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2011 Top Shop Finalist: Family Tire & Auto Service

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Family Tire & Auto Service has been in business in eastern North Carolina scarcely more than six years, but more than deserves its new title of 2011 Tire Review Top Shop Award Finalist due to continued growth and profitability, coupled with its strong commitment to the communities it serves.

David Bucher, 42, is president and 50/50 co-owner with his father, Dennis Bucher, age 69. However, Family Tire is different from the usual second-generation, father-son tire dealership: this one was started by the son, who then hired his father. While both had retail tire experience, neither had ever owned a tire dealership and automotive repair center before starting Family Tire. Adding to the unusual circumstances, both father and son were relative newcomers to the area where they decided to start their new business.

The origins of Family Tire actually have roots that are decades old. Dave explains: “My father retired and moved to New Bern, N.C., after a 39-year career with Bridgestone/Firestone. He had started in retail stores and worked his way up to regional director in the northeast region before he retired in 1999.”

Dave also had a Bridgestone/Fire­stone connection. When he got out of college, he went through the Firestone management training program and worked in their stores for eight years. Then he left the tire and auto industry for a period lasting 12 years.

Dave relocated to New Bern in 2002, where his sister and her husband also resided, as well as his father. By the following year, Dave knew he didn’t want to work for someone else; he wanted to start his own business.

“In late 2003, I approached my father and asked for his support and knowledge as I had decided to build and open my new tire and service center,” says Dave. “At that point, I started working on my business plan and started the process to get financing.” It was, he attests, a very long process.

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“When you’re new in town and have never applied for a loan of that size, you need a very thorough business plan to show you have the expertise and background to make it happen,” he says. “It was kind of pie-in-the-sky at first, but with my background and my father’s background, the more we kicked it around and the more I worked on the business plan, the more we felt we could do something here.”

The New Beginning

Family Tire & Auto Service opened its first location in New Bern in October 2005 and turned the key at its second location in Morehead City, N.C., in May 2009. Both stores are on Highway 70, the main route linking the towns.

“It was really a business we started together, and it has been a great thing for us,” Dave says. “When I look back in the years ahead, I know I will relish the opportunity I had with my father. We get along great, we have a great time with it and it’s been a great venture for us.”

Dave is the general manager. “I do the hiring, the firing, set prices, run the business from the operations side and handle customer complaints.” He laughs, “There aren’t too many of those!”

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Dave describes his father as being “semi-retired,” but still he handles all of the marketing because of his extensive marketing experience with Bridgestone/Firestone.

“He’s really taught me a lot about marketing and helped me to grow as a leader,” says Dave. His father also serves as a trainer and “is a great guy to have around,” according to Dave.

Considering father and son’s combined backgrounds in the tire industry, the Buchers’ brand loyalty should come as no surprise.

“As a Bridgestone Affiliated Dealer we are dedicated to the Bridgestone and Firestone product lines for our tires,” Dave notes.

“We are Bridge­stone Five-Star dealers at both locations, Bridgestone run-flat certified, Bridgestone UHP certified, and we are members of a Bridgestone dealer Twenty Group.”

Dave also points out, “We are constantly working to improve our industry expertise. All of our technicians are TPMS-certified, and we are TIA trained and certified on proper tire service and repair techniques.”

When it comes to automotive repairs, Dave adds, “As much as possible, we try to be a one-stop shop for our customers’ vehicle service needs. We have excellent ASE-certified technicians as well as the latest and greatest shop equipment. This combination allows us to offer our customers top-level service,” he says proudly.

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Keys to Success

Even during these difficult economic times, Family Tire has found a way to show significant growth through hard work and an unwavering focus on customer satisfaction, according to Dave Bucher.

He reported the sales mix at the New Bern store is 60% service and 40% tires, and at the Morehead City store, the mix is about 50/50 service and tires. In 2010, gross sales (all of it from retail) at the flagship New Bern location were more than $2.56 million; at Morehead City, the first full year’s gross sales stood at more than $1.55 million.

