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2017 Top Shop Finalist: Waukegan Tire & Supply Co.

Waukegan Tire & Supply Co. has been operating in the greater Chicago/Milwaukee area for nearly 50 years. In that time, the dealership has become a fixture in the community it serves. Waukegan Tire is active in local events and charities, reinvesting back into the community.

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Waukegan Tire & Supply Co. has been operating in the greater Chicago/Milwaukee area for nearly 50 years.

In that time, the dealership has become a fixture in the community it serves. Waukegan Tire is active in local events and charities, reinvesting back into the community.

Waukegan Tire  is also focused on meeting the needs of its customers. The dealership embraces new technologies, continually training its employees to service changing vehicles and meet customer demands.

It is because of this dedication to its customers and community that Waukegan Tire is a two-time Tire Review Top Shop Finalist, recognized in 2010 and again this year, 2017.

A Family Affair

Following a nine-year career with Goodyear, Gerald “Jerry” Nerheim founded Waukegan Tire in 1968. Waukegan Tire quickly expanded, adding stores in 1971, 1975, and 1978.

Today, the dealership operates four locations in Waukegan, Park City, and Grayslake, Ill. Waukegan Tire employs 50 full-time employees.

Jerry boasts that since Waukegan Tire’s beginnings, the dealership has been a family affair.

“I started the business with a silent partner. After seven years, I bought him out and Waukegan Tire has been a family business ever since,” he says.

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At 82 years old, Jerry is still active in the business as company president and CEO. His children, Julie Nerheim Scroggins and Steve Nerheim, are also involved in the daily running of Waukegan Tire. Julie serves as the company’s vice president and chief financial officer, while Steve is vice president and chief operating officer.

“My brother, Steve, and I have both been involved in the business in many different areas throughout our lives. We have learned from the best of the best and are preparing to carry the company into the future,” Julie shares.

A third generation is set to be involved at Waukegan Tire as well. Jerry’s eight grandchildren have either worked in the business or will work at Waukegan at some point.

“The younger ones call it ‘Grandpa Jerry’s Big Giant Tire Store,’ and can’t wait to be involved,” Julie says.

Family means more than blood to the Waukegan Tire team. The company also views its employees as members of the family.

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“Our employees are an extended part of our family, and our dad has always cared about them as if they were his own – he often jokes when he’s having trouble with one of his ‘kids,’” Julie says.

“We have the finest people and we’re very proud of each and every one of them. We’re family,” Jerry adds.

A Team of Experts

Jerry thought Waukegan Tire had a lot of competition when he started the dealership 50 years ago, but he says today there are more challenges.

“Today is way more competitive. You have almost four times as many outlets and you have to deal with the manufacturers offering tires B-to-C on the internet,” he says.

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Setting Waukegan apart from its competitors is its employees.

“The loyalty of our customers is still strong. This can be credited to the high quality service provided by what we call our ‘family experts’— our employees,” Jerry shares.

To help equip its “family experts” to service customers, Waukegan Tire places a heavy focus on training.

“The industry is just changing rapidly and so much is changing with the vehicles that we’re working on, it’s important to train the staff to be equipped to service these vehicles properly,” shares Steve. “Learning new products and just having our team fully educated on the products that we’re selling, whether it’s oil changes or preventative maintenance or tires, is important…. We’re always trying to figure out a way to do things the best we can.”

Waukegan Tire has a room for training at its headquarters and brings staff in a few times a month to learn. The dealership participates in on-site and online training courses from both tire and parts manufacturers.

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In just the past year, the dealership has hosted training on Michelin, Goodyear, Hankook, Nokian and Vredestein products. Waukegan also sent employees to Bumper to Bumper’s Annual Tech Expo, SEMA Custom Wheel and Training Certification and Moog Chassis and Steer classes.

Additionally, many of Waukegan’s technicians are ASE certified in one or more ASE certifications. The dealership employs individuals with certifications in suspension and steering, brakes, electrical and electronic systems, and heating and air conditioning.

