When Bud Luppino sets his mind to something, he does whatever it takes to make it happen. That was the case when, on their very first date, he told his high school sweetheart, Claudia (now his wife of 47 years), that he was going to marry her.
And it certainly was the case when he founded Bud’s Tire Pros 20 years ago with the goal of creating a new breed of tire dealership in Southern California, one that places customer relationships – not just customer service – above all else.
Through its innovative merchandising, exceptional treatment of customers and employees and wholehearted commitment to the community, the dealership lives up to Luppino’s goal. In 2015 the business saw gross sales of $7.5 million. It’s no surprise that Bud’s Tire Pros, with three locations in Riverside and Moreno Valley, Calif., has earned the honor of being named a Tire Review Top Shop Finalist.
Deep Ties to the Industry
Luppino says the tire industry is “the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me, second to meeting my wife.” Actually, he has Claudia to thank for jump-starting his tire career.
“I was on terminal leave because I had two months of vacation time saved up, so I was out of the Air Force in April but didn’t separate until June,” Luppino recalls. “The first week I was out, Claudia asked me if I was going to look for a job. She said ‘being on vacation’ was not a good excuse. She showed me an ad in the newspaper for a manager trainee for a Mark C. Bloome location in Riverside. So I put on my suit and went – and I’ve been working in the tire industry ever since.”
Luppino was recruited to work at BFGoodrich in 1983 and stayed on when Michelin acquired the company in 1989. In late 1995, the opportunity to own his own tire dealership presented itself, and he couldn’t resist.
“Tire Pros, which was one of my accounts at the time, had a franchise for sale in Riverside,” he recalls. “I knew the organization well, so I knew what a good business opportunity that was. With my retail background from Mark C. Bloome and the wholesale and marketing experience from BFGoodrich and Michelin, I knew it would be a natural fit.”
At that time, Luppino says there were no shops in the Riverside area that people could depend on for quality automotive repair service, so he set out with the objective of opening a dealership in 1996 that would serve “multiple generations” of families. Bud’s Tire Pros currently is serving its third generation of loyal customers out of three locations. The company’s second location in Moreno Valley was acquired from a Tire Pros franchisee who was retiring. The company’s third location in Orangecrest (also in the city of Riverside) was built from the ground up in 2013.
Today, Bud’s Tire Pros boasts 44 full-time employees, stocks more than a dozen tire brands and achieves a sales mix that is 60% tires and 40% vehicle service – split among 85% retail, 5% wholesale, and 10% commercial sales. In addition to Tire Pros, the dealership is a member of the Independent Tire Dealers Group.
The shop has earned Tire Pros’ “5 Diamond” dealer status multiple times, a designation that marks the highest standards possible for the group. The rating is based on two components: evaluating the dealership from a consumer’s perspective to ensure that the image is keeping with the demands of today’s consumers, and seeing the engagement with individual dealers when integrating Tire Pros into their businesses.
Beyond Customer Service
Dozens upon dozens of testimonials and reviews – from hand-written thank-you letters to new avenues like Yelp, Google and Facebook – prove that Bud’s Tire Pros goes above and beyond for its customers.
“Bud cares completely about his customers and their satisfaction,” says Claudia Luppino, who retired three years ago from a full-time career with the federal government and has since been even more involved with the dealership. She adds that one of the key reasons Bud’s has thrived is because her husband relates so well to customers. “People come to our store and know that we are trusted in the community, and if they are not satisfied or have another expectation, it will be met.”
The company has a policy in which all sales associates have $200 of Luppino’s own money that they can use “to make any problem go away,” he says. “For example, if a customer came back and said there was a problem with his brakes, and we find that it was a problem unrelated to work we did, I tell my staff, ‘Go for it. Replace the parts and document the work, but make sure the customers’ needs has been satisfied.’ If we were to replace all brake parts, it wouldn’t cost our company more than $200 dollars. That price is worth a customer’s loyalty.”
From opening day in 1996, Luppino made it a point to be present, to be a part of the day-to-day operations of the shop – a routine that has not changed over the years, even as more locations were added.
