Call it vindication. Or validation. Or even the cherry on top. For Community Tire Pros & Auto Service, winning the 2013 Tire Review Top Shop Award, presented by Ammco/Coats, is all of those things. And much, much more.
“It means that what we’re doing is making a difference for our customers and our people,” says Howard Fleischmann Sr., CEO and chief idea man. “This is an award that all of our Community Tire family can celebrate because this is an award that our team earned.”
“Once this sinks in, it will really, really mean a lot to the entire team, and it’s going to mean a lot to us in the future,” according to Kim Sigman, operations and training chief and partner. “We’re going to be able to hang our hat on that when we’re talking to this guy who wants to come work for a first-class company. We’ve won so many local awards, and they are all important, but this is a national award and I’m blown away.”
“We’ve had a long 10 years,” says Pat Fleischmann, Howard’s wife, right arm woman and marketing driver. “To me it’s a mile marker that we’re doing the right thing, we’re on the right course, the crew has got it and continues to improve, and everything is melding together. And that’s a big accomplishment from the dark hole where we had come from. We are really proud to be part of it all.”
The precise date and time the Phoenix independent began its journey back from that dark hole is painfully etched in the minds of the five principles of the Fleischmanns, Sigman and fellow partners Howard Fleischmann Jr. and Claude Case.
Nov. 23, 2003, at 8 a.m.
But more on that later. Let’s talk particulars first.
Community Tire Pros should be a familiar name to readers. It was a Top Shop Award Finalist in both 2007 and 2010 – the only other years it entered the competition. Now the bride, Community Tire Pros has six retail/commercial locations around the greater Phoenix area and has been in business since 1991. Tire sales make up 53% of its business, service the other 47%, and its efforts to draw fleet and commercial business (Class 6-8 trucks, contractor vehicles, rental car and limo fleets, etc.) account for 30% of overall sales, which in 2012 reached $10.2 million.
They have two full-time outside salespeople who work with the nearby University of Phoenix (yes, it is a real place with thousands of local employees and students), Arizona State University, rental car and limo fleets, and dozens of other large employers, offering discounts, special pricing programs and more.
The interiors of each store, no matter the physical configuration, are top-notch. Pat personally redesigned them and worked with local contractors and painters to create Community Tire Pros’ unique look.
Community Tire Pros, this very month, will officially open its sixth retail store, a six-bay shop located in a shopping area that is seeing rapid rebirth. Surrounded by a Firestone store and a Discount Tire location, the new Community Tire Pros store has a huge showroom and a cushy and comfortable customer waiting area. The seven employees there shake their heads, knowing what the place looked like before Pat got her hands on it. The space was redivided with utility and customers in mind, complete with separate restrooms for men and women.
Just 3.5 miles away from a “very busy” sister store, managers at both are working to subtly shift customers to the new location, which is having no problem attracting its own clientele. It’s a happy problem, but clearly one that takes a deft touch; Sigman notes that Community Tire Pros has some customers who drive more than an hour to have service or tire work done, but handled incorrectly that five-minute shift could just as easily lose them a good customer.
Members of American Tire Distributor’s Tire Pros program, America Car Care Centers and Independent Tire Dealers Group, among other affiliations, Community Tire Pros offers passenger, light truck/SUV and medium truck tires from brands like Bridgestone, Firestone, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Hankook, Roadmaster, Goodyear, Continental, General and GT Radial.
Some of Community Tire’s locations are fully enclosed, a few have service bay areas that are partially exposed. A couple of are heavily industrial areas, while one is hard against Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. That one has a 100-car parking area, perfect for handling rental car fleets when they need regular service work. Recently a medical marijuana dispensary opened next to one Community Tire Pros shop, leading to all of the obvious jokes – but also to an entire group of potential customers.
And that’s really one of the keys to Community Tire Pros’ success: the viewpoint that everyone is a potential customer, that everyone deserves to be treated with fairness and dignity, that everyone matters and that business cannot shirk its part of the business-consumer relationship.
A Black Hole
Howard Fleischmann’s story is still being written, but the part already committed to paper is a pretty compelling read already. After a strong 27-year career in the auto parts distribution business, Howard was prepared to hang up his spurs and was looking to sell his business. Previously, he and his daughter became partners in an auto service business; her husband and a brother were partners in two others. Howard himself owned three locations in partnership with Case, the former owner of Charlie Case Tire. They agreed to merge the whole lot into one company – Knudsen’s – and left it to the younger generation to run things.
