It’s not any one thing with Flynn’s Tire & Auto Service. It is the sum of everything – the people, the facilities, the locations and towns, the customers, the attitude, the relationships, the merchandising and marketing, the top-level service techs, the firm understanding of what customers demand.
It is all of those things and more – all delivered with a warm, caring smile – that earned the Hermitage, Pa.-based tire dealership the nod as Winner of the 2014 Tire Review Top Shop Award, presented by Ammco/Coats.
The judge’s scores for Flynn’s Tire bear that out; the dealership was rated highest in six of eight criteria, and was edged out by a mere fraction in the other two. None of the program’s past seven winners posted such results.
But the scores are also reflective of a company that is never too high and never too low. Across 18 retail stores and nine wholesale and commercial centers – the company and its 150-plus employees are steady, calm, reliable…one could say dependable.
Flynn’s business footprint stretches from Kent, Ohio, in the west, to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pa., in the east, and from Dover, Ohio, in the south all the way to Buffalo, N.Y., to the north. Once a huge Kelly-Springfield dealer, Flynn’s Tire still carries the brand, but has surrounded it with an extremely broad product screen that includes the Goodyear, Dunlop, Yokohama, Vanderbilt, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Hankook, GT Radial, Vogue, Atlas, Sumitomo, Roadmaster, Nexen, Nokian, Pirelli, Titan, Pirelli, Sailun and Vredestein labels.
“Receiving this prestigious award during our 50th anniversary year gives us all the more reason to celebrate,” said John J. “Joe” Flynn III, the company’s 41-year-old president. “This award is something that we all can be delighted by because it reflects what we do every day to make our customers number one with us. I’m sure that my father and grandfather, who started the business back in 1964, are smiling down on us.”
“We are honored and excited to have been selected as the Top Shop Award Winner for 2014,” said Tania Flynn-Warminski, vice president of training and Joe’s older sister. “We are blessed to have as many quality employees as we have. Much of our success in the past 50 years is because of their dedication, hard work and customer focus.”
Compressing the 50-year history of Flynn’s Tire is hard, if only because of the unique moments that add to the whole. It was founded in 1964 as Urra Tire Co., by John Flynn Sr., and sons John Jr. and R.P. They chose the name “Urra,” that old Gaelic word for “dependable,” an intentional mix of a proud heritage and a belief in strong ethics.
The first Urra Tire Co. store was in downtown Sharon, Pa., in a rented building with no indoor garage space. Tires had to be ordered in advance and changed outside behind the building, no easy task during the harsh western Pennsylvania winters. And with no floor jacks, Urra Tire employees had to use the customer’s own car jack. And tires they sold were bubble balanced at a nearby gas station.
Two years later, the Flynns had outgrown their first facility, and settled on a full-fledged indoor store nine miles away in rural Mercer, Pa. While the new building was suitable and affordable, it was located quite away from nearby towns. Planted among the “farms, fields and woods,” as the family described it, the founding Flynns focused not on “location, location, location,” but on “people, people, people.” And a little Gaelic magic.
To compensate for the out-of-the-way location, they attracted attention painting the building a different color every month, catching the eye of passers by and creating much needed chatter. They erected tents and stacked tires out by the road so those driving by always knew where they could get tires. And Urra Tire beefed up its inventory and stayed open until 9 p.m. six days a week, making sure any customer who took the time to visit wasn’t disappointed.
People became curious, and the curious became customers. “And they were so satisfied that they would tell others of what great service they received from Flynn’s Tire, and the business grew and became successful,” Joe III recalls.
Joe III doesn’t remember a time when he and Tania weren’t around tires. As children, his father took them to the store where they had free reign (except the service bays), and when they were old enough they took their places, working in the stores, helping customers, learning the trade side-by-side with long-time Flynn’s Tire employees.
The original plan was for the youngest Joe to go to work for another tire dealer elsewhere in the country, to learn the trade from others. But his father changed his mind and kept the younger Flynn home to follow him around day-to-day, meeting with managers and bankers and insurance people and (dread) the lawyers, working with customers and taking cordial lunches with tiremaker execs, and harsher negotiation sessions with their sales minions.
That all turned out to be the best of lessons. On Nov. 9, 2002, Joe Flynn Jr. died unexpectedly just days after returning from the SEMA Show in Las Vegas. While uncle R.P. was still company vice president, Joe Jr.’s death at age 60 threw his son and daughter head first into owning and operating a multi-million dollar tire business.
