Very little and yet so much has changed over the seven years since we profiled Atlantic Tire & Service when the Cary, N.C., dealership took top honors in the 2008 Tire Review Top Shop Awards, presented by Ammco/Coats. It’s still all about great people delivering great customer service. It’s still about a team built on knowledge and character and desire. It’s still about community and those in need. And it’s still about “creating a comfortable, confident experience.”
The version of Atlantic Tire & Service that was the clear-cut Winner of the 2015 Top Shop Award – the first two-time winner – took all of those winning attributes and threw them into hyper-drive.
Few dealers I’ve ever met know and understand customers better than Anthony Blackman. And that’s a lot of tire dealers over a lot of years. Rust never sleeps, and there is no rust on the Atlantic Tire team, which shares Blackman’s devotion to community, family and a relentless drive to being that much better day after day after day.
Atlantic Tire is the fully realized vision of what he always felt a tire and service business could be. He is a tire lifer, starting at a young age watching his uncle Dood Hudson run a two-bay Gulf station in his 900-person hometown of Vass, N.C.
Blackman recently came across an ink drawing of that very gas station, complete with the familiar gull-wing light pole over the two-pump fuel island. “This is where the dream began,” Blackman says with a touch of nostalgia. Today, Dood’s son James is a long-time loyal Atlantic Tire employee. “This little station meant so much to that small town, and that’s what I wanted.”
Working in a Goodyear store for a man he reverently refers to as “Mr. Perry” put him through North Carolina State University as a business major. And his mentor kept him on after graduation and helped him get his management legs. He has never forgotten the lessons learned from Mr. Perry, and he has taken a number of young people under his wings trying to repay that debt.
Ten years of working in Goodyear and BFGoodrich stores gave way to the second stage of Blackman’s tire career when he and a partner opened Atlantic Avenue Tire in in Raleigh, N.C., in 1988. A decade later came the third phase when he sold his share of that business to his partner, bought property in Cary and built his first Atlantic Tire & Service location.
There was the expected anxiety, spending every dime he and his wife, Beth, had, borrowing money to cover the rest, and the countless hours of back-breaking work – all driven by his bedrock belief in the value of customer service and community.
“I never thought about failure,” Blackman says of his entrepreneurial leap. “It just wasn’t an option. I had nothing to fall back on. Growing up with nothing makes you want to win.”
Seventeen years later, that still drives him. And he’s still winning.
Staying Well Ahead
That first eight-bay store in Cary revealed another of Blackman’s secret weapons: staying ahead of market growth. When the first Atlantic Tire store opened, Cary was thousands of acres of nothing that were quickly becoming dozens of office buildings and shopping areas and housing developments. The second store in Durham, N.C., (opened in 2005) and third store in Raleigh (2009) followed the same formula. It didn’t hurt that Atlantic Tire’s market area was the high-flying and fast-growing Research Triangle. The eight-county region sports three major research universities – Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State – and a still-growing population of 2.1 million.
Those high-wage, higher education cust-omers expect a higher level of service, and Atlantic Tire has exploited that opportunity to the tune of $8.5 million in sales in 2014, split 71% in vehicle service and 29% in tires. Seven years ago, Atlantic Tire was 100% retail; today, thanks to an aggressive push into local Class 7-8 fleets and burgeoning “light commercial” opportunities, Atlantic Tire’s commercial business represents 40% of the dealership’s total revenue.
Atlantic Tire recently locked up a contract with the 200-car Taxi Taxi, a new taxi company that is growing across the U.S. and recently entered the Triangle area.
The 49-employee business is constantly hopping, delivering exemplary services to scheduled and walk-in customers alike, making after-sale check-in calls to customers, prospecting for new business, brain-storming for the next great idea, and giving back to their home communities. More on that later.
Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal are Atlantic Tire’s lead brands, but the dealership also sells a lot of Goodyear, Bridgestone, Firestone, Continental, General and Hankook tires, as well as Falken, Kumho, Nitto, Capitol, Nexen and Pirelli. “We can get anything a customer wants,” notes general manager Davis Morgan, and Atlantic Tire relies on Tire Centers and American Tire Distributors as their primary suppliers.
Blackman and his team have been working on building a fourth store pretty much since the Raleigh location opened. They have had a few locations in mind, and are trying to stay just ahead of the region’s next big growth area – not an easy task in the Triangle.
From a design and layout standpoint, the three stores follow a similar pattern. While lot size and shape dictated how the floor plans came together, Atlantic Tire stores are consistent in color and look; there is no mistaking where you are, from either the outside or the interior. Store layout is focused far more on customer comfort than tire and wheel displays, in fact there are few actual tires on display.
