How many tire dealers can say their sales in 2020 – the year of COVID-19 – have continued to steadily grow past where they were at this time in 2019?
Missouri-based Plaza Tire Service Inc. can, and they have no trouble sharing how they did it. Of course, like in every other business, adjustments were made, but the truth is the 67-store operation has always been prepared to skillfully handle change, as it’s been bobbing and weaving past the punches of the pandemic like a seasoned boxer. And, just like the best-trained fighters, Plaza Tire Service’s ability to remain successful through the most difficult of times isn’t something the business learned to do overnight. It’s a 57-year-old skillset passed down to Plaza Tire Service co-owners and 50/50 partners Mark and Scott Rhodes by their father and Plaza Tire Service’s founder, Vernon “Pee Wee” Rhodes. And, it’s a huge part of the reason why Plaza Tire Service has been named a finalist in the 14th year of Tire Review’s Top Shop competition.
A Living Legacy
When Pee Wee opened his first Plaza Tire Service store in 1963 with his brother and business partner, Pete, it was a gas station and hand-operated car wash in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It didn’t take long for the duo to realize the potential in tire sales, and, within five years, they removed the car wash equipment and renamed the business Plaza Tire Service.
Pee Wee started involving Mark and Scott in the business when they were teenagers, and although he later turned over the reins of ownership to those two sons, Pee Wee maintained a nearly daily presence in his stores until his passing in July 2011. Today, the brothers say they continue to run Plaza Tire Service using the same principles their father taught them.
“He taught us how to work,” Scott says. “You get up in the morning, you go to work and you stay until the end of the day. You don’t go home until after everyone else leaves.”
“And, in business, there was a slogan he always used: Treat people like you’d like to be treated, whether it’s a customer or an employee,” adds Mark. “And, you know, he said you have to try, too. Sometimes people are faced with a difficult situation, and you can [either] make things succeed or you can let them fail.”
Then, there’s the company’s tagline, “The Quick Change Artists,” which Mark says has been an invaluable tool for attracting customers. The slogan has been around since before either brother started working in the shop, and comes with a “Four Tires One Hour Guarantee” for customers; Plaza Tire Service promises that it will take 60 minutes or less from the time a work order is started until a customer’s vehicle is complete.
“Once we enter the customer’s details into our point-of-sale system and begin an order, the clock is ticking,” Mark says. “And at the beginning, I kind of just took it for granted. But, as I’ve been in the business longer, I realize that slogan is relative to everything—every business. If you think about the impact that fast service and speed has on everyone, it’s highly, highly effective. The speed and respect for other people’s time is paramount to making customers satisfied.”
This way of doing business isn’t just standard for Mark and Scott. These principles echo through the business due in part to the Rhodes’s strong family bond. The brothers say they have always worked alongside their mother, Carole, cousins, nephews and other family members at Plaza Tire Service. Mark’s sons, Sam and Zachary, have both been involved in the business since they were in high school, and if his daughter, Madelyn, or Scott’s daughters, Anabelle and Addison—all elementary-school age now—would like to be involved, the brothers say the invitation is always open.
Business by the Golden Rule
Mark talks a lot about respect, and it resonates in every decision he, Scott and the rest of the Plaza Tire Service family makes in the tire business. For example, he says Plaza Tire Service gets between 500-600 reviews a week online, mostly through Google and Facebook, and the brothers make it a point to read them.
“We get those reviews, and we analyze them,” Mark says. “It’s a great way for us to get real-time customer feedback on a regular basis from all our stores.”
When a review shows a customer wasn’t completely satisfied with their experience, a Plaza Tire Service employee reaches out—every time.
“So many times in this process, we hear customers saying, ‘I’m so surprised to hear from you.’ The simple act of following up with an apology can go a long way,” Mark says. “Beyond that, if the customer has a reasonable request for what would make him or her happy, we do it. Ideally, that customer decides to give us another chance. Worst case, when they share their bad experience with someone else, they’ll hopefully add that we responded and provided a resolution.”
All Plaza Tire Service locations are also kept as clean and neat as possible, Mark says. Outside, parking lots are kept clear of debris and litter. Inside, waiting areas have a variety of seating options, and tables for laptops are designed to give customers plenty of space between them (even prior to the pandemic). Customers will also find large windows revealing the shop from the waiting area; if they want to watch the work being done on their vehicle while they wait, Plaza Tire Service welcomes their interest.
To be sure that each of Plaza Tire Service’s employees are prepared to adhere to the high standards expected of them, the Rhodes brothers say most of them are trained internally, both at the time of hire and through ongoing education to help increase their earning potential. In addition to having a dedicated employee trainer on staff to walk new employees through the processes and practices of the business, Plaza Tire Service also launched its Plaza Tire Service Training Store, a model store at its corporate headquarters in Cape Girardeau, in 2019. This model store includes a five-bay shop equipped with real equipment, a showroom and classroom.
“We may not always be able to hire techs and employees who are experienced in how we want to do things, so we thought having a model store would give us an opportunity to hire people from other industries or with other skill sets that we could train ourselves,” Mark says. “So, I can hire someone with a good personality and a good work ethic and teach them the skill set.
“Without our employees, we simply couldn’t accomplish the things we have achieved as a company. Having the right employee in the role that suits him or her best can make a huge difference,” he continues. “Within our industry, turnover can certainly be a challenge, and we are not immune to it. On the flip side, we benefit from longevity with many of our employees. Nearly 20% of our employees have been with Plaza Tire Service for 10 or more years. Last year, we celebrated the retirement of two employees who started within a few days of each other in 1971.”
He adds that to show appreciation to Plaza Tire Service employees, many in-store positions include bonuses or other incentives, and employees have an opportunity to invest in the company’s 401(k) program, which includes a profit-sharing option.
No one can argue Plaza Tire Service hasn’t done its due diligence to show its community it cares; if this article were written with the sole purpose of detailing the community service opportunities with which Plaza Tire Service has found itself involved, there wouldn’t be enough space to list them all unless the magazine was shipped with a magnifying glass. As Mark says: “If you ask, we will donate. That might as well be the motto at Plaza Tire Service.”
While the company gives back to a broad swath of causes, many of them are geared toward children and education. A small sampling of these organizations includes St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; the annual soapbox derby competitions in Cape Girardeau and Columbia, Missouri; Big Brothers and Big Sisters; the Boy Scouts of America; and countless—literally—youth sports leagues.
“We lost count years ago of all the youth sports leagues we sponsor,” Mark says. “We know these experiences pay dividends to the participants at the time and later in life, and we’re happy to support them.”
What’s in the Secret Sauce?
Mark says it’s important that no matter how large Plaza Tire Service grows, each store is run like a small business.
“There are minimal hierarchies. If an employee wants to speak to me or Scott, they can call us directly on our mobile phone or in the office,” Mark says. “Those numbers are posted in every location. If someone needs an authorization for a new program or endeavor, answers come quickly.”
That ability to move quickly is what Mark says allowed Plaza Tire Service to maneuver through the challenges the pandemic brought on.
“When adjustments were made to store hours, processes, etc. at the onset of COVID-19, decisions were swift, and the changes were implemented right away,” he says.
Mark’s No. 1 piece of advice for independent tire dealers is to have them recognize their own value in the marketplace.
“I think a lot of independent dealers sell themselves too short. They sell their value too short and think they have to sell products cheaper than they have to,” he says. “You have to build yourself up and enjoy the work. Wake up for the challenge every day. We are passionate about this business. Enjoy it. Wake up and be ready for what’s coming next every day.”