Joe III will tell you that the first 12 months under his leadership were “extremely difficult” and that “things seemed to be falling apart” for him. Many employees were worried, and vendors and the bank were skeptical of the young leadership. Nonetheless, they stuck with the company, betting that the word “dependable” wasn’t going to skip a generation.
Everyone “bonded together to support the business and each other,” the company said in its Top Shop entry. Leaning on each other and their strong faith, the business was stabilized and set on a course that would triple in size over the course of the next dozen years.
Today, the third-generation ownership structure also includes R.P.’s children, Anne Flynn-Pulaski and Jim Flynn, both under 30. And several store managers or assistant managers are under age 35, giving the company great bench strength for years to come.
For Flynn’s Tire, says Tania, customer service begins at the beginning. “Hire the right-fit person into the position, train them to be the best at what they do and make them a part of the Flynn’s Tire family, that’s how we are going to grow into the future.”
“We are a customer-centric company,” Joe III says. “We strive to serve our customers better than anyone else can. When the right people are in the right positions focusing on our customers’ satisfaction, everything else falls into place a lot easier.”
Flynn’s recently hired a professional recruiter who is focused entirely on finding the best candidates for open positions. She employs technology to help her match applicants to the top performers in each job category. “If we can perfect the selection process in hiring, then our growth rate could double,” says Tania.
The Flynn Philosophy – “Flynn-osophy,” as they call it, is the center-piece of a pocket-sized six-panel card called “The Flynn Way.” The Flynn-osophy says, “We will grow strategically by:
- Hiring the best people for each position
- Offering the best service completed with quality the first time
- Solving customer’s problems with a sense of urgency – Fast. Easy. Friendly.”
The same pocket card lists Flynn’s Tire’s core values, a constant reminder to employees that the company’s future depends on their being trustworthy and dependable, honest, enthusiastic, respectful, and team oriented.
While this sounds like a HR exercise, this is, in fact, the basis for the dealership’s customer service drive.
“We focus on making it easy for our customers to do business with us,” the company said. “We strive to be friendly, flexible and accommodating in order to make each customer feel welcome and make their experience as easy and worry free as possible.”
The customer-first-and-only approach is sought in job interviews, instilled by training, training and more training, and supported by top managers who always find time to talk to waiting customers or hold a door open for an elderly buyer. And customer service is taking an even larger role going forward.
“We hired Steve Ferrante of Sale Away Inc. and implemented their Pinnacle Performance Sales Training,” says Joe III. “This includes classroom training, and a comprehensive online portal with articles, lessons and quizzes. We record incoming phone calls, which are reviewed and graded by Sale Away and made available for managers to listen to. This is a great tool to help us become even better and more effective with customer service and sales.
“And when we earn the business from a customer they are likely to get a follow up email survey and/or phone call to thank them, ask how their experience was and make sure they were satisfied,” he adds. “All of those phone calls are recorded by a third party, Marketplace Insights, and available for our associates to listen to and learn from.
“In a 2013 customer service summary by Marketplace Insights, they noted that less than 1% of customers were dissatisfied with Flynn’s Tire, nearly 98% of the jobs were done on time, and 99% of the jobs were done right.”
Flynn’s Tire does solicit reviews from customers, and the rare negative review is dealt with directly by the store manager.
“We believe customer service should be happening before, during and after a customer visits,” Joe III says. “We do these things to show that we are committed to raising the bar of expectations. As Ben Franklin once noted, ‘Well done is better than well said.’”
The Right Person
As noted above, Flynn’s Tire has taken a far more deliberate approach to finding the “right people.” In 2012, the dealership partnered with Predictive Synergistic Systems and “started to use its Predictive Index to better understand our current team members and improve our employee selection process,” the company notes. “We first created a PRO for each job then we had our current team members take the PI survey. When we compare the PI and the PRO, it helps us identify gaps between how the person is ‘programmed’ and what it takes to do their current job.
“For instance, some people are naturally more social than others and might be happier in a job with more social interaction,” they said. “This helps us learn how to motivate our team members, address performance issues, as well as identify jobs for which our employee might be better suited.”
Flynn’s Tire also uses the system in hiring. “This allows us to compare the applicants PI to the job PRO. If someone is applying for a tire technician position, for example, and their PI survey reveals that they would be better suited for retail sales, we can have a conversation about how they might want to consider applying for that opportunity instead.”