Atlantic Tire reinforces its “customer first” attitude by showing off some of its many local awards from various civic and business groups and from local newspapers and magazines. And each store has a thick binder stuffed with recent thank you letters and testimonials from happy customers.
The front desk, less than eight steps away from the front door, is the first thing customers will see, and each visitor is quickly welcomed by a smiling face. Free coffee, tea and soft drinks, fresh magazines, WiFi, and TV are offered in the comfortable waiting areas; the Raleigh and Durham stores have glass-enclosed customer areas with toys for the younger set.
All of the stores are whistle clean from top to bottom, and from the front counter to the farthest corner in the shop. It’s every employee’s job to keep things neat. The service area features above-ground lifts, and the tire and service equipment represent a wider range of brands. The Coats APX tire changer Atlantic Tire took home as the 2008 Top Shop is still in service at the Raleigh store.
The Value of Being Known
Blackman is another of the business’ secret weapons, and at age 61 he’s far from slowing down. He admits to being happiest when he’s working with customers, helping solve their vehicle problems, making new friends. But he also understands that his role must change.
“I know I’m supposed to be working on the business,” he admits, “but I hate being stuck in the office. I’d rather be out with the people.” Blackman knows that he needs to focus on big picture issues and leave the day-to-day to his trusted lieutenants.
That group includes Morgan, manager of Durham store and corporate general manager; Jason Browder, manager of Raleigh store; Tom McGowan, manager of the Cary store; Blackman’s son Cameron, who leads the commercial business; and Nancy Seymour, who heads marketing with more recent arrival Lauren Block.
Where Blackman really shines, and something he is teaching his managers: the value of relationships. Blackman seems to know everyone in the Triangle, certainly within the Cary borders, and those he isn’t familiar with today will be his best friends tomorrow.
His extensive involvement in local organizations and Atlantic Tire’s charity work has given him and his top managers insider knowledge, actionable information about new developments and businesses coming to the area that has allowed the dealership to be the first to introduce themselves to new neighbors and quickly establish solid relationships.
With the growth of the Research Triangle area came a sharp growth in competition. Just Tires, Discount Tire, Tire King, Colony Tire, National Tire & Battery, Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, Goodyear Tire & Service, Firestone Complete Auto Care, Monro Muffler Brake, AAA Tire Store and more dot every corner of the map. Dozens of car dealers have also adjusted their pricing, changed their attitudes and have become formidable tire and service competition.
And Michelin – Atlantic Tire’s chief brand – is using the Raleigh area as its test bed for its new Michelin OnSite direct-to-consumer program. The online tire sales and service program bothers Blackman more than he’ll admit, primarily because Atlantic Tire is Michelin’s largest customer in the Triangle, and Bibendum is often an element in Atlantic Tire’s logo.
The sprinter vans Michelin is using are expensive, he says, but they aren’t set up to do alignments or any vehicle services, and the $169 flat service fee will certainly be a shocker to customers. Those are the holes he looks to exploit.
Facing all of that, being aggressive in the market is a matter of survival. And Atlantic Tire is not bashful.
“I’ve always been aggressive. When we opened up out here, I knew we’re going to be successful,” Blackman says. “We’re in a very upscale market here. Customers here keep a car for a few years and then they get a new one, so we have to push the key services. We’ve done a nice job with that.”
When they are out picking up or dropping off customers or their cars, Atlantic Tire employees have one other job: Bring back the names of at least two prospective commercial customers. “We put those into the computer, and then find out everything we can about them. If they’re in our market, we’ll go and call them and say, ‘I’m going to send you some information, Mr. Jones, about Atlantic Tire. I’d like to help you with your fleet service, if possible, and I’ll call you back in a couple weeks.’ If they already have a primary supplier, we’ll try to be their secondary tire supplier.
“It may not be this year, it may be next year, but sooner or later that primary guy is going to mess up,” Blackman says. “And I’m going to be sitting right there. We’ll put on a real show. We’ll pick it up. We’ll deliver it. We’ll wash it…whatever it takes to get that account. But it’s not one of those things where we call and just get the business. That does happen, and it’s fun when it happens like that, but that’s rare.”
“The thing is, with the sort of competition that’s coming into the area,” says Morgan, “they’re not going to be contacting those commercial accounts. They’re the mailers, sending out the cheapest deal to try to get regular Joes in the door. They’re not going to be contacting fleet accounts. That’s why we focus on it.”
And it goes even further. Morgan explains that Atlantic Tire works to be a ‘preferred vendor’ with corporate and commercial customers, “so if they have a business partner looking for a tire and service recommendation, we’re right there.”