Starting with its first full year in operation in 2006, sales at the New Bern store grew at a rate of 14% to 19% each year except for 2009, when growth was only 7%. But sales for 2011 are once again on track to be in double-digit growth compared to 2010’s results.

Family Tire’s Morehead City store sales have grown steadily as well, with average monthly sales up 10% in 2011 from the previous year.

“Sales growth has been extremely healthy, especially when considering the tough economy we are facing,” Dave remarks. Service is in incremental growth in both locations, he notes, but – no surprise – tire sales are down. Price increases and the economy have put him in a price-matching game with area tire dealers. Most competitors are other family-owned businesses; not many are national chains or big-box retailers, he notes. “But I’ve never seen a time when so many people are haggling over tire prices like they are now,” Dave says.

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Growing Bigger

Despite the generally down economy, Family Tire continues to expand. The company has purchased property and secured financing for its third store, to be located in Jacksonville, N.C., gateway to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune. Construction will begin before the end of this year, with a grand opening planned for the spring of 2012.

Currently, Family Tire’s New Bern store has 28 employees; Morehead City has 12. Because of the larger potential customer base, the Jack­sonville store will start with a crew of 15, says Dave. To handle the expected increase in business, the new store also will have 12 service bays, up from the first two stores’ nine bays each.

“When people ask me how I feel about opening a new store, I say I am feeling two-thirds excited and one-third terrified,” Dave explains. “Someone who saw my ghost-white face as I headed out to sign the $2-million loan deal said, ‘Hey, you’re not going to do anything in life if you don’t hang it out there once in a while.’”

It’s All About People

Dave notes, “It’s always difficult building in a new community and ingraining yourself in that community.” He says the bottom line with expanding and opening a new location is the people you find. “Having good people managing the business and helping out customers is key. If you have people you can count on and be comfortable with, and you know they will be honest, then you’re going to be a lot more comfortable leaving them alone.”

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The Buchers use a variety of ways to get talent in the door. They use placement agencies for management positions – but they get to pick and choose technicians, according to Dave, because they get a lot of people coming in looking for a job. In part, he credits the stores themselves. “It’s an attractive location with new equipment, not a greasy, dirty shop where you are working in a dingy hole.”

Just as important is keeping people once you have them, Dave adds, “so we have a good benefits package with health insurance and a 401(k) retirement plan. We are ahead of scale with our pay rate for sales staff and technicians compared to our competition. We have a low turnover rate because of that.”

Importance of Training

“We believe very strongly in training for both technicians as well as salespeople,” says Dave. “All members of our sales staff have been to numerous customer service and tire sales training courses. Our salespeople also have been to UHP tire training, and they read all of the industry publications in order to keep current with the latest technology,” he adds.

In April 2010, Dave hired Steve Ferrante from Sale Away to come in and give a two-day customer service seminar to the entire sales staff. “We want always to be moving forward in the area of customer satisfaction, since it is the reason for our success,” Dave emphasizes.

Family Tire supports technicians in their efforts to obtain certification. “We have eight ASE-certified technicians as well as 10 technicians that have training on alignment and balancing provided by the equipment manufacturers,” Dave states. “We are adamant about that; to work on that equipment, you need factory training.”

Tire training and product knowledge his people get through Brid­ge­stone Americas. Since the company is a TIA member, employees also take advantage of the organization’s online tire training. Family Tire also sends technicians to the local Carquest store’s regular training seminars, which have included topics such as new scan tool technology. “Anybody who doesn’t do further training with their employees is missing the boat,” Dave warns.

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Customer Service

Family Tire is proud of its store appearance and the amenities that it offers to customers.

“Outstanding customer service is our number one goal and the reason for our success,” Dave boasts. While a nice, comfortable waiting area is only part of the customer service equation, it’s a strong start with soda and bottled water, fresh fruit, candy, a hot popcorn mach­ine, large screen flat-panel TV, free Wi-Fi and courtesy computers.

