Perched on the edge of Lake Champlain overlooking the hills of Burlington, Vermont, Chris Monroe hadn’t really thought about work for an entire week. It’s the last several days of a three-week-long New England vacation in late September for Chris, his girlfriend, Traci, and their RV-owning friends. The other couples went back to work after two weeks. He took his time off with a specific intention — to gain perspective.
“I’m an explorer and adventurer,” explains Chris, owner of Monroe Tire & Service in Shelby, North Carolina. “I’m a cyclist, I’m a motorcyclist and I love to travel. I like going one way to one destination and coming back a different way. I kind of look at my business that way, too.”
This mindset is what makes Monroe Tire & Service a two-time Top Shop finalist. Chris and his team aren’t afraid of change. It’s the shop’s experimental nature and Chris’ willingness to let his employees take the reins that makes it unique.
“Shop owners I know seem to want to get away, but they’re afraid,” Chris explains. “There’s always that, ‘What’s going to happen if I go?’”
The answer to that question is where the discovery begins.
Back at the Shop
What happened at Monroe Tire was that Tim Smolzer, Monroe Tire’s general manager, and Lee Everhart, who was the shop’s service advisor, decided to experiment.
Tim tweaked the shop’s workflow and his changes became permanent. Lee took over a new role as service coordinator using his 30-plus years as an ASE-certified master tech to fine tune the shop’s garage operations — bringing cars into the shop, writing up quotes, ordering parts and doing minor diagnostic work. Stuff that was on a technician’s to-do list. That helped Tim, a 30-year veteran in auto shop management, better tackle day-to-day operations.
“We sort of sprung it on Chris after he got back from vacation,” Tim says.
“He said, ‘I’m glad you guys are taking the initiative to move the business forward,’” Tim recalls.
After joining Monroe Tire in 2006, Tim became store manager in 2018 when the shop’s former manager retired. From the top down, Monroe Tire’s focus on mobility is instilled in all the shop does. It’s even plastered on the building, its shuttle cars and the team’s T-shirts: “Good people. Solid advice. Local.”
“We keep people moving,” Chris says about his business. “I was at a business management conference at SEMA a couple years ago, and I remember a gentleman on stage saying, ‘Folks, we’re hired for two things: safety and reliability.’
“When I heard that, it just resonated with me — that is what we do. We keep people moving. I think it’s a new age, and mobility means a whole lot more in this environment. We’re mobility professionals, and safety and reliability are our focus.”
Try It and See What Happens
Chris is the one leading Monroe Tire, but it’s his team that drives its success. Chris credits Tim with the success of the recent workflow changes. When Lee was promoted to the role of service coordinator and wanted to move his workstation — computer and all — out into the garage to better manage the shop’s flow, he said, “Go for it.” Trial run communicating via walkie talkies to save time? Roger that. Chris encourages his team to own the autonomy he provides.
“He listened to the particulars of how I saw my job playing out, and he let me design it and work it out,” Lee says of his new role. “There’s an awful lot of trust in this business between Chris and everyone. Chris’ management style is hands-off, but there’s very little he doesn’t know about. At the same time, everyone in the shop is given the personal responsibility to make any changes necessary for the shop’s success.”
One of those changes was hiring Tisha Bradley, a former manager at an Advance Auto Parts store, as service advisor. Her presence and skills have added a new dimension to the business.
“We have a lot of female customers,” Tim says, “and they love the fact that we have a woman who can help them through the process. We’ve always been customer-service oriented, but now we’re honing in on opportunities and improvements.”
That includes taking time out of a busy day to watch webinars from suppliers for continuous training or traveling to seminars, conferences and other classes on the latest technology and sales call etiquette. To get the best out of his team, Chris creates a culture of coaching to elevate their skills.
“He is always there with a watchful eye, coaching me,” Tim says. “He makes it constructive and doesn’t tear you down.” And Tim uses the same approach to coach Tisha on sales calls.
“Once a week, [Chris and I] have a powwow, and we talk about anything under the sun — it could be my mental health, physical health,” Tim continues. “He shows he cares about me and he does the same thing with other people. After 15 years at a big box retailer, it’s refreshing to work for a mom and pop business.”
On the Cutting Edge
Lee, the shop’s service coordinator, knows first-hand that Chris doesn’t shy away from change. Since being hired by Chris’ parents, Doug and Nancy, in 1987, he’s seen the shop go from a three-bay operation to 10 bays with a drivers’ lounge for customers next door.
Six different waiting areas with seating and Wi-Fi, the lounge features a kid’s room, clean bathrooms, a full kitchen, a conference room and an office. A 15-foot walnut slab bar helps, too. The area was truly designed with the customer experience in mind.
“Today’s consumer is more focused on when can I get this done? And how comfortable are you going to make it for me? What’s my experience going to be like in your place?” Chris explained. “I think [the drivers’ lounge] put us on the map. I was scared to death when we did that, but just by changing that experience, you can read our reviews and see the difference it’s made.”
It’s a one-two punch combined with his staff’s customer focus.
First, his team communicates with the customer about their vehicle through digital inspections via text. In place now for more than five years, the shop uses Bolt On Technology software to show customers their vehicle’s health from what needs to be repaired to what’s in operating order, allowing the customer to get a holistic view of their vehicle.
“Technology is allowing us to be more transparent with our customers in an industry that doesn’t have consumers’ trust,” Chris says. “To me, that’s a good thing.”
In the Industry and Community
Another way Chris works on the business is through giving back to both the automotive industry and his local community. Since being named a Top Shop finalist in 2017, Chris has become a business development coach with Elite Worldwide, a Bob Cooper coaching program that aims to help automotive professionals reach their goals.
“It’s been very rewarding for me,” explains Chris, who was also named the North Carolina Tire Dealers Association’s Dealer of the Year in 2018. “It’s helped me see how other shop owners operate, and I try to help their shops be more successful.”
He also serves on the Shelby Chamber of Commerce Board, Small Business Advisory Council and was recently appointed as a trustee at Cleveland Community College. He also speaks regularly to high school and college classes about the tire and automotive industry, as well as small business ownership.
“That involvement excites me because I feel like I’m taking my experiences and giving back,” he says. “I think that’s ultimately what we’re all supposed to do on this earth.”
Back on Top of the Mountain
Chris’ most recent trek across New England was the longest he’s ever been away from the shop. He has fielded two or three calls from the shop about purchasing garage door openers, but nothing major. No calls about employee gripes, disgruntled customers or comebacks.
“When you push yourself to step away, it gives you a good sense of what’s working and what needs to be worked on,” he says. “It’s about finding your friction points, and asking, ‘is the machine doing what it’s supposed to be doing?’”
Under his leadership, Monroe Tire has been able to smooth out a number of friction points —from the way they close tickets to how customers interact with the business — to create rock-solid processes and procedures they follow daily.
“That’s why I haven’t had any conversations about issues or problems or an upset customer,” Chris says while overlooking Lake Champlain. “That’s something that our team is well equipped to handle that I don’t need to be there for.”
After biking 20 miles in the Vermont mountains, Chris begins his descent toward home with plans to stop in the shop that next Monday. Of course, he heads a different way than he came — this time going southwest down through New York state, by Scranton and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and down Route 81 into Virginia, finally arriving in Shelby and ending his trip.
That Sunday before going into work, he looked over the shop’s stats to prepare for the weekly review he gives on Monday mornings. Instead of dreading work after a long vacation away, Chris was excited.
“I’m proud of everybody,” he said beaming. “They did an extremely great job. I always look forward to getting back to work.”
Check out the rest of the October digital edition of Tire Review here.