Putting It Into Practice
The Atlantic Tire Mission Statement keeps customers at the forefront:
“We will practice what we preach and, in so doing, earn your trust. We promise to:
• Provide honest evaluations and accurate diagnostics
• Treat you like family
• Complete the job thoroughly and charge a fair and competitive price
• Continue our commitment to excellence by employing certified technicians
• Provide a clean and pleasant environment for you
• Clear up any misconceptions of auto servicing
• Take an active role in our community”
The last item is perhaps Atlantic Tire’s real ace in the hole. The tire dealership put an amazing 11% of sales back into the community last year, and plans for the same level of support this year. That’s more than $900,000 in direct contributions to community groups across the Triangle.
“Yeah, that amount surprised me at one time, but it is our belief that it is the right thing to do, to give back to your community,” says Blackman, who personally serves on the boards of numerous civic and educational groups.
“The brand we built, we see it everywhere, and that’s good because we want to be everywhere,” Blackman explains of the dealerships charitable work. “That dealer, that retailer that we’re battling against, they’re not everywhere. They’re not giving back. And it’s sometimes a sad commentary that people choose one place over another because of pricing instead of what it does for the community.
“I wish more businesses would share more with the community because it strengthens this community, and if you want, look at it like an investment. Yeah, it is an investment because it has dividends that we get back.”
Over the years, Atlantic Tire has been involved with more than 45 local non-profits and community-focused organizations.
There’s $1,000 to Loaves and Fishes, a charity organization in Raleigh, for the maintenance and repair of its vehicles. Another $1,000 to support the Cary Chamber of Commerce’s “Honor a Teacher” program. And the thousands that “we give to people who just need it,” he says.
Then there was the $25,000 donation to the Children’s Home Society, which has delivered child welfare and family support services in the state since 1902.
The North Carolina General Assembly recently recognized Atlantic Tire for its philanthropic contributions and dedication to the community. Blackman himself was honored with the Boy Scouts of America Carowinds District 2014 Distinguished Citizen Award.
Among the other organizations Atlantic Tire regularly donates to are: Cary Community Foundation, Capital City Girls Choir, Meals on Wheels, Miracle League of the Triangle, Cary Concert Singers, Hospice of Wake County, West Cary Middle School, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Sterling Montessori School, Cardinal Gibbons High School, Progress Energy – Energy Neighbor Fund, Cary Christian School, Safe Child, Cary Family YMCA, and many more.
Most recently, to tie together Atlantic Tire’s passion for giving back and its 2015 marketing initiatives, the company hosted a two-month-long philanthropic social media contest entitled “Repair My Ride.” Community members were encouraged to submit a 30-second video pitch explaining why they or someone they know deserved auto repairs. All videos were posted on the Atlantic Tire Facebook page and it was up to community members to vote for the winning video pitch. Based on number of “likes,” the winner received $1,000 in free auto repairs.
Due to the overwhelming response, Atlantic Tire chose two winners – one “Voter’s Choice” and one “Outstanding Dedication to the Community” winner, which was based on the amount of time that individual dedicated to giving back to local community.
“All of these efforts show that Atlantic Tire truly does ‘walk the walk’ in building trust with its customers and playing an active corporate philanthropic role in the community in which it does business,” the dealership wrote in its entry form. “Atlantic Tire’s lifelong customers are some of the most respected heads of local government, chambers and businesses in the Triangle region. The company is constantly praised with positive word-of-mouth feedback and receives weekly postcards and handwritten ‘thank you’ notes from its customers.”
“Certainly marketing plays a role in it, but we really do believe in giving back,” says Blackman. As an example, Blackman cites a NCAA collegiate tennis tournament in Cary, a $30,000 commitment that returned “almost non-existent” exposure for the dealership. “But to help this community get to that next level, to one day be the Omaha of collegiate tennis, is very important to us, and it would help build that bridge to where we could possibly bring the national championships here,” says Blackman, an avid tennis player as is his wife.
“And next year it’ll be bigger and better because we’ll have more time to get our exposure out there. So it starts with altruism, but it’s also marketing,” he says. “It’s good marketing because people like businesses that give back to the community.”
In addition to serving on the TIA board of directors since 2013, Blackman and/or Atlantic Tire are members of the North Carolina Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association, the Cary Chamber of Commerce, the Apex Chamber of Commerce, the Morrisville Chamber of Commerce, the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, Cary Visual Art, The Carying Place, West Cary Middle School Business Alliance, Adopt-A-Highway, the Cary Rotary Club, Cary Family YMCA, and the N.C. Better Business Bureau.
Say It Loudly
Atlantic Tire’s merchandising efforts also focus on the consumer. In fact, customers and community members are included in Atlantic Tire advertising. “Those who see these ads are excited to see faces they recognize, and those photographed for the ads feel special,” Atlantic Tire said in its entry.