“When our associates have the knowledge they can better convey the features and benefits to customers that allow them make informed decisions We’re there to give them good information and help them make the right decision,” Jerry says.

In addition to offering a variety of training programs to its employees, the dealership is a beta center for many manufacturers. This allows Waukegan Tire to use the newest technologies for its customers, putting its employees on the cutting edge.

“We have tried to equip our people with the best equipment to allow them to do their job the most effective and efficient way,” Jerry shares.

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Instilling Confidence

A focus on the customer is at the center of everything Waukegan Tire does.

Jerry has always enjoyed the opportunity the tire industry provides to build relationships with others, especially his customers. He’s made it the dealership’s goal to provide its customers with the best possible service they will find anywhere.

“We want to be sure the customer leaves and is pleased with their service,” Jerry says. “We want them to leave with a smile feeling good about everything.”

As a company, Waukegan has worked to create an inviting environment for all its customers.

In an effort to better service its female clientele, the dealership partnered with Ask Patty several years ago to train its employees to be more “female friendly.”

“Jody DeVere (founder of Ask Patty) has been here and all of our employees have been trained to be Certified Female Friendly,” Julie says. “Ask Patty also has given us wonderful ideas for promoting and engaging our customers. The program encourages us to think outside of the box.”

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In addition to helping the dealership look at serving women differently, the partnership has opened the dealership to new marketing opportunities.

“AskPatty.com has led us to utilize a multitude of marketing techniques and tips that we are able to track and thus prove that they work. Our interaction with our clients has become multifaceted as we use several methods, including: face-to-face communication; traditional ads; raffles and in-store promotions; social media, and event marketing,” the company says.

In an effort to empower its female customers, Waukegan Tire has hosted several ladies car care clinics. The dealership has partnered with Lori Johnson from “Ladies, Start Your Engines” to provide women drivers with education on light automotive maintenance and hosted clinics on their own.

The programs include information on how to change a tire, check and add fluids, and to provide a basic understanding of how an engine and braking system works, along with battery, belts and wiper blades maintenance, the dealership shares.

The program’s success has inspired the dealership to expand the clinics to other drivers as well. In the future Waukegan Tire hopes to offer classes to new and permit drivers.

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“I think you want to instill confidence in your customers. Give them the confidence to come here and know they’re not being taken advantage of; all our employees will be patient and explain things. That builds more confident drivers,” Julie says.

“We have the reputation that if someone has a problem or concern with their tires, they say ‘Go to Waukegan Tire,’” Jerry adds.

Waukegan Tire focuses on helping the consumer maintain their vehicle. The dealership has a sales mix of 65% tires to 35% service.

Services offered include free rotations and oil changes. The dealership also specializes in brakes, suspensions, alignments, air conditioning, and more.

The dealership buys direct from five tire manufacturers, but also purchases other brands through a distributor. Waukegan regularly stocks Michelin, Bridgestone, and Goodyear brands as well as Hankook, Continental, Falken, Toyo, Vogue, Vredestein, Nokian and Pirelli.

Being located in the Snowbelt, Waukegan Tire sells a lot of winter tires. As a convenience to its customers, the dealership offers storage for tires during the off-season.

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“We do storage for people and perform swaps in the spring and then again in the fall,” Jerry says. “We clean the tires and wheels, measure and photograph them and put them away. When the customer calls in the fall and say they’re ready for their swap, we’ll have them ready and on their way. It’s a nice convenience for the consumer.”   

For the past 40 years, Waukegan Tire has also specialized in custom wheels.

“We’re known for our tire and wheel packages. That becomes very specialized, with a lot of plus fitments,” Jerry says.

“[When it comes to wheels] we have a reputation as a place for value and experience.”

Reaching the Customer

Waukegan Tire’s  marketing philosophy is “teach an old dog new tricks.”

“We can’t ignore that the way businesses and consumers interact has changed. As a result, Waukegan Tire has worked diligently to stay in line with the times. Instead of exclusively using traditional, and let’s face it, dated means of advertising, such as newspaper ads, TV spots, printed Yellow Pages, and direct mail, we have developed a strong presence via social media to reach our targeted audience,” the dealership shares.

