Among the many personal mottos by which Alpio Barbara lives, “If you’re going to do something, do it right or don’t even bother” is one that succinctly describes his drive to succeed, passionate community involvement and the way he runs his business, 2014 Tire Review Top Shop Finalist Redwood General Tire Pros.
The Redwood City, Calif., shop – which also earned finalist honors in 2007 – was founded 56 years ago and has been under Barbara’s leadership since 1985. A massive single location dealership, Redwood General saw gross sales of $12 million in 2013, with 60% of sales from retail, 30% from wholesale and 10% from commercial business.
A member of Tire Pros and the Independent Tire Dealers Group, Redwood General regularly stocks Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Continental, Bridge- stone, Firestone, Goodyear, Dunlop, Kelly, Hankook, Kumho, Pirelli, Nitto, Toyo and Nexen, among other brands. The dealership’s sales last year were split 50/50 between tires and vehicle service.
The company’s wholesale operation delivers tires twice daily on three separate routes to dozens of other independent tire dealers.
While Redwood General’s stats may appear impressive on paper, a deeper look at the shop reveals what makes it a two-time Top Shop Finalist through and through.
Deep Industry Roots
A true tire industry lifer, Barbara was born in Malta and came to the U.S. at age 2 with his parents and six siblings. After living first in San Francisco, the family settled in San Mateo, where Barbara was raised.
He had been attending college and training to become a police officer, but his dream was sidelined due to a knee injury (though he did serve as a reserve officer for 10 years). Fresh out of school, 19-year-old Barbara began working as a tire technician for Howard Tire in Northern California.
Ever loyal and hardworking, Barbara worked his way up, eventually becoming general manager of Howard Tire, which included two retail locations and a wholesale operation at that time. He and a partner bought Redwood General in 1985; in 2000, Barbara took over sole ownership.
“I’ve really only ever had two jobs in my life,” he says. “My first one for 19 years, then the one I bought here in 1985. The tire business is a good business.”
And Barbara has good business sense, to put it mildly.
Redwood General’s stated mission is to “raise the bar for the auto business by delivering exceptional service, one person at a time. Our goal is to build relationships with our customers and take care of them for life.”
In short, the shop strives to deliver honest and perfect service. “Some say that perfection is impossible, but if you don’t reach for it you will never get close,” reads Redwood General’s Top Shop Award entry.
Through constant innovation, impressive customer service, brilliant marketing, deep community involvement and top-notch employees placed in the best possible positions, Redwood General is indeed pretty close to perfect.
Everything to Everyone
With an America’s Tire store right next door – the buildings actually touch one another – and four big box stores within 10 miles of the shop, Redwood General has some healthy competition.
“I knew that the other guys couldn’t do the things we do, or provide their customers with an experience as good as ours, so I saw these stores as an opportunity to set ourselves apart even further,” Barbara says.
The dealership focuses on delivering the message that it is a one-stop shop for all automotive needs. Complete with 16 hydraulic lifts, six outdoor pad rack lifts, two laser guided alignment racks, a smog dynamometer, four touchless tire mounting machines and four top-of-the-line balancers, Redwood General services everything, from bumper to bumper, under one roof.
“By providing such a wide array of services, we eliminate the need for our customers to visit several different shops for their auto repair needs, providing yet another level of satisfaction and practicality that can’t be found anywhere else,” Redwood General’s entry states.
“We urge our customers to allow us to be responsible for all aspects of their vehicle, so if there is ever a problem, there is no need to go through boxes of records trying to find out where the car has been previously serviced. Redwood General Tire customers know that all they need to do is bring the vehicle back to us, and we will sort it out.”
While the shop has never competed with its neighbors to offer the lowest possible price, partnering with the Independent Tire Dealers Group and becoming a Tire Pros dealer were moves that allowed for better tire pricing, as well as the ability to provide nationwide warranties. This, combined with the full service offered by Redwood General – for example, each oil change includes a tire rotation, wheel cleaning and application of Armor All to the tires – means the dealership can promise the “lowest total package price.”