The messaging “is never sales-centric, but rather is related to helpful tips and reminders to keep a driver feeling confident in his or her vehicle,” the dealership said. “The underlying message is, ‘We are here for you – even if it’s just to answer a quick question.’”
Most of Atlantic Tire’s promotion efforts center on direct mail, social media and hosting consumer education programs, like regularly scheduled Ladies Car Care Clinics that feature snacks, wine, door prizes and hands-on learning about vehicle systems and tires. In 2014, more than 60 women participated – and told all of their friends.
Atlantic Tire regularly runs radio commercials, print ads, direct mail campaigns and vehicle service reminders in print and through email. Digital channels like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ continue to grow in importance, as well.
Regular special promotional efforts show company support for a variety of sectors including special deals for seniors, military personal, educators, public service employees and many more, and Atlantic Tire also invests heavily in marketing through its sponsorship of N.C. State football and basketball. Promotions onsite and on the back of every parking pass reach more than 200,000 current and potential customers on game days.
But the best promotion comes in the form of delivering world-class customer service.
Besides spacious, clean stores, Atlantic Tire provides free shuttle service to drop off and pick up customers while their vehicle is serviced. There are dozens of stories of Atlantic Tire personnel going above and beyond to help customers in need, and “its website and social media pages highlight many testimonials from customers who have benefited from its outstanding customer service,” its entry stated. Uniquely, each and every customer receives a hand-written thank you note from store managers within days of their visit.
Atlantic Tire regularly monitors its reputation online and personally reaches out directly to customers who gave the shop less than favorable ratings. Phone calls help staff understand and rectify bad situations “and make sure that each customer knows Atlantic Tire cares about making sure they’re satisfied with their customer service experience.”
Atlantic Tire has been honored with the Better Business Bureau of Eastern North Carolina’s Torch Award in 2013, and repeatedly wins local awards as voted by the general public such as, Cary Magazine’s Maggy Award for Best Mechanic (voted on by readers and won several times), The Cary News’ Best of Cary Awards for Best Place for Auto Repair and Best Customer Service, and Wake Living’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Mechanic.
We Want to Be the Best
The awards and accolades are the outward signs. What the public doesn’t see is the pace set for employees literally from the beginning. “Have they (the employees) bought into our mission? I think yes, they have,” Blackman says. “Our store managers certainly have. Even in the back of the store, and little things like making sure that we smile and acknowledge anybody comes here.
“And never say no to a customer. If they honor you by coming through that front door, you do the best you possibly can to make sure that their needs are met. That is our brand and our management style, and it goes from the top to the bottom. And it’s hard, it really is, to get people to buy into that. But through our meetings and constantly stressing the importance of it, I believe we get the message through.
“I would be very disappointed if someone hadn’t learned that by now,” he says.
When Blackman hires someone, he hires for attitude, not just skills. “Attitude is the key. That is the key. There is a restaurant here that the owner, when she interviews someone, she’ll put a piece of paper on the floor, and when you come in to interview, if you don’t take the time to pick that piece of paper up, you get a black mark right away.
“That tells you something about that person. She feels that if they won’t take the time to reach down and pick up that little piece of paper, then they won’t take time to give extra service to the customers.”
Atlantic Tire’s attrition rate is very low, Blackman says. “We keep people, and part of it is they know that if they stay with us, they can do anything that they want to. If they want to go the management route, we have a way for them to go the management route. People that we feel comfortable with, we’ll invest dollars into them. But it certainly starts with attitude.”
One thing in life that Blackman has learned is that a bad attitude is more powerful than a positive attitude. So if you keep a bad attitude, sooner or later it will hurt you.
“We remind our people that 99% of the customers who come to us don’t want to be here,” says Morgan. “I mean, nobody really wants to come here. This is not what they want to spend their money on. So it’s our job to make them feel comfortable and provide that level of service. Maybe at some point it just makes them forget about that they’re spending money on their car, you know?
“I get so frustrated because someone didn’t open a door for an elderly person or take that extra step to make a customer feel welcome here, ask them if they want something to drink or when we finish up, tell them, ‘Your car’s in the back but I’m going to bring it around for you.’
“Taking that extra step is what makes us better than the guy up the street who won’t take the time or make the effort. That’s what we’re all about.
“We’ll pick your car up for you. We’ll get it washed for you while you’re here. It won’t cost you anything. We’ll just take care of it for you. We’re in a very, very competitive industry. If you aren’t committed to setting yourself apart, then you’re going to be average, and we’re not about being average. We want to be the best.”
And for the second time in nine years, Atlantic Tire & Service certainly is the best.