“I didn’t want people to think this is a place you just go to get tires and then you leave,” he explains. “I wanted them to feel comfortable. When you’re there all the time, you get to know people, and you can build relationships. As we started to expand, my time was split up; I just worked harder to talk to people and learn things about them.”
A prime example is Bud’s Tire Pros’ Orangecrest location, which is right outside the main gate of March Air Force Base. “When people from the military come in, I make sure that I connect with them in a way that I would have liked back when I was in the Air Force during Vietnam,” Luppino says. “We make sure we thank them every day for their service.”
Widespread Marketing and Merchandising
Bud’s Tire Pros has fine-tuned its marketing plan – which primarily includes print, direct mail, social media and word of mouth. He has the help of a full-time staff member who oversees marketing. According to Luppino, the dealership also capitalizes on Tire Pros tie-in opportunities such as sports marketing. For example, Bud’s is the official tire retailer for Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy.
Customer appreciation and retention comes partly in the form of the Bud’s Tire Rewards Program, in which a percentage of purchases goes into a “bank” that customers can use toward future services and products. A referral campaign helps to ensure loyalty by creating relationships with many area organizations, like Air Force Village West, a nearby retirement facility for military officers.
“We give residents there a thank-you card that includes a coupon,” Luppino says. “We also make a donation to (the facility) so it can continue its programs and we place an ad in its publication. Word gets out that we’re supporting their organization and they stay loyal to us.”
That mindset ties into the dealership’s heavy emphasis on grassroots marketing and the value placed on word-of-mouth advertising.
“We believe really strongly in supporting the community,” Luppino says. “We’ve always believed that if we are loyal to our customers and community, they’ll be loyal to us. Whether it’s a football team or the philharmonic, we get behind these organizations. We’re able to grow our business without having to spend a lot of money on radio, TV or traditional advertising that may have very little effect on our business.”
The LA Galaxy sponsorship is a large part of Bud’s Tire Pros’ involvement in sports marketing. “Soccer has become much more popular than it was when I was a kid in Erie, Pa.,” Luppino shares. “Especially in Southern California where we have a huge influx of people who grew up with soccer in their countries, it’s a great sport to support as an alternative to football. We support the Galaxy with all three of our stores, but we’re even more involved with local groups by supporting them with Uniroyal and Michelin soccer programs. This year we’ll give away 350 soccer balls to kids in Riverside.”
Bud’s Tire Pros is nearly everywhere when it comes to social media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram and more. Though he understands the importance of interacting with customers and delivering a consistent message across all platforms, Luppino readily admits it is not his strong suit.
“We have a full-time staff member who handles marketing, including all our social media,” he says. “I really like tires and I do that really well, but I don’t know social media, so I believe in hiring the best and letting them do what they know how to do.”
Speaking of hiring the best, Bud’s Tire Pros’ employees are some of the most qualified in the area, and the Luppinos work hard to make sure the staff feels appreciated, resulting in very little turnover.
“We hold employee recognition nights, have an ‘employee of the quarter’ program in each store, try to promote from within, and instantly reward anyone who goes above and beyond,” Luppino says. “And if an employee wants to complete training in anything that will help them in their career, we reimburse them for the cost of any tuition or testing involved. We want everyone to see that there’s a long-term opportunity here.”
All three locations are on a scheduled monthly training program that includes Luppino’s own internal training, Tire Pros University training, tire and equipment manufacturer training, and ASE certifications. Luppino and several employees also attend Tire Pros Think Tanks.
“Training is critical. Our industry changes so quickly and it’s so technical that if we don’t keep up with it, we’ll fall behind,” he said. “Ten years ago, there were no hybrid cars and today, probably 25% of the cars in California are hybrids. If we didn’t have the ability and technical expertise to deal with that, we’d miss a big opportunity for our business.”
When it comes to providing consistent, exceptional customer service across three locations, Claudia Luppino says employees follow the example of Bud, herself and their daughter, Nicole, who serves as director of administration and human resources.
“It’s leadership by example,” Claudia Luppino says. “Everyone on the staff knows immediately when they come to work for us what will be expected of them. The reputation is already there. Employees know from the first day they start with us that customers are the most important thing – without them, we wouldn’t be in business.”