On Nov. 23, 2003, at 8 a.m., just as the day’s second cup of coffee was having its intended effect, Howard received an even harsher wake up from his bank. The news became a verbal blur….$1.2 million overdrawn….calling in your credit line…looks like embezzlement…family members…personal guarantees.
Just like that, semi-retirement came to a crashing end, and an whole-new life began. The lawyers and bankers told him and Case they were better off declaring bankruptcy and if they still wanted the business, they could buy it back from the court. That would have meant putting a lot of people out of work, and closing the doors on countless loyal customers.
In other words, that wasn’t gonna work.
Step one was righting the ship. The situation was explained to employees, some who voluntarily left. Most stayed on, believing that Case and the Fleischmanns could make it work. Same with suppliers, some of which even extended their terms to help out.
The primary bank was paid in full, and then Fleischmann and Case went bank shopping, finding a new banker they felt would better watch over them. The embezzlers, meanwhile, were discovered, and once the scheme unfolded other employees were terminated. Within a year, every vendor was brought current. Then it was on to the next repair phase.
The Knudsen’s name was mud, and a new name required. A long-time customer – local photographer Kay Eskridge – suggested, “Howard, just call it Community Tire. You’ve always been part of the community, so just say it on the sign.” Thus Community Tire & Auto Service was born. The word “Pros” was added in 2011 when Fleischmann signed on to the ATD/Tire Pros program.
Crawling back from the wreckage was by no means easy, and while we aren’t going to dwell much further, Community Tire faced staff reductions and serious belt tightening, some of which was required to allow investment in training, store aesthetics and marketing.
Kim Sigman, who joined the company in 2003 right around the time of the embezzlement discovery, focused his attention on the people. The Fleischmanns took to the streets, being a presence with employees during the day, and becoming a major presence in the community by night.
Part Of The Community
Every Community Tire Pros location has its own “Brag Wall,” that displays trophies and plaques from the 2007 and 201 Top Shop Finalist trophies to the Better Business Bureau’s Business Ethics Award to the One Community Spotlight on Success Award to the 2012 Governor’s Small Business Development Award to the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce’s annual Impact Award for Small Business of the Year to the Arizona State University W.P. Carey Spirit of Enterprise Award to the 2012 Phoenix Business Journal Diversity Champion. And many, many more.
Fleischmann points out that each award contributed in some fashion to the “business we are today,” but they also speak to how deeply ingrained the dealership has become in the greater Phoenix area.
Some of the honors come from their heavy participation, driven in part by the need to gin up new business but mostly because deep down the Fleischmanns relish the opportunity to make a real difference. In fact, it often becomes impossible to separate personal support from dealership marketing.
Some years ago, before it became at all fashionable, Community Tire Pros and the Fleischmanns began reaching out to the LGBT – the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender – community in Phoenix. They didn’t just jump in blindly; they spent considerable time learning about that market segment, their unique needs and desires, and how to best reach out in a respectful and effective manner.
“Being involved with their community lets them know you’re genuine,” Fleischmann says. “Gay and lesbian clients want what everyone else wants: quality service, a fair price and to be treated with respect. And those businesses that deliver those things earn highly loyal customers who have a higher level of disposable income and welcome the opportunity to tell their friends about your business.”
“Howard and Patty were the grand marshals of the Phoenix Pride Parade this year following nearly 10 years of advocacy for the LGBT community as allies,” said their long-time PR representative Tony Felice. “What began as a marketing decision to reach out to that community has lead to years of service to that segment of our population, so much so they were recognized as a Diversity Champion by the Phoenix Business Journal and have been honored with a humanitarian award named after them: The Howard & Patty Fleischmann Ally Award, given each year to a member of the LGBT-allied community.”
Community Tire Pros is not a “one-and-done” supporter; they have been long-time members and strong supporters of One Community, a group that works with local businesses and the LGBT community to bring buyers and sellers together; they work closely with Local First Arizona, which supports the state’s “buy local” movement; and the Executives’ Association of Greater Phoenix, a group built on local businesses doing business with other local businesses.
Community Tire Pros was also among the first dealers to align with AskPatty.com, making sure all of its locations were Female Friendly Certified. The lessons learned there have translated well to servicing all customers; Phoenix has more than its fair share of retirees, another market segment that requires a genuine and friendly approach.
