of proceeds from all Uniroyal tires sold to local soccer clubs. “In addition to this donation, we give away thousands of soccer balls to four different soccer clubs in the area, and are the title sponsor of the Owasso Soccer club, providing jerseys to the players,” Shane says proudly.

In 2010, Robertson Tire began a new event, supporting Operation Smile. “We’ve supported this charity for many years, but decided to take it to the next level for 2010,” says Mark. Multiple, costly surgeries to correct cleft palates are often required as a child reaches maturity. The Operation Smile organization gives free surgeries to children with facial birth defects around the world. During the month of August, Robertson Tire donated a portion of every tire sold at retail to Operation Smile under its “Buy a Tire, Change a Life” program. This is something the company plans on repeating every August.

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In addition to a number of nationally known charities, a list of other local causes Robertson Tire supports in­clud­es: the Mend Pregnancy Clinic, Day­spring Women’s Shelter, South­minster Senior Center, Bit by Bit Equestrian Center, Hope Harbor Children’s Home, A New Leaf Disability Center and the Tulsa Fatherhood Coalition.

Customers for Life

In explaining the company’s success, Mark says, “We carry the best brands and are known for that. We do not discount. We’re not the highest priced and not the cheapest, but as a customer, you will get service.”

robertsontireinterior2Although it’s not advertised, Robert­son Tire does not charge for simple flat repairs. “Customers never expect it, and they always appreciate it,” says Mark. “We’ve earned hundreds of lifetime customers just for repairing a flat for free. In a market as competitive as ours, it’s the small things like this that help us stand apart from the others.”

Fan mail backs up his claim. One customer wrote: “As a regional leader in my company, I am all about the customer experience. That simple gesture [a free flat fix for his wife’s car] has gained Robertson Tire a customer for life. I have not purchased tires or any other services from your company before but will in the future.”

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Another convert wrote: “I had run over something that had punctured my right front tire and it was losing air, quickly. Your store employees took such good care of me, and quickly! And didn’t charge me! Wow! You have a customer for life!”

Said another: “I am a single woman and always nervous about dealing with my auto issues, not knowing if I may get taken advantage of since I know nothing about auto repair. The employee was very helpful, seemed very concerned and went out of his way to find me the best deal. Since he made my visit such a positive one, I will continue to bring my business back to your store.”

Such positive customer-employee interactions are no accident. Every new employee is given a handbook that begins by talking about customer satisfaction. “From time to time, we even ‘secret shop’ our employees, just to see how they are doing,” Mark says. “Customers are the reason we are still in business, and they always will be.”

robertsontirewaitingarea2Once they have won over customers, Robertson Tire tries hard to keep them. With the purchase of four tires, they give customers free rotations, free flat repairs and free balancing for the life of the tires. “Deals like these keep our customers very happy, and it is very rare that they ever have an issue with us,” Mark adds.

In the rare case a customer has a complaint, it is handled quickly. “We have a small team of auto service and repair experts working at our corporate office who call these customers and even meet with them face to face if necessary,” Mark explains. “In almost every case, the customer ends up feeling better, and if we didn’t have them already, they become a customer for life.”

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It’s not considered a loss to give a customer a free tire or brake job. These expenses simply go into a segment of the budget called Customer Satis­faction. “If you aren’t spending a little extra money here and there to save a customer, then you’ll run out of customers pretty quickly,” Mark observes. “The only real loss would be losing them as a customer forever.”

To further please customers, every store offers amenities such as flat-screen TV with cable; wireless Internet; current newspapers and magazines; free coffee; vending machines with soda and snacks; clean, comfortable waiting areas and restrooms; and large windows for customers to view vehicle repairs. Robertson also offers customers who cannot wait for repairs free shuttle rides to and from work or home. “It is always our pleasure to say ‘Yes’ to these types of requests, rather than giving the customer a reason to have a bad feeling about us when they leave,” Mark says.

Delivering top-shelf customer service means having top-shelf, well-trained employees. Robertson Tire places a heavy emphasis on training and development of its employees, encouraging them to participate in vendor training programs regionally and nationally. The company also has created a centralized, state-of-the-art room equipped with the latest technology to train sales people. All technicians are required to be ASE-certified to work at Robertson Tire, and the company helps by giving them time to get certification and by offering testing and training.

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Battling the Economy

Every company must react to rough economic times, but Robertson has worked hard to stay ahead. The company has created efficient, profitable relationships with its financial institutions. Economic stress is much less of an issue because the company has built equity. The company paid off about half of its outstanding 10-year notes in six years, Mark reports, and has completely paid off four. Aggressively paying off its building loans has helped when they go to the bank for more, he says. Planning ahead, he’d like to see the company add a few more stores in the Tulsa area in the next few years, but not grow so big that it loses its family feel.

The business mix has changed, too. “Many customers are hanging on to their vehicles for longer periods of time, so we have trained our employees on our maintenance services, such as fluids, flushes, etc., much more than we used to,” Mark observes. “We also advertise our auto service options more often. We want our customers to know that they have a place to get nearly everything their vehicle needs.”

The result? Robertson Tire is on pace for a record sales year in 2010. Shane summarizes: “So, when somebody asks how the economy has affected us, our answer is simply, ‘We didn’t let it.’”

Perfecting Tire Inventory

robertsontirebaysAnother secret to success, according to Mark, is mastery of the tire inventory process, arguably one of the toughest elements of the business.

The total inventory held throughout the company – at all of its retail locations, a wholesale division, and large distribution warehouse – is anywhere from 12,000 to 13,000 tires at any given time. In addition to the Robertson family, the company has two full-time employees who handle the day-to-day buying and ordering process, as well as setting yearly buying and selling goals.

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Each store has its own small warehouse and inventory stock level, based on past sales, that is managed from the corporate office. Every morning, a delivery truck replenishes all stores. A computer system assists in transferring stock from one location to another. Inventory is performed at each store once per month, as well as at the main warehouse.

Robertson Tire stores are certified NAPA AutoCare Centers, and the company also maintains an exclusive NAPA auto parts warehouse at one central location, employing NAPA auto experts, and stocking thousands of SKUs. When a company store is in need of an auto part, it calls the Robertson Tire/NAPA warehouse and a driver delivers the part to that store. According to NAPA, it is one of the most efficient and profitable auto parts systems in the nation, says Mark.

Next Generation on Track

robertstontirewaitingareaThird-generation companies are at high risk for failure, Shane Robertson, age 27, realizes. He admits he’s reaping benefits from the efforts of previous generations of his family, and knows he must be patient when introducing new ideas and ways to run the business.

“What I’m learning is don’t worry about getting credit for everything that you do. Just worry about the company and doing what’s best for it,” he observes, with wisdom beyond his years. “As long as what you’re doing is best for the company, and you’re not worried about your own ego and pride and your own self, then it’ll pay off in the long run.”

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And for now, it has paid off with being a 2010 Tire Review Top Shop Finalist.

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