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2010 Top Shop Finalist: Waukegan Tire & Supply Co.

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Waukegan Tire & Supply Co. Inc. has learned to adapt. The company did not just accept change because there was no other choice; it embraced change, and is thriving as a result.

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From adopting social media to keeping pace with shifting demographics, the company has found ways to grow a sense of community. As a family-run business, it is naturally focused on personal relationships, and has chosen to see not only customers but also the en­tire community as its extended family.

Being a responsible family member, the company contributes to local charities and participates in community events. By doing so, Waukegan Tire becomes more than just a business, and the community has responded by welcoming it as family, too. Everyone benefits. For this accomplishment – always a work in progress – and for the components of the plan that contributed to it, Waukegan Tire has earned the distinction of being a 2010 Tire Review Top Shop Finalist.

A Family Affair

After being a store manager for nine years with Goodyear, Gerald “Jerry” Nerheim opened Waukegan Tire in 1968, and he has been actively involved ever since. Even today, at age 75, as president and CEO, he is likely to be down in the showroom talking to customers. According to his daughter, Julie Scroggins, company vice president and CFO, “He loves to give customers a tour of our whole facility and introduce them to all of our people. It’s where he’s happiest.”

waukeganbayJerry’s son, Steve Nerheim, vice president and COO, remarks, “Dad hasn’t slowed down yet – he’s an amazing guy. He loves to be behind the counter and has such a passion for it. We work really hard to keep up with his always-growing ideas.”

The company benefits from having two generations of leaders making decisions. Steve, who has been part of the business “as long as I can remember,” says, “I feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to work side-by-side with my father, sister and two brothers-in-law.” His father-in-law works there, too, and many employees who have been with the company a long time have other family members working there, as well. “We really do have a family of employees,” Steve adds.

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Scroggins says of her brother, “Both of us were raised in the business, so it’s definitely a part of who we are.” The siblings, now in their 40s, work well together. Steve is responsible for the managers, retail stores and custom wheels while Julie oversees pricing, accounts and the graphics department.

The third generation is active, also. Of course, Jerry is the adoring grandpa when he mentions his eight grandkids, the oldest now 18, and how they are very involved in community events. The “troops,” as Jerry calls them, help with face-painting and other child-friendly activities at fairs and festivals in which Waukegan Tire is a participant. “They feel it’s their business, too,” he says with pride.

Waukegan Tire has four retail locations: two in Waukegan, Ill., and one each in Park City and Grayslake, Ill. Corporate offices and the wholesale operation are located within the Park City store.

Tire brands the company regularly stocks include: Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Hankook, Goodyear, Dunlop, Continental, General, Vogue, Toyo, Vredestein and Nokian.

With a sales mix of 65% tires and 35% vehicle service, total gross sales in 2008 were $18 million. Retail sales accounted for 55% of the total and wholesale 45%. The company has 75 full-time and 10 part-time employees. Combined, the technicians have more than 166 years of experience in vehicle repairs. All of the auto service technicians are ASE-certified, with most having multiple certifications. And most sales associates are ASE-certified automobile service consultants.

Partnering for growth

As a company, Waukegan Tire has been aware of the need to pay special attention to women consumers. “We operate in a male-dominated industry that traditionally has not focused on the needs or wants of women, who account for more than half of our customers,” Scroggins explains. “I realized it would be a great benefit to our employees to go through the Ask­Patty.com Certified Female Friendly program, and our employees felt they learned how to communicate better with female consumers.”

The partnership has been valuable in other ways. “Once our entire staff went through the program’s training and all of our shops became AskPatty.com Certified Female Friendly, we began to pursue the realm of digital media,” says Scroggins. It has lead directly to expanding the company’s use of social media by putting employees’ automotive expertise and newly acquired communication skills online to interact with female customers.

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New Media Mavens

Waukegan Tire recognized it could no longer ignore the change in how businesses and consumers interact. To stay current, instead of using traditional advertising such as newspaper ads, TV spots, printed yellow page ads and direct mail, the company developed a strong social media presence to reach its audience.

What distinguishes the effort is that Waukegan Tire uses Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube to primarily inform customers, not to sell to them – at least not directly. “We’re trying to educate our fans, our customers, by presenting auto and maintenance tips – not push sales,” Jerry explains.

waukeganbays2“Because women are the dominant users of social media, we post content of interest to a female audience, such as a lot of safety information,” says Julie Serritella, in charge of social media for the company. “Social media also helps us update the public on our community involvement, which helps us rally support for local organizations and causes that we sponsor and feel passionate about. Social media has given us the opportunity to showcase the personality of the Waukegan Tire brand – how we are a family and how we reach out to the community. That resonates with
the female audience.”