The AskPatty.com program led Pat to redo every single restroom in every store, and hold a grand opening ceremony when they were all done. Quirky, sure, but it got press. “We brought in a focus group of women who helped us design it,” Pat says.
And what other tire business do you know that would lease a vacant half-acre lot and convert it into a community salsa garden free to the local neighbors to help grow their own food (communitytiregarden.org)? In six months of operation, Pat’s brainchild has produced more than 400 pounds of produce for local residents to enjoy, all while demonstrating new uses for old tires as garden planters and creating true give-and-take with locals, who are called upon to volunteer their time to work the garden.
These days, Howard and Pat are coming off the “six-night-a-week” meeting circuit, which they undertook in the desperate days as they were rebuilding the business. Now they have an outside sales person who attends most of the community group functions, leaving the Fleischmanns to devote time to those programs they most enjoy and to have time for themselves. But Pat always finds time to tend to that garden.
Knowing Its Customer
The Phoenix market is no cakewalk for an independent tire dealer. There are 13 Discount Tire stores, nearly 20 Fletcher’s Tire & Auto stores, nine Big O Tires stores, another 20 Firestone Complete Auto Care locations, and dozens of smaller independents, mass merchants, price clubs and, of course, car dealers. Smaller dealers, like Community Tire Pros, can still steal the day with exemplary customer service and strong marketing.
“We survive on quality, not volume,” the company offers in its semi-finalist entry form. “In order to convert one-time buyers into long-term customers it takes more than gimmicky sales and aggressive salespeople. It takes a long-term commitment to caring for your customers and giving back to the community you serve.
“Good marketing in 2013 means doing good business. Our shop has bought into that philosophy for the last 22 years. Though we exist in a sea of heftier rivals we continue to outlast other similar size shops because of our commitment to constantly trying new things, seeking out new technologies, keeping our staff trained and nurtured, strengthening our customer service, deploying edgy marketing campaigns and continuing our commitment to community service. It’s reflected in our sales floor, the way our people look, the visuals we use in our advertising and how we arrange our product.”
Marking progress is key to Community Tire Pros’ approach. They like to try new and different, so being able to quickly and accurately measure results allows them to quickly tweak programs that aren’t hitting the right notes. For that, Community Tire Pros employs a software program that allows them to identify who their best customers are on a micro level, “breaking them down into lifestyle segments and determining those who typically spend more than the average customer. This allows us to be light on our feet, and to change our advertising language, images and offers in order to increase traffic,” the company says.
Besides highly interruptive advertising, Community Tire Pros has launched innovative programs” like its High Mile Club (which targets owners of older vehicles), leveraging its Tire Pros relationship for group promotions and other marketing, and trying to capitalize on “technology and social media” with a heavy emphasis on calls-to-action directed at prospects within a few miles of their locations.
Highly effective marketing really reaches the customer, and what better way than to understand what really motivates them? “Through our program Customer Link tied to our POS, we’re able to pinpoint a lifestyle demographic profile of that customer, learning about their spending habits and which lifestyle segment delivers the highest profit. We not only market to them directly with offers and images that appeal to them, but we use those same offers and messaging delivered across the marketing spectrum.”
For example, Community Tire Pros learned some segments responded strongly to edgy, more provocative advertising and programs that rewarded loyalty instead of bland ads and coupons. As a result of uncovering that data, the dealership has “a higher retention and a stronger word-of-mouth advantage.”
Each store is well-staffed and well-stocked. Community Tire Pros employs 45 people overall, and each location has three to five ASE-certified techs, depending on the number of bays. Certification is important, as is the ability to communicate; most customer service issues, they have found, are rooted in communications, so making sure everything is clearly and plainly communicated at all levels is vital.
On a broader sphere, Community Tire Pros has been very active with its own website and social media efforts. A monthly e-newsletter is delivered to each existing customer via email, and customer birthdays are celebrated with another email offering a free oil change.
Between Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and its email list, Community Tire Pros boasts of more than 10,000 fans.
The affiliation with Tire Pros gave Community Tire Pros a real opportunity to revisit its website. “We knew from our research that the user experience on the web needed to be streamlined and rich with content and functionality. We wanted the user to immediately be able to find what they are looking for,” the company says.
