Reflecting on their childhood growing up in the tire business, Steve Nerheim and Julie Nerheim Scroggins have fond memories working at Waukegan Tire with their father and founder Gerald “Jerry” Nerheim. The now 85-year-old president and CEO still works every day and is happiest when talking with employees and customers. Partialities aside, his admiration from those in the industry is widespread and they say he’s “an innovative force with a knack for staying ahead of the curve.”
Jerry’s the reason they wanted to be a part of the business through the years and take on larger roles: Steve as vice president and COO and Julie as vice president and CFO. Both help fuel the business’s success. They say Jerry’s influence on their lives and the business in general is why Waukegan Tire has maintained its viability as an independent tire dealer—and going strong all 52 years.
“Working in the family business, I learned quickly about the totality of the tire, wheel and automotive industry; from the administration of the stores, to building relationships with our vendors and, most importantly, taking care of our customers,” says Steve. “My father’s work ethic has been passed on not only to me but all of our employees, who are our family. The whole team at Waukegan Tire is focused on taking care of our customers. I am honored to have this unique opportunity to work alongside my father for over 35 years, who is revered by all who know him, personally and professionally.”
Julie chimes in with admiration for her father’s teachings. “My brother Steve and I have been involved in the business throughout our entire lives. We are privileged to have learned from the ‘best of the best.’ We love to hear the stories of our father’s unique marketing ideas from back when he worked for Goodyear Tire in the early ’60s and, together, we have created new versions of those genius marketing concepts.” They say those “lessons from Jerry” serve to improve the dealership’s future and inspire his team to do business “The Waukegan Way”— a guiding philosophy based on the values of always working hard and with integrity, treating people with respect and kindness (like family) and exceeding expectations.
Having been a finalist in the Tire Review Top Shop competition, presented by Coats, three times (in 2010, 2017 and 2019), Jerry and his team at Waukegan Tire have taken the top honor this year—being named the winner of the prestigious national competition.
If you were to peel back the layers of this 52-year-old company to see just what makes Waukegan Tire tick, Jerry sums it up this way: “To have the best selection, the most competitive pricing and the best service that we can provide. We build trust by providing the best products at very competitive pricing backed by extended care.”
Steve emphasizes the team’s effort to make customers their No. 1 priority. “My father’s belief of putting the customers’ needs first and ensuring that the right product is on the right vehicle is at the core of our company’s philosophy. It’s ingrained in every aspect of our operations. Our service technicians are well-trained, knowledgeable and honest, and they won’t sell things that customers don’t need. We have always operated with integrity, something we have all learned from my father.”
It’s also important to be “at the ready” to respond to customers in our highly-digital world, he continues. “Every day we’re going through social media. We’re monitoring everything on all the different channels, whether it’s Google, Bing, Yelp, Carfax, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Being able to respond quickly to a post, a review or a consumer concern is really important.” Steve says customers will also find a daily “Tires and Heels” Facebook post from Waukegan Tire aimed at helping educate and empower female customers about automotive safety.
Michael McBride, general manager, details the importance of offering customers unexpected extras to help cement relationships—those little things that make customers realize you offer a “value-added package,” not just tires and service.
“You can buy tires everywhere now. But, to get people coming back, you have to give them that service, that extra something,” McBride says in reference to Waukegan Tire providing free rotation for the life of the tires, a free suspension inspection and alignment check with every set of tires sold, and brake inspections where the pad thickness for every vehicle is recorded.
“We can give customers a good idea how much life is left on their brakes to give them the opportunity to plan for any work that may need to be done. Customers seem to really appreciate when we go over and explain the brake measurements to them when we are closing them out. I have actually had customers call me from the car dealer and ask me if I still have the brake information on their vehicle because the dealer is telling them they need their brakes replaced when we told them they didn’t,” McBride adds.
Steve points to the importance of connecting with customers to build awareness before they even walk through the door. “We’re really involved with local radio and getting the Waukegan Tire name out there and supporting and sponsoring a lot of events,” he says. “We do a lot of commercials each and every day and on a variety of different radio stations; we feel that helps with awareness. And, we get a lot of referrals from customers who had that good experience and want to send family, friends and neighbors [to us]. We’re very proud of that.”
Customers for Life
With its sales mix precisely defined as 68% tires and 32% service, Waukegan Tire’s three independent tire stores, also Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Centers, offer customers much more than getting them back on the road. They receive exceptional customer service and are treated with a level of respect that makes them feel like they are part of the family, affirms Jerry. “Nothing feels better than a customer walking in, handing you his keys, and saying ‘do what needs to be done and call me when it’s finished.’ When your customer has that kind of trust and faith in your place, you have to make sure you exceed their expectations.”
By building trust and confidence throughout the service experience, the Waukegan Tire team creates customers for life. But, don’t take their word for it. Here’s just a glimpse at what some of their customers have to say:
–“Waukegan Tire has and always will be fantastic. They go above and beyond to help customers and are extremely professional.”
–“Very satisfied, can’t say enough good things about this place. Definitely recommend them to anyone reading this comment. “
“I want the dad to come in and get tires on his car, and I want him to feel good about sending his daughter in, and, whoever is going to wait on her is going to be honest with her, ask the right questions and give her the proper tires for the vehicle she’s driving and the way she drives,” explains McBride.
The Waukegan Tire team also understands the vital link between customer education and the decision-making process when it comes to recommending vehicle repairs. After all, an educated customer becomes more empowered, and, therefore, more confident they are making the right decision. “Customers appreciate us providing the extra knowledge; they want to learn,” notes Jerry. “You know, it’s not just about price, it’s about features and benefits, as well as professional services [that you offer]. The knowledge helps them make their decision easier.”