Social media platforms also facilitate directed, measurable marketing campaigns. “Facebook lets us reach a large audience and, at the same time, target specific demographics through Facebook ads,” Serritella notes. “With Twitter, we are able to target specific subject matter or even dictate the local zip codes we want. This allows us to follow and be followed based on very specific criteria. YouTube provides the perfect platform for promoting and showcasing our automotive expertise, as well as our community involvement.”

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She believes the social media efforts are efficient, successful, and best of all, provide fun and interactive contact with consumers. Metrics document the claim. Shortly after starting to use Facebook, it became the number one method by which people linked to the company website – surpassing Google, Bing and Yahoo.

Scroggins credits the coaching of AskPatty.com CEO Jody DeVere for teaching the company to track its marketing techniques, proving they work. These methods include monthly in-store promotions that appeal to female customers.

“Through in-store raffles, we have the chance to acquire contacts by offering customers the opportunity to volunteer their e-mail addresses,” says Scroggins. It’s part of an overall strategy to develop consumer awareness of Waukegan Tire and its values. “The more opportunities we have to interact openly and honestly with our community and clients, the more we become the trusted brand for automotive expertise.”

Customer Service in Action

waukegancounterBecause of the company’s awareness of marketing to women, the family-approach pervades everything the staff does. “We treat every customer as family; we respect them,” says Jerry. “We don’t talk down to them or treat them as ignorant. Our technicians take time to talk with them, tell them exactly what needs to be repaired and why, and do so in a friendly manner.” Women, especially, have commented favorably on that, he adds.

“Jerry’s belief of putting the customer’s needs first and ensuring that the right product is on the right vehicle is at the core of our company’s philosophy and is ingrained in every aspect of our operation,” Steve says. “We have always operated with integrity, something we all learned from Jerry.”

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Expertise – Down Cold

Knowing the market and offering products to match is another hallmark of the successful tire shop. A custom winter tire-and-wheel package is where the company has created a niche that exemplifies its motto as “Tire & Wheel Xperts.”

Because Waukegan is midway between Chicago and Milwaukee, the company sees both Bears and Packers football fans. More importantly, that tells you they are right in the middle of the snow belt, with frequently miserable, slushy driving conditions. To help commuters negotiate long, dangerous journeys on slick highways, Waukegan Tire offers tire packages for cold, slippery roads – primarily from Vredestein and Nokian – which people can use 12 months a year.

To match the tires, Waukegan Tire offers custom wheels for which they own the mold, made exclusively for them. It’s a unique offering: high-quality wheels for high-value cars, paired with silica-based tires that help customers drive straight in the cold. The stylish, all-weather package is complete with TPMS, all the hardware and proper balancing. The offering has become so popular that steady business comes from car dealers, as well as the tire dealer’s own customers, including plenty of sports celebrities from area teams.

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“Without naming names, we’ve had the most famous basketball player and most famous football players here,” Jerry says with satisfaction. “We service their cars – even their coaches’ cars – all the time.”

Training is Ongoing

waukeganWaukegan Tire has invested in a dedicated training room in its corporate offices for its sales team and technicians. Equipped with a 50-inch flat screen TV and WiFi, the room hosts regular training sessions with all of the company’s major vendors to keep employees up-to-date on products, promotions, trends and services.

In part, due to the professionalism of Waukegan Tire’s technicians, it has been chosen as a beta-test site for Hunter Engineering products and was the first to train on CDI Torque Products’ DocuTorq wireless torque data collection and limited torque application pulse tools from Snap-on.

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“Our suppliers are our lifeblood, so we are fortunate to grow these relationships,” Jerry says. “It makes it really exciting to see what we can achieve and what’s coming our way.”

Gone Green

As a family concerned about its responsibility to others, Waukegan Tire strives to create a better environment. “In our offices and shops, we recycle everything from tires and wheel weights to newspapers, cardboard, plastics, oil and antifreeze,” says Jerry. “We’re always looking at how we can be better citizens.”

To that end, the company reduced its advertising in traditional media and increased digital media advertising to cut down on paper use. Newspaper, printed phone directories and direct mail ads have been replaced by smaller, less frequent newspaper ads, online directories, in-store video media boards and the use of social media.

When the company remodeled its headquarters showroom, it replaced 27 fluorescent fixtures with LED lighting, reducing power consumption from 10,800 watts to 700 watts. In the warehouse and restrooms, motion sensors control lights and fans, shutting them off after the rooms are vacated. Wauke­gan also installed energy-efficient heating, applied fire-retardant insulating foam to ceilings, and put in low-E glass.

To help its customers “be green,” the company offers complimentary checkups to make sure tires are properly inflated and coaches customers on ways to reduce excess vehicle weight to increase fuel efficiency.