Welcome to Tireland
With 27 physical locations across parts of three states, you face a lot of variation in locations.
Located near key interstate arteries, Flynn’s Tire’s four commercial centers handle tens of thousands of medium truck radials each year, and a pair of retreading plants meet fleet needs across a three-state region.
The company’s growing wholesale business, with four warehouses – in Mercer, Carnegie and Greenburg, Pa., and Solon, Ohio – supports a growing customer base and dealer programs from Goodyear, Yokohama, Sumitomo, Nexen and Hankook.
The retail stores offer the most diversity. Only three of the stores were purpose built by Flynn’s, the rest are retrofitted buildings that were once a car dealership or another tire business or even a Dairy Queen (the drive-thru window remains, but isn’t used). That hodge-podge doesn’t lend itself to a consistent store design.
Besides the varying floorplans, some stores are literally bookended by car dealers, creating an odd neo-competitive relationship that appears to favor the tire rather than the car dealer. Other Flynn stores are across the street from service shops with car dealers lurking nearby.
Customer comfort is important to the team, so over the past few years they have worked to renovate a couple of stores each year, eliminating the single front counter in favor of several more personal, customer-friendly pods, just large enough for a phone and computer. Waiting areas were brightened with laminate floors, comfortable leather chairs, big screen TVs, a selection of K-cup coffees and snacks, and fresh magazines and newspapers. Several café-style high-top and low-top tables and chairs give customers work space for their laptops, and free Wi-Fi gets them connected while they wait for their tires to be installed.
“It’s tough financially with 18 stores to do them all at once,” says Tania, who with Anne has been leading the renovation effort. Even with the renovations, Tania notes that they continue to look at new ways to improve the store look and feel for customers.
In addition to the waiting areas, restrooms are gutted and redone, such as the museum-like men’s restroom at the Kent store, which features an original clincher tire and wheel and a mirror fashioned out of an old whitewall Dunlop motorcycle tire.
Where the floorplan allows, large windows open out to the service bays, allowing customers to see their vehicle being worked on. For those customers who can’t wait for service, each retail store has a clean shuttle to take them to work or home after they drop off their vehicle and to pick them up when their vehicle is ready.
Based on their location, some stores offer ag tires or small OTR units, depending on what customers need. Even with its own wholesale business, the retail stores carry an in-house inventory averaging 1,500 tires.
All of the bays sport the same gear: a mix of Rotary and Forward twin-post lifts, Hunter alignment racks and Coats tire changers and balancers. Usually at least two bays are given over to 100% tire work, and each store has at least one alignment rack. There are exceptions; the North Huntingdon, Pa., store posts the company’s highest tire and service sales and profits – all with six bays.
The company has three general managers, one for each business unit – retail, commercial and wholesale – reporting to Joe III. Two regional retail managers – one for the eastern half of the business, the other covering the west – report to the retail GM.
Flynn’s Tire employs a lot of master techs, sometimes two at one location, which is one key reason why it sees few comebacks and many happy customers. And there is plenty of opportunity to advance at Flynn’s Tire. Many tire techs have graduated to service tech positions or have become store managers. The manager of the North Huntingdon store, in fact, is another mem- ber of the 35-and-under club, and started his career busting tires.
“We don’t want to be the biggest tire dealer, we just want to be the best at what we do,” says Joe III. But that doesn’t happen without focus. After working for the past few years on expanding the company’s wholesale business, the company president is turning his attention on the retail side. They may not want to be the biggest, but they do want to be bigger.
Flynn’s Tire’s newest concept recently opened in Niles, Ohio. The small store concept – called “Mini-Flynn’s” – was designed for speed and efficiency, and gives the dealer the ability to enter new markets or expand marketshare without a major initial outlay.
Flynn Tire Group, the umbrella for all tire operations, moved into new headquarters in West Middlesex, Pa., last year – “Tireland” as the welcome sign at the mouth of the parking lot says. In keeping with the theme, the building is a converted newspaper printing plant that once served as a regional hub for the Wall Street Journal and printed the local daily.
There is playfulness about the name “Tireland,” and while Flynn’s Tire is a serious business, a little mirth and merriment is part of the daily routine, and usually originates with one of the Flynns. Spend any time with them and you can quickly tell that this is a family that truly loves the business and spending each and every day with each other. That attitude permeates the rest of the team.
