There are no family secrets to success or tricks of the trade for Upton Tire Pros owner Mike Upton. In a little over 20 years, the Mississippian built his four-store company around the greater Jackson, Mississippi, area with a “hard work pays off” philosophy.
“I truly believe that if you do something well, and you be the best that you can be at it, you can succeed. And that’s what I try to do,” said Upton.
Upton Tire Pros has certainly been the best it can be, and has earned a spot as a 2012 Tire Review Top Shop Award Finalist.
Upton’s business venture started in 1989, after working for Firestone for 15 years.
“I had just got out of college and was looking for something to do and I had an opportunity in Jackson to work at a Firestone store,” he explained. “I worked there for about two years at the big Firestone MasterCare store downtown and then they moved me up to a position at another store in Jackson. Then they switched me to a store in Vicksburg, where I worked for about 12 years.”
Equipped with all of that retail tire and service experience, Upton purchased his first store in the Jackson suburb of Brandon.
“I opened that store in 1989, and then opened a second store in Madison in 2000,” he said. “We bought an existing store in 2003, and we bought our fourth store in 2004. In 20 years we went from one location to four.”
He added that the leap from one location to two was one of the most challenging business moves he’s made to date. “We built our second store in July 2000. It was a big store and a big expense, and two weeks after we opened this big expensive store, the Ford/Firestone recall hit. We were very closely tied to Firestone, so that was a scary moment. It was a huge impact on our business, and it just wasn’t the way we wanted to have a grand opening.”
Despite the rocky start, it didn’t take long for business to pick up at the second location and before long, Upton was ready to expand again.
“We weren’t really trying to expand, but this other store came to us. They (the previous owners) were looking to sell it so we bought it,” he explained. “The same kind of thing happened with the fourth store.”
Upton added that he’s never really been “aggressive” about expanding. Instead, he looks for good opportunities that fit in with his business.
Thankful For Team
One of the many challenges of expanding is finding good help. “It’s hard because you go from doing everything yourself to having to find people to do things the way you want it,” he said.
Between the four locations, Upton has a team of 60 full-time employees, a great group of people that Upton says he’s thankful to have.
While knowledge and certification are beneficial when hiring new employees, Upton says he judges character overall. “The first thing we look at is the ‘nice’ people, people who are pleasant and people who are easy to get along with and people who will be good to our customers,” he says. “From there, we put them in our environment, see if we feel comfortable with them and show them how we want things done.”
All technicians get extensive training through the tire manufacturers that Upton uses and also obtain additional training with senior employees. “We have them follow one of our better sales people and just have them watch and observe and go from there.”
Most of the Upton Tire Pros stores are 50/50 split between retail tire sales and service, and Upton said he’s specific about his inventory.
Tire brands offered include Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Bridgestone, Firestone, Cooper, Continental, General, Falken, Fuzion and Hankook.
Although Mississippi’s main industry is agriculture, Upton said they don’t stock OTR, heavy truck or farm tires. “I don’t know that much about it and it’s just not our niche,” he said. “We’re strictly retail. We do passenger, light truck and SUV tires. We don’t do much more than a medium truck.”
He added the American Car Care Centers and American Tire Distributors Tire Pros member does some commercial business, but doesn’t actively pursue it.
On the maintenance side, Upton Tire Pros provides a wide range of service from brakes to belts and everything in between.
“We do a lot of oil changes and alignments, mechanical work and diagnostic work, a little bit of everything,” he said. “We don’t rebuild transmissions but we replace engines and pretty much everything else.”
The business also does tire rotation and balance, shocks and struts, air conditioning service, CV and drive axle, exhaust work, batteries, state inspections, windshield repair and offers nitrogen for tires.
Each of the Upton Tire Pros locations has a different layout that coordinates with the communities in which they reside, and all stores have nice curb appeal and modern conveniences.
Upton said customers usually have an “I can’t believe this is a tire store” reaction when they walk in. “If it’s their first time in one of our stores, they’re usually surprised at how modern and clean it looks,” he says. “We have offered free WiFi for many years, and we also have two computers so if they don’t have a laptop with them, they can still get on the Internet. We have refrigerators with free waters and colas, and we have free coffee.”
The waiting areas have a TV, wide range of magazines and a large play area. The Madison location also has an outdoor patio, landscaped walkways and an outdoor fountain with park benches. “We build buildings that the communities are proud of,” says Upton.
How Do We Do This?
Along with the southern hospitality feel of the stores, Upton is continually finding new and unique ways to gain business. He says many of his ideas come from thinking like a customer.
“I really get a lot of ideas by being a customer at other businesses,” he says. “I watch other companies and see what they’re doing and think about how can I do that at my business.”
One successful idea came to Upton after having dinner out with family. “I was with my sister and my brother-in-law at a restaurant in Jackson one day, and they had made a reservation for the restaurant online. I thought that was such a great idea.”
It didn’t take long to extend the same type of service to Upton’s customers. “I met with a developer in Jackson and we met with a marketing company and together we developed and designed an online booking program, which has been a phenomenal success.”
The company eased into the online appointment system by initially limiting online appointments to one appointment per hour, none past 3:30 p.m. and none on Saturdays. After testing it out for a while, the company increased its online appointment options to two per hour and started taking Saturday appointments, which has helped its Saturday business.
Upton added that both customers and employees like the system because it allows service to be expedited quickly and in an organized fashion. When employees arrive at the stores in the morning, they can review the appointments for that day and immediately write the work order tickets, which saves time.