“We are always trying to find new ways to make people more comfortable,” Dave says. “We keep fresh-cut flowers in the waiting area as well as the women’s restroom. The locations have recently added hand sanitizer stations, and disposable umbrellas are available to keep customers dry on rainy days. There is a free shuttle service along with a well-stocked children’s play area, and courtesy vehicles even include loaner bicycles for customers to use while their vehicles are being serviced.

“In 2010 we also started cleaning the wheels and shining the tires on every vehicle that comes in the shop, as well as vacuuming the car­pets in each vehicle,” Dave notes. “This is no small task since we average 100 vehicles per day between our two locations.”

The company tracks its efforts by putting a customer service survey along with an oil change coupon on a mirror hanger placed in every vehicle. “Beyond anything else, we get compliments on our waiting area and the amenities we offer,” Dave reveals.

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Promotion, Big-Time

With the exception of special sale events, Family Tire does all of its advertising through television commercials. “We also hold a customer appreciation event at each location twice each year, including anniversary celebrations for each location,” Dave explains. “We are firm believers in getting the community involved down at the stores and doing some fun events for our customers.”

For the past two years, Family Tire has had great success hosting the Bigfoot monster truck, which is turned loose to crush a couple of old cars. “The Bigfoot is just such a draw,” Dave says. “It’s a grassroots event where we serve lunch to customers and have drawings for giveaways like tires and a flat-panel HD TV.”

The event has paid dividends with increased traffic and sales, according to Dave. “People are looking for a bargain and they take advantage of our specials during the event.”

Another attraction during anniversary sales events has been the Bridge­stone race trailer, which features a racecar simulator that is popular with both kids and adults. Dave speaks highly of the support he gets from Bridgestone, not only in scheduling the race trailer and bringing out a Formula One car and Firehawk Corvette for these events, but also for other reasons.

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“Across the board, from top management to our area rep, they are such a supportive and helpful company, and we’re very proud to be a Bridgestone dealer.”

Socially Adept

Family Tire also has started to capitalize on social media with Facebook and Twitter accounts, in addition to a strong website. Dave’s wife, Hope, handles Family Tire’s Facebook page. “She hits it every day and updates it,” says Dave. “It’s an important contribution to Family Tire.”

They use the new media to generate a following for the company and interest in its offers. “We’re constantly giving away things,” he explains, like contests for four tickets to a local college football game, oil changes or a television. If you become a friend of Family Tire on Facebook you are automatically entered in the contest. “This program has been a big success,” Dave asserts.

Community Service

“Since the day we opened this business, we’ve been extremely fortunate,” says Dave. “We are richly blessed and we feel a strong need to give back to the communities where our stores are located.”

Last year, the company donated to more than 50 local organizations, primarily social services groups, but also included were various school activities, churches, veteran associations, arts and theater groups. Family Tire gets so many requests for donations, the company has created a form to simplify the process. It becomes a matter of going through the requests and determining which are worthy causes. “I don’t turn away too many, though,” Dave admits.

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He frequently donates goods and services that bring people to the stores, but there also are two main charities that receive monetary assistance. “Dad and I are co-owners, so we each pick one,” Dave says. “Mine is Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Dad’s is Walk for Life. We give each a sizable donation every year.”

The Secret to Success

What makes Family Tire a 2011 Top Shop Award Finalist?

Dave thinks it all comes back to being passionate about customer satisfaction. “From the start, every meeting and discussion we’ve ever had has been focused on customer satisfaction and living or dying by taking care of customers,” Dave says. “We think you almost can’t fail if you handle things that way.”

He adds that he and the other sales associates make the effort to smile at people, to treat them like they would want to be treated and to price things fairly. If a service estimate turns out to be low and the actual cost is higher, Family Tire will honor the original quote. “We do everything in our power to make sure when somebody walks out the front door of our building, that person is not kicking the ground or frustrated for any reason.”

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He also believes business is a lot simpler than most people make it.

“If you take care of the people who are spending money at your location, you’re going to be a success. That is the secret to our success: taking care of our customers and making it so they leave with a smile on their faces.”

For a better look at Family Tire & Auto, visit Tire Review’s exclusive Facebook photo album from the 2011 Top Shop Award. 

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