Redwood General offered its customers comfortable seating, free refreshments and Wi-Fi, spotless bathrooms, and courtesy shuttles before it all became popular, he says.
“I’ve always been ahead of the curve; I think it’s because I don’t mind change,” he says. “I tell my staff that if they have a good idea, let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll just go back to the way it was. We’re not going to bankrupt the company by making one simple change.”
Aside from so many extras – treats for children, flowers for female customers on Valentine’s Day, and free “swag” giveaways, for example – the company’s customer service all boils down to being treated like family. “Redwood General’s staff is trained to deliver a perfect experience to customers every time,” the entry states.
Service advisors explain all available options and help customers make informed decisions, rather than use scare tactics for expensive repairs. If a customer needs more than a verbal explanation, the shop uses Virtual Vehicle MD to show an animated explanation of the recommended part, service or repair.
“The auto business has long had a bad rap, and in the past it has been easy for repair shops to take advantage of unknowing customers,” states the company’s entry form. “But at Redwood General, customers receive transparent explanations as well as available options, allowing them to make informed decisions that best fit their needs.”
The shop’s staff is trained and empowered to work together to resolve issues. If one service advisor is off the counter, the next staffer down the line will step in as needed. If a customer looks antsy or has been in the showroom for a long time, it doesn’t matter who originally was helping that person, a staff member checks the situation, according to the shop’s entry.
Communication also is key for customer retention, Barbara notes. A follow-up system sends service reminder emails – which often include coupons and special offers – to customers who haven’t been in for more than three months.
Redwood General also carries a group loyalty rewards program that tracks the amount customers spend; credit is rewarded for every $250 spent, and customers can use that credit at Redwood General or other participating retailers.
The shop also employs an outside sales team to generate new commercial business. Redwood General sends drivers to pick up fleet vehicles and deliver them back after being serviced. The dealership also provides service calls, and with three separate service trucks and crews, can tackle any job and allow clients to keep their vehicles on the road with minimal downtime, according to dealership.
Redwood General delivers its “we do it all under one roof” message in various ways and through many channels.
There’s the more traditional routes – television commercials on local channels and during local sporting events, as well as specialized print ads in local publications like Gentry, Ferrari Club of Northern California and Redwood City Downtown Business Group – but Barbara recognizes that Redwood General must go digital to follow the changing habits of consumers. The company contracts with an outside agency to handle its Google AdWords activity, because in Barbara’s words, “I’m definitely no expert there – it’s worth the cost to have that handled by someone else.”
The store’s website – redwoodgeneral.com – offers an engaging look at the business and allows customers to schedule appointments, read reviews, get shop information – including a virtual tour, meet the staff, find special offers and request quotes.
“I don’t have prices online because I want to talk to customers and make sure they’re informed of their options,” Barbara says. “Customers can fill out basic information and we respond by email or phone in order to ask additional questions to qualify them for the tire they need.”
The Redwood General Tire blog is also regularly updated with automotive tips and news. All of the website’s features are available in a free mobile app, as well.
A large part of its digital marketing lies in social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, which Redwood General uses to strengthen its image as a customer service oriented shop, Barbara notes. Social media posts trend toward fun, engaging topics – pictures of the shop, staff and finished vehicles; jokes or automotive trivia – as well as news and links to reviews.
“By staying relevant and offering engaging content through social media, Redwood General Tire Pros shows the public its ability to take complete responsibility for the needs of a customer’s vehicle,” the shop’s entry states.
In the digital age, Barbara understands that a customer’s satisfaction will travel far beyond the store through word of mouth, but dissatisfaction will travel even further. Be- cause of this, Redwood General takes online reviews, primarily those on yelp.com, very seriously.
“We look at Yelp daily,” he explains. “Whether someone has a complaint or praises us for a job well done, we never ignore a review or comment.”