Connected to the Community
Taking the concept of building relationships one step further, Bud’s Tire Pros has created deep community ties through its support of countless organizations and charitable causes. In the 20 years since Luppino started the business, he has donated more than $1 million and has overseen the raising of roughly $3.5 million worth of contributions to the community.
“If these organizations don’t have our support, they won’t exist,” says Claudia. “They exist for a cause, and that’s one reason we’re so indebted to our community. We all get something from the things these organizations do and the services they provide.”
“We have the major causes that we know we’re going to support every year, but after that we have a discretionary fund with a set amount of money that we will have available to us to support charities when they need it,” Luppino explains. “There aren’t that many out there that we don’t support.”
From local groups to national organizations, the list is long; however, there are a handful of causes that are particularly meaningful to the Luppinos. These include: the American Diabetes Association (Luppino’s brother is diabetic); the Unites States Veterans Initiative, for which Luppino serves as a chairman on the local advisory board; Cleveland Clinic breast cancer research, for which the shop holds an annual Brakes for Breasts campaign, giving away free brake pads and donating 10% of customers’ costs for brake work to the hospital; and a partnership with Tire Pros to equip wounded U.S. soldiers with customized all-terrain wheelchairs through The Independence Fund’s “Allies for Independence.”
Perhaps above all else, though, Luppino places a heavy emphasis on supporting youth organizations.
“If you give a child the right exposure at an early time in their life, the likelihood of them being involved in unfavorable activity decreases,” he says. “If we give everyone an opportunity at an early age, hopefully they become better citizens and become successful.”
In that regard, Bud’s has partnered with the Riverside Police Department to help youth in the city through programming, “keeping them off the streets and showing them what they can achieve if given the right chances in life,” Luppino notes.
About five years ago, the dealership also formed a partnership with the Moreno Valley Unified School District aimed at improving attendance among students.
“At the time, only 75% of students in the district were coming to school,” Luppino recalls. “So we put together a program where if a student had perfect attendance for the trimester, we gave every parent a free oil change. At the end of the year, for those who had perfect attendance, their name went into a hopper and we pulled a winner; their whole family won a trip to Disneyland. The school went to 99% attendance within a year and, because of that, state funding for that school increased, the district was able to do more programming.”
Bud’s Tire Pros also participates in career days at local schools, runs an internship program, and hosts hands-on hydraulic lessons for engineering students from one local high school.
“Whether it’s an arts program or sports, it’s important to offer opportunities for kids who might not otherwise have this exposure,” he says. “If they keep trying different things, these kids are going to find something they can be passionate about that they can work for in their lives to set them up for future success.”
When it comes to its own future success, Bud’s Tire Pros is well situated, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Luppinos and the entire staff.
Luppino’s short-term goal is to strengthen his relationships with his customers and build even more community ties, in addition to continuing to ramp up business at the Orangecrest location. Longer-term, while the family isn’t opposed to further expansion, it’s not something they are seeking anytime soon.
“We evaluate every opportunity as it comes along,” Luppino says, “but in reality, one of the keys to our business as a community automotive service company is that we don’t want to grow and expand nationally. We continue to grow our footprint in the city. We have three locations and they’re only seven miles apart – there’s still an opportunity for us to grow within Riverside. My daughter and three grandsons can evaluate expansion when it’s their time.”
He adds, “We will expand our digital marketing efforts, social media, mobile-friendly website, and so on. We need to reach our customers in the way they’re doing business today – that’s basically our fourth store.”
Both Bud and Claudia are 67 years old and have no plans for retirement anytime soon.
“We both enjoy working; it’s fulfilling to do things for our employees and our customers,” Claudia says. “We both feel we have an obligation to the families for whom we provide and that’s very important to us.”
“We like waking up every morning excited by the opportunity that we’re going to help someone and maybe effectively change their life forever,” Bud adds. “If there comes a time when we aren’t excited about that, then we will know it’s time to consider retirement – but we don’t see that happening anytime soon.”