So the site was divided into four compartments for Tires, Repair, Commercial and Quote/Appointment. “Rather than clutter the home page with links and heavy advertising, we chose to make it visual and impactful,” the company notes. “We know when someone visits our page they want to know: What do you do? Why should I trust you? Why should I believe you? We think we’ve accomplished answering those questions in a succinct and fun way.”
The website has drawn more than 20,000 unique visitors this past year, and more than 60,000 page views – a “substantial” number, according to Community Tire Pros given how high¬ly targeted the website is vs. TV or radio.
ROI on the promotion investment is still important, regardless of how many channels one uses. Community Tire Pros places a numeric code on each and every ad, coupon, promotion and campaign. “Our system is designed so that counter-personal cannot complete a transaction without entering the code. As a result, we are able to determine which marketing programs are delivering the best results in terms sales and the dollar amount spent per customer acquired.”
Available metrics like Google Analytics and Facebook analytics has led the dealer to successfully tackle specific segments. Like women.
“In 2009, we were astounded to learn that among our most active and engaged Facebook fans, the majority of them were females age 35 to 54,” the company says. We wanted to grow this market and explore this phenomenon.” That led to participation and certification in the AskPatty.com program, and new marketing messages female consumers. The result was an 18% bump in revenue in just a few months.
Cherry On The Sundae
At Community Tire Pros, customer service begins with communication – in every form. Every employee must exhibit “cheerful professionalism, dedication to the client, compassion for the client, honesty” and above all, “integrity.”
One of the company’s taglines is “We Advise, You Decide,” which appears on most in-store merchandising displays and serves as a constant reminder to all that the customer is in complete control at all times.
Some customers can’t tackle all of the repairs their vehicle may need, so a Community Tire Pros service advisor will prioritize with them things that need to be done and set a plan for completion, “rather than put the fear of God into them that they have to do all repairs in one day.”
“Our customers are investments that deliver profits over time, and in order to create that length of time you have to develop a relationship based on trust,” the Fleischmanns believe.
“Our level of customer service begins with the hiring process. If a manager walks up to an employee and asks, “What color were the last customer’s eyes,” they need to know the answer. That means they were looking the customer in the eye and communicating well,” the company says.
Client satisfaction is our primary focus,” they remind. “We know right away if a client is not satisfied, and employees are empowered to make decisions at any level to ensure that a client is happy.”
“We practice the ‘5-Foot Rule,’” says Howard. “Whenever a team member is within five feet of a customer, he or she will acknowledge them. In addition, with a complicated repair it is not unusual to have a technician involved in the conversation with the client. Every vehicle that leaves our establishment have a mirror hanger thanking them for their business and signed by the technician that performed the work along, with a brief story about that technician so that the customer feels a familial connection to they guy they just trusted their safety to.”
As Community Tire Pros said on its entry form, “You can’t make promises that you can’t keep – even if those promises are hard to keep for those who are hard to please. Five thousand happy customers in one year are worth the three or four who are hard to work with. You can’t pick and choose whom to please.”
There is so much more than can be said about Community Tire Pros and how it has grown and evolved even over the years between its first Top Shop appears in 2007 to today. Suffice it to say, that growth and those changes were duly noted by the Top Shop judges.
“The small dealer is flexible and can move to adjust to market conditions, the larger dealer cannot,” Howard says. “The small dealer can create true relationships with clients: a bond of service and trust that is unbeatable. It is important to understand what your competitors are doing but don’t let it change your direction without serious review because once you enter into a price war you may never come out the other side.”
“Part of our excitement about this honor comes from our respect for Tire Review, and that’s not blowing smoke,” he says. “There are a lot of magazines out there but you guys tell it like it is. You tell it straight, and I don’t always like what you say, but it’s fact. The success we enjoy today has been about the team, and the pride I take from it is it’s a team that we put together.”
Howard is 62 and is looking again at semi-retirement. Sigman says it took a lot of work to undo the deep damage the embezzlement caused and put the business on string footing and a growth path. “Howard is trying to transition a ‘save the company’ mode to a ‘manage growth’ mode.
Fleischmann is in no hurry to exit, and is weighing a number of succession options. Howard Jr. is very active in the business (he wasn’t available during our visit, spending time at home with a newborn), and is taking on new responsibilities. Community Tire, in some form, will continue, Howard says.
“We know that we can survive and that we have staying power and we look forward to what tomorrow will bring, not just for the business we love, but for the opportunities we have to grow as human beings and to carve out our own special place in the world.”