Customers also can set up tire installation appointments, which gives technicians the ability to pull the tires that the customer ordered before they arrive.
Upton added the idea has been so successful that the online appointment developer has been able to sell the product to Tire Pros, as well as 38 dealers with 78 locations in 17 different states.
Another successful idea came from the deal-of-the-day websites that offer the public discounted gift certificates to local businesses.
“I didn’t like a lot of the details about it,” says Upton. “Most of all, they (the deal-of-the-day websites) get to keep most of the money and they hold your profit cut for a long time. So I got to thinking how we could do that ourselves.”
Upton says the company has built a database of more than 16,000 e-mail addresses over its years in business, so it sent out an e-mail blast offering customers a special promotion of $100 gift cards for $50.
“We opened the sale up from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. and had a one card per person limit,” says Upton. “The first time we did it, we limited it to 100 cards. We sold out within 26 minutes.”
After such a great response from customers, Upton Tire Pros offered the promotion again this year with new specifications. “I didn’t put a limit on it this year and we decided to do it from 2 p.m. until midnight that night; we sold 283 of those.”
Upton adds that he enjoys and embraces new ways to reach his customers and tries ideas that make the most sense for them.
One thing that has continued to work for both customers and the company is Upton Tire Pros’ dynamic webpage. “We put a lot of time and energy into our very active website,” says Upton. “You can price tires, schedule an appointment, even ask a question. We get a lot of hits on our website.”
Along with the popular appointment-scheduling feature, customers can search inventory, buy tires online, and print promotions and coupons. The “Ask Culley” button also is a popular webpage feature.
“We have a technician named Culley and we have a local call-in radio show every Wednesday,” explains Upton. “Culley has become notorious in the area because of the radio station, so we decided to use his name on our Website. If people have a question about their car, they can ‘Ask Culley.’ I get the e-mail and I talk to Culley and we give them back an answer.”
To make the website more smartphone friendly, the company recently developed a mobile webpage and smartphone application – one of the very first tire dealer apps in the U.S.
With the push of a few buttons on a smartphone, customers can easily call a store location, book an appointment, request a quote, call roadside assistance and view coupons.
Along with the website and smartphone app, Upton uses social media like Facebook and Twitter, and Upton says he’s always looking for ways to engage his customers. “We do it, but it’s one medium that we’re still figuring out how to use most effectively.”
As a member of the ATD Tire Pros family, Upton says he has a great advantage in learning the latest marketing and business ideas from other shop owners.
“We liked being hooked up with a company where you’re dealing with your peers,” he says. “They’re in business just like you, so we collectively talk to each other about our business practices and our successes and our failures. I have a wide network of friends across the U.S. and Canada from that. It’s a good program. We listen to each other and learn.”
Upton is a member of the Tire Pros Regional Dealer Council and a board member of the Tire Pros National Dealer Council.
He also is a member of the Tire Pros 20 Group, a peer group made up of 20 separate tire dealers in U.S. and Canada that gather and share successes, failures and ideas.
“Twice a year, we all go to these three-day meetings and we share best practices, best ideas and financial information with each other so we can see how everyone is doing. We use that to better ourselves so we can build a more successful business,” says Upton. “It’s a phenomenal group. We pay to be a member, but it’s money well spent.”
In the local community, Upton is a member of Chambers of Commerce in Rankin County and Madison County, Miss.
Throughout the years, the company has been active in supporting the community through sponsorship and charitable donations. “We sponsor a lot of community events and we’re all involved in our churches here, so we do it that way,” says Upton. “Our biggest charity is the Blair Batson Hospital for Children, which is connected to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. It’s a phenomenal children’s hospital.”
Last year, Upton Tire Pros ran a promotion in which it donated $5 to the hospital for every Cooper tire that was purchased. “We gave them a check for $16,000 the next month,” says Upton. “That was thrilling.”
The company also sponsors an annual Sun Run to raise money for Habitat for Humanity in Jackson, an event that generates $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
It also raises money for the American Red Cross and helped build a Tread Town playground, a specially designed, all-inclusive playground for children of all needs.
Additionally, Upton Tire Pros supports the community via donations to silent auctions for the Jackson Symphony League, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Cystic Fibrosis.
“This year, we’re probably going to use a lot of our advertising and marketing budget more toward those type of things,” says Upton. “We like to give back to the community rather than doing a commercial on TV.”
Upton says that competition with big box stores, car dealers and Internet sales always is a challenge in the industry, but believes quality customer service brings repeat business.
“It’s a challenge, but we try to be more personal when it comes to service,” he says. “To me it’s like comparing a doctor to a hospital. We’re more like the doctor that you know and trust and feel comfortable with.”
Upton also offers the “quick bay promise” to customers who purchase tires and book their installation online. The quick bay promise guarantees that tires will be installed properly within one hour or the customer receives a gift card to a local Jackson restaurant.
Upton’s easy-going personality, strong work ethic, exceptional customer service philosophy and eye for good ideas has given him more than 20 successful years in business. He plans to continue to expand if the opportunities are right and believes any obstacle can be tackled with hard work, staying ahead of the game and offering innovative products and services for customers.
With Upton, even though his business is a Top Shop Award Finalist, there is no finish line.
To see more photos of Upton Tire Pros – as well as this year’s other finalists and the Top Shop winner – click here.