The previous headquarters was situated above its flagship Mercer store, a cramped space that came with its own distractions, especially for a president who loves talking with customers. The new facility offices about 30 people, but there is still a ton of space in the building, which came with 30 acres of land, allowing plenty of room for expansion.
Fun With Flynnie
The omnipresent Flynnie, the cute corporate cartoon leprechaun, is the single most visible and identifiable symbol of Flynn’s Tire. Flynnie is in every print ad, on every piece of direct mail, on the side of every company truck, on every TV commercial, not to mention the Flynn’s Tire website, Facebook page and tire display. There is even a custom-produced Flynnie coloring book that helps teach children basic vehicle safety.
Joe and Tania often appear in TV spots and on radio ads, adding to the family theme. Joe also includes his “personal satisfaction guarantee” message in some recent radio commercials to reinforce both quality and the family-owned positions.
Promotions run around key holidays – including St. Patrick’s Day – or seasonal times, like spring car care, pre-vacation and, currently, winter tire sales. “We recently launched a radio campaign encouraging people to be aware of their tire condition and extending Flynn’s free air pressure and tread depth check service if they are unsure how to check their own tires,” the company notes.
Everything from Flynn’s self-produced radio show devoted to answering listener questions about cars and titles to Flynn’s title sponsorship of and regular appearance on a regular KDKA-AM radio show about car care, regular TV appearances on local morning shows or news programs about tire and vehicle maintenance, and the company’s $10 donation to the Free Care Fund at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation for each home run by the Pittsburgh Pirates points back to the company’s “Your Hometown Tire and Auto Service Experts” tag line.
Flynnie is always part of those advertising efforts, and makes personal appearances, as well, marching in Pitts- burgh’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, dropping in at the Father’s Day Car Show in Hermitage, representing the title sponsor at Family Fun Block Party in Clarion, Pa., or representing Flynn’s at local racetracks and speedways as a trophy presenter.
The dealer has incorporated Flynnie into several Facebook contests, including one contest to count the number of Flynnie images hidden in a drawing of Flynnie, and a “selfie contest” asking people to take and post a photo of themselves with either the Flynnie-costumed mascot or a standup cutout of Flynnie to the Flynn’s Facebook page.
The company’s most significant online effort is its website – flynnstire.com – where customers can use a fitment guide to search for tires by vehicle or size. Specs, pictures, descriptions and pricing are shown for each of the tires in stock, and customers can get live quotes, place an order and make an appointment for installation – all on the website. Appointments for services can also be made on the website.
“Our marketing strategies for our website have included behavior and geo-targeting, paid placement of video pre-roll and video display on key media websites, and SEO management,” says Terry Polonsky, director of marketing and advertising. “We have found that our website is a key factor for attracting customers to our stores.”
Themed and seasonal direct mail and monthly customer reminder cards are used to build new and repeat business, and Tania writes a monthly auto advice article that appears in the local woman’s magazine Views & Voices. In it, Tania gives helpful advice about cars and tires from the woman’s point of view.
The list of promotional activities and actions seems endless, but all has contributed in Flynn’s Tire being the most recognizable name in the region.
These are just a few examples of the marketing and advertising for Flynn’s. Each of them is designed to set Flynn’s apart from other service centers. And all are focused on quality products, value pricing and exceptional customer service.
The first line of Flynn’s Tire mission statement makes it very clear that they are in business “to serve our customers and community more effectively than anyone else can serve them.” And it’s not just about tires and wrenches.
The company donates hundreds of gift cards for local fundraisers; gifts thousands of dollars to support local charities, schools and groups; delivers the manpower and leadership needed to support worthwhile efforts; and even provides training programs to help disadvantaged youth learn a trade.
Locations managers are encouraged to serve their local communities through involvement in sponsorships and donations. Joe and Tania often serve on committees or boards, and the company has been an ardent partner with the U.S. Army for their PAYS Program (Partnership for Youth Success) to automatically interview any returning Army veteran whose skills match up to available positions with Flynn’s Tire.
The multi-faceted Flynn’s Tire story is much broader than space allows, but one comes away understanding why they see a future “filled with tons of opportunities.” From the top down, each element of the business works in harmony with the others, delivering success measured by satisfied customers.
It all adds up to a level of dependability that makes all of the difference, the driving reason why Flynn’s Tire is the 2014 Winner of the Tire Review Top Shop Award.