Adapting to the Market

waukeganinteriorWaukegan, home to 91,000 people and originally settled by European immigrants coming to work in the factories, now has one of the fastest growing Hispanic communities in the Midwest. “Our customer base changed, and we made necessary changes to match,” says Jerry. In order to field a bilingual sales force, Waukegan Tire brought in a college professor every week to train associates in Spanish. “Some of them are fluent, and some less so, but the ability is there,” Jerry says. He has been rewarded with loyal customers who enjoy being served by people who speak their language.

Jerry proudly adds, “When people come into our stores they see diversity. We have diversity at our retail counters at every store. We try to represent the Hispanic community, Caucasians, African-Americans, female and male. We look at our customer base and try to give them representation, and try to do that all from within our staff.”

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Community Centric

For more than a decade, Waukegan Tire has partnered with Uniroyal to support youth soccer in its community. This involves soccer ball giveaways, funding for equipment, and offering services such as oil changes for raffle prizes. In addition to providing soccer balls, Waukegan Tire partnered with a neighboring community to help build a soccer field, which has grown into a community center with more activities to involve kids.

waukeganexterior2The dealership is especially committed to preparing children to succeed in a changing world. Last year, the company teamed up with United Way of Lake County, Ill., as a major sponsor of the “Success by 6” Kindergarten Prepared­ness Program, an initiative that aims to give disadvantaged or underprivileged children the resources, knowledge and skills required for their school careers.

Waukegan Tire also helps schools in other ways, such as sponsoring field trips, and donating back-to-school supplies that are given out to families in the surrounding communities.

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Whether it’s funds, equipment or volunteers (in some cases all of these), Waukegan Tire regularly sponsors or donates to at least 40 civic, charitable and sports organizations. A complete list cannot be included here, but the words “youth,” “park” and “foundation” appear often in the organization names. Fundraisers for charitable causes that include autism, cancer, muscular dystrophy, ALS, leukemia, hospice care and the Special Olympics also benefit from Waukegan Tire’s philanthropy.

Pairing imagination with good deeds can yield even greater benefits, as Wau­kegan Tire has demonstrated. To help the Chicagoland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the company designed “Kiss Me – I’m Sober” buttons for St. Patrick’s Day to remind patrons to have a designated driver and celebrate safely. It sold them at its retail locations for $1 each. All proceeds were donated, and the company matched the donation for every button sold. Wauke­gan Tire marketed the event via in-store displays, Facebook, Twitter and on its website. Local media picked up the story, which raised awareness of MADD and the tire dealer.

Last spring, Waukegan Tire was a sponsor for Breast Fest for Breast Can­cer, which included a concert by singer-songwriter Michael McDermott. The company marketed this event solely via social media, not only promoting cancer awareness, but gaining additional female customers with the sponsorship.

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Knowing that they cannot simply wait on customers coming through the door now, but must plan for those who will come in the future, the company partnered with the Girl Scouts of Great­er Chicago and Northwest Indiana to create Car-Sense Workshops. The programs teach the next generation of women drivers about safety and automotive care with hands-on activities at Waukegan Tire stores.

“The classes are taught by our own technicians and suppliers who come in on a Sunday,” Jerry notes. The girls go home with merit badges, educational materials, a tread-depth gauge, possibly a roadside emergency-kit door prize and, it is hoped, a favorable impression that extends to their parents.

Stronger Bonds

Another link to the ever-changing community comes from participating in a wide range of public events. “We try to have a presence at community events,” says Jerry. “Because many citizens are also our customers, we support them in any way we can.” In addition to sponsoring parochial and public school sports, the company participates in church fairs and festivals, holiday parades and car shows.

waukeganwarehouseThe extent of Waukegan Tire’s commitment is evident in not just one, but two, special display trailers the company can offer these events. The smaller unit is a fifth-wheel equipped with tire displays and a roll-out awning; the larger is a full-size tractor-trailer rig complete with walk-through exhibits, videos, inflatable outdoor displays and a huge decorative awning. Adorned with simple, un-branded graphics, these units are welcome at the 4th of July parade, Youth Conservation Corps Cinco de Mayo show, Kermes Festival (Holy Family Parish annual fund raiser), Nostalgia Days and Scoop’ the Loop downtown car cruise. “We don’t treat these as commercial events, but we get so much goodwill that people recognize us anyway,” Jerry says.

Uniroyal’s “Llanta Man” character makes frequent appearances with prize giveaways, and the Michelin “Mr. Bib” costume gets used so often, many folks now call him “the Waukegan Tire guy,” says Steve, who orchestrates these road shows where everyone pitches in.

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By concentrating on local events, Waukegan Tire has been able to reinforce its family brand and secure its place in the community. “It’s gratifying to see what we can do,” Steve says. “We look forward to learning what more we can do, and how we can be better.”

For now, what they accomplished is extensive, and has earned them a spot as a Tire Review Top Shop Finalist.

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