The Service ‘Experience’
Since 1968, Waukegan Tire has earned a favorable reputation with the generations of customers it has served throughout the greater Chicago/Milwaukee area, the Nerheims say.
Ideally, the customer journey through the service experience should be a no-hassle, stress free, memorable one. So, how does Waukegan Tire ensure it stands out in customers’ minds?
“We build relationships with our customers and we nurture those across generations,” explains Steve. “And, we provide a friendly and clean environment with amenities to make their time and experience more pleasant.”
Beyond the well-equipped and spacious showrooms with comfortable chairs, Waukegan Tire also has a business center where customers can set up their laptops and work if they need to wait for their vehicle. And, since it was not “business as usual” this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, he added the Waukegan team took extra measures to ensure customer safety and support, implementing extra cleaning and sanitizing on an hourly schedule, with sanitizer used on all hard surfaces to keep employees and customers safe. “We make sure every vehicle has a seat and steering wheel cover and floor mat covers, and everyone is wearing facemasks and gloves,” noted Steve, who added they also installed plastic shields on counters and have proper spacing at all locations.
When you treat customers with respect and deliver the highest-quality repairs and unforgettable service, customers become ambassadors for your business and send referrals your way. Steve knows that all too well and says it’s not unusual for customers to frequently send prospects his way, who text him to make appointments for tires and vehicle service. “Our customers are really supportive of everything that we’re doing. It’s really rewarding.”
Waukegan Tire Culture
A family environment where employees are nurtured, trained, appreciated and rewarded, results in a committed employee base with very low turnover, the Nerheims say — to the tune of several Waukegan Tire team members being employed there for more than 20 years.
“We have a very family-oriented attitude toward our employees, and they know we care about them and their families. We care for one another and look after one another,” says Steve, who is very proud of the company’s culture.
McBride echoes the same sentiments, saying “Everybody has to feel good about being here. Everybody has to feel good about what’s going on and, just like any family, you run into hiccups, but you just have to address them and say, ‘we’re all in this together.’”
Employee input is welcomed and encouraged, and employees are empowered to make decisions for the good of the business. That breeds a feeling of shared ownership in the dealership’s success and helps to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction.
“We work closely together and hold regular meetings to implement their suggestions. We listen to their feedback and suggestions. All of our employees have input into how we run the business and service our customers,” Steve explains.
Waukegan Tire also grooms its employees for advancement through continuous training, so they can be promoted from within. “All of our store managers started out working in the shop and worked their way up to the manager position, so they all know what it’s like to be in the shop on a busy day,” he continues.
Never resting on its laurels, the team at Waukegan Tire is focused on taking customer service to the next level. They know that pairing an experienced team with the proper equipment can help ensure highest-quality repairs and tire replacements, customer satisfaction and no comebacks.
“I have to give Jerry, Steve and Julie credit. They buy the best equipment—quality equipment that’s suited for the job so you can be ‘on your game,’” says McBride, noting that they have wheel lifts on all of their tire machines. “Were not struggling trying to mount a 24-inch tire with a machine that can’t do it, [and] it makes the job easier for the employee.
“Some of these tires and wheels, like on a Jeep, can weigh 120-150 lbs., and some of your tire techs weigh only 150 lbs.,” he says with a chuckle, but in appreciation for having the right tools to carry out the job with employee well-being in mind.
As a means to improve shop workflow and productivity, Waukegan Tire has added four new bays and shop space at one location, and an additional two bays at another store. “We have also added more tire machines and balancers to our stores so we could strategically set them closer to the lifts, so our techs don’t have to go very far from the vehicle they are working on to install a set of tires or rims,” Steve explains.
Employee appearance also plays into making the customers’ experience a great one. But, with tire and automotive work being a dirty business, it takes a focused effort to make sure your team looks sharp, notes Steve. “We’ve worked hard on employee attire. Every employee is in a clean uniform, all sales associates have matching attire and our techs receive a fresh week’s worth of clean uniforms every Thursday.”
Waukegan Tire is also big on training as part of its ongoing efforts at improvement. “We encourage our techs to take training courses online and in person (although in person is tough right now). Our vendors offer online training, from how to properly repair a tire to how to diagnose a check engine light,” Steve explains. “We also offer ASE training help and cover the cost of testing for any employee who wants to learn and better themselves and move up in their career.”
The Waukegan Way, Everyday
The necessary traits of a successful tire dealership can run the gamut, but at Waukegan Tire, everything points back to doing business “The Waukegan Way.”
While many things have changed over the past 50-plus years, the Waukegan Tire team continues to focus on the foundation upon which the business was built—customer service and relationships.
“We know that every day consumers have more and more choices of where to buy tires and get their automobiles serviced. We strive to provide an experience that is unique by excelling in our service as well as our product offerings, product knowledge and the level of care and attention provided to each customer who walks through our doors. It’s a testament to our founder that today we service the cars of children and grandchildren of his original customers,” Steve and Julie say proudly.
“Waukegan Tire feels like a family business, a very busy family business, but a family, nonetheless,” Steve adds. “When I look across our group of employees and see so many who have been here 20-plus years, and the ‘new’ guy has been here for 10 or more years, you know you’re doing something right, and we have to keep it going for all those dedicated people who come in every day and live the Waukegan Tire mission.
“We will continue to adapt our business model to meet the changing needs of the industry and are prepared to lead our company into the future.”