In the case of negative reviews, if it is determined that an actual Redwood General customer left the feedback, the shop’s staff contacts that person to discuss his or her experience and what steps can be taken to make things right, Barbara adds.
Strong Community Ties
Barbara’s passion for doing things the right way is evident in his involvement with countless organizations. A past president of the Northern California Tire Dealers Association, he currently is on the board of directors of ITDG.
Outside the tire industry, Barbara serves as president of Redwood City’s Downtown Business group. He also has been named Redwood City Citizen of the Year twice, in addition to a handful of other community honors: National Police Activities League volunteer of the year, Redwood City Police Citizen of the Year award, Sequoia Award for most involved business person, and the local chamber of commerce business of the year award.
“My goal as owner of Redwood General Tire Pros is not just to make sure our customers are taken care of, but to make our community a better place to live for everyone,” Barbara says. “The community is what built up my store. My roots are here and my customers are here, so I’d like to give something back. If I can sponsor events or teams, I’m going to do that. The least I can do is give my time.”
Nearest and dearest to his heart is the Redwood City Police Activities League (PAL), of which he is the president. Under his leadership, PAL completed the construction of a $4.2 million building (which Barbara calls his “pride and joy”) that serves as a community center for at risk and underprivileged youth. The facility provides tutoring, sports programs, safe after-school activities, drug and gang awareness counseling, and parenting classes.
“(With PAL), there’s no overhead or administration fees, so all the money goes toward the cause,” he notes. “It’s very local and directly helps our community.”
Redwood General helps fund PAL programming by spearheading several fundraising efforts throughout the year, including Ride for Kids – which has garnered more than half a million dollars since Barbara started it a decade ago. Other events include the Blues Festival, Downtown Concert Series and the Fourth of July parade and foot race, which are coordinated by Redwood General and typically earn close to $100,000 annually.
During the holidays, Redwood General joins other businesses and city departments to sponsor and coordinate Hometown Holidays, a series of events and a parade that occur just before the Christmas holidays.
The annual turkey carving competition nets money for local non- profits and provides a turkey dinner to low income and homeless community members. The dealership also participates in an annual toy and book drive that serves underprivileged children in the community.
The last facet of Barbara’s business is among the most important – the employees who make the business worthy of a second Top Shop Finalist award.
“Without the distinguished employees of Redwood General Tire, it could be just like any other tire store,” Barbara says. “We don’t just hire people who can change tires, our employees are hand-picked. They have to fit our mold of superior customer service.”
In short, “they are what sets us apart from the other guys,” he adds.
The dealership’s six service advisors share more than half a century of experience in the tire and automotive business. Each of these staff members has their own specific area of expertise, ranging from commercial and UHP tires to wheel and suspension upgrades.
“Several years ago, I sat everyone down and asked them each what kind of cars they wanted to work on,” Barbara recalls. “For the most part, it naturally fell into place and we divided up the areas of specialties.”
Sales and service staff each attend numerous training sessions covering a wide array of topics in order to stay up to speed. Of the 15 automotive technicians at Redwood General, six are ASE certified and two have achieved ASE Master Tech status. The tire department includes 10 tire technicians and four lot techs.
Regarding employee retention and motivation, Barbara makes it a point to promote from within, adding that 13 staff members have been at the shop for at least 20 years. At the end of the year, any profits above the previous year are split among employees – last year, for example, the shop’s 38 full-time employees split $75,000.
Barbara values his staff so much that he vows to turn over the business to them one day.
“Without these guys, I’m nothing,” he says. “I’ve told them flat-out that I would never sell my store to someone other than them. They built this business; I’m just the owner.”
While Barbara has plans to retire in the relatively near future, there is still one more achievement he has planned for Redwood General: “We’re going to win the Top Shop Award one year,” he says. “We’re going to be the best in the country – and then we’ll get better than that.”