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The dealership has also utilized in-store raffles to collect customer data, and has reached out in a non-intrusive way. This is an idea the company got from its partnership with Ask Patty.

“Through in-store raffles, we have the opportunity to acquire email addresses with integrity. We offer customers the opportunity to opt into our email list by volunteering their email addresses when participating in raffles and special promotions,” the dealership says.

Waukegan Tire’s customer base is diverse, so this also requires different marketing for different audiences.

In Waukegan specifically, the community is nearly 70% Hispanic. The tire dealership makes a special effort to reach this customer base. Not only does the company employ at least one bilingual employee at each location, Waukegan also runs advertising in Spanish in local publications such as Puro Futbol.

The dealership also extends its event marketing to participating in several church festivals.

Whenever Waukegan Tire participates in community events, the dealership brings display trailers and tents. Displays include special pricing on tire and wheel packages as well as automotive services.

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The dealership also sends a mascot, Llantas Man, to these events. Llantas Man is a “Tire Man” dressed up in a costume similar to a super hero. During events he interacts with customers, dancing and passing out free soccer balls and other promotions.

Giving Back

Over the years the Waukegan Tire has become a fixture in the community, giving back to many charitable causes.

“Building relationships with our community is a big thing for us,” Steve says.

“[Dad] has helped more people throughout the years than I can count. Because of this we are not only strong supporters of our community, but have been raised to give back in big and innovative ways,” Julie adds.

The dealership has several causes it is regularly involved in helping. Waukegan gives to school programs, sponsoring events and fundraisers.

The dealership has been a member of the Uniroyal soccer program for more than 17 years and is involved with area youth soccer as well. Waukegan has given away more than 20,000 soccer balls, provided uniforms to area teams, and sponsored various youth soccer leagues.

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“It’s just really exciting… We get see the fruits of the seeds that have been planted all this time and the difference it’s made to the kids in the community,” Steve shares.

The dealership has also teamed up with Mothers Against Drunk Driving for a “Kiss Me – I’m Sober” promotion around St. Patrick’s Day. The dealership sold custom buttons with all the proceeds donated to the Chicagoland Chapter of M.A.D.D.

Waukegan Tire has been involved with Breast Fest since its founding as well. Now in it’s ninth year, the charity event raises money for breast cancer research.

Julie also founded the charity Bcureful in 2011 after her oldest daughter was diagnosed with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC). Waukegan Tire asks its business partners to support the efforts of Bcureful. To date the charity has raised over $300,000 for TSC support and research.

“There’s a saying ‘You make a living by what you get and you make a life by what you give.’ Our ability to get involved gives meaning to what we do every day,” Julie says.

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When trying to decide which programs to get involved in, Waukegan discusses ideas with staff and considers its relationships within the community.

“It’s hard to do everything. There are some charities that we have supported for so long and we have those relationships. But, there’s only so much money to go around, to give to the community. We talk amongst ourselves and try to support wherever we can,” Steve shares.

In addition to its charitable efforts, Waukegan Tire is also a member of a number of organizations. The dealership participates in the Better Business Bureau, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Lake County Chamber of Commerce, Lindenhurst/Lake Villa Chamber of Commerce, Waukegan Chamber of Commerce, and the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

Looking Ahead

Looking to the future, Waukegan Tire has plans to expand its business with an additional location in the coming year. The dealership is also looking to stay ahead of the curve and change to meet the needs of the market.

“We’re changing as rapidly as we can to accommodate what people are looking for,” Jerry shares. “With our new website coming, all the features and benefits will make tire buying easier for them. We see the opportunity to grow.”

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“We’re very interested in staying ahead of the curve,” Julie adds.

“Five years from now we see the company continuing to be at the cutting edge in the automotive industry. We see the same family and employee family members relying on the principles that have built this company to care for it and help it continue to prosper for future generations.”  

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