What’s in a name? Ask Aaron Telle—president, CEO and fourth-generation owner of Telle Tire & Auto Centers—what it means to be a Telle, and he’ll likely begin by recounting tales from when he was a high school student working alongside various members of the family at Telle Tire, then a single-store operation in Richmond Heights, a suburb of St. Louis.
He’ll tell you what it was like to work with his father, Scott, who taught him not only shop skills like changing tires and oil, but also instilled in him values like loyalty and respect through one-on-one conversations they’d have during rides home from the shop. He’ll explain the invaluable business lessons patiently given to him by his uncle, Mark, who was then Telle Tire’s accountant. Or, Aaron might talk about his relationship with his grandfather, Chuck, who, though he was retired, had a habit of stopping by the shop three or four times a week to sit in a certain chair by the salesroom windows that overlooked the activities happening on the shop floor.
“He’d sit there, and he’d watch, and he’d always pull me to the side to point out and talk about the importance of the little details,” Aaron says. “He’d talk about how it’s the little things that make the difference and, especially with me being a Telle, the importance of making sure I understood that I have a bigger responsibility because people are watching what I do. That was extremely instrumental for me at a very young age.”
While Aaron says he didn’t typically excel in the classroom, he was resolute in working for the family business. As the business grew, he grew with it, working his way up from shuttle driver to tire changer to service advisor in his early 20s.
But when he was only 26 years old in 2009, Aaron found the future of the business abruptly thrust into his hands following the unexpected passing of his father.
Aaron was suddenly steering the Telle Tire ship—and this, as he puts it, was his “sink or swim moment.” He leaned hard on those life lessons taught to him by his family and he surrounded himself with advisors and team members who would question his decisions (including his wife and Telle Tire Chief People Officer, Laura), forcing him to explain his way through every choice he made.
By sticking to the ideals of what it means to be a Telle, even amidst recessions and pandemics, Aaron has expanded the 79-year-old company into a thriving 18-location business in the St. Louis and Kansas City markets. As a result, Telle Tire & Auto Centers has been named a Finalist in the 15th year of Tire Review’s Top Shop competition.
It’s the Little Things
Service takes on an almost meditative meaning for the Telles. Grandpa Chuck said, “it’s the little things that make the difference,” and that mentality is baked into the DNA of their business.
The customer experience, for example, is paramount inside the doors of a Telle Tire shop. Waiting rooms include fresh fruit, beverages, Wi-Fi, workstations and comfortable seating. Customers receive hand-written thank-you cards which include coupons or gift cards, and Telle Tire staff members call them a few days after their visit to ensure the service and products are up to their standards. The business offers a fleet of Chevy Spark loaner cars (wrapped top to bottom in Telle Tire branding) available at no cost to customers. Telle Tire even offers a valet service; customers can either drop off their car and ride a complimentary shuttle to and from their home or office, grab a loaner car or have one delivered.
“We do not want to be the type of business where we’re just doing transactions,” Aaron says. “We’re in this for the long haul, so it really comes down to creating relationships. We give our managers and advisors a lot of flexibility and freedom. If the customer comes in and he’s got a Starbucks, we want to make a mental note about that and give him a $10 Starbucks gift card. It’s those little things.”
“There are key advantages to small businesses – individualized attention, personalized service – and to large corporations – competitive pricing through economies of scale and streamlined process efficiencies,” Laura adds. “Capturing that small business feel and maintaining it throughout expansion has been an objective to further trust and the unique customer experience.”
Service doesn’t stop at the customer level, as the company’s nearly 120 associates also receive unique benefits and perks for choosing to be Telle Tire employees. Among these are free oil changes, birthdays off with pay and even free airline tickets and all-expenses-paid trips on milestone anniversaries and retirement.
Laura says the idea for many of these perks came straight from Telle Tire associates.
“We actually conduct an annual survey, which is fun because we get personal feedback,” Laura says. “[We’ll ask them to] evaluate Aaron and the corporate office. How are we doing? What could we do better? Talk to us about your supervisors, our leadership team, and what’s going right and wrong in the stores. If there’s any benefit you could have, what would it be? We want to let them weigh in and be part of that conversation.”
Another way the business’s employees are cared for is through continuous training opportunities. Telle Tire offers its service advisors online tire training through Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal and Continental/General Tire. Aaron also personally leads internal training to talk about how to properly treat customers in a process known as “The Telle Way,” which Laura says “is one of the most important traits for employees to exemplify, as it has sustained the Telle Tire company since 1942.” Telle Tire also pays for technicians to take ASE certification and recertification tests, and technicians regularly go through other safety and skills training both on-site and online.
To round out the business’s training offerings, a select few technicians and advisors are chosen to go to Kansas City each year to participate in an advanced technology training event known as Vision Hi-Tech Training & Expo. This is an all-expenses-paid, two-to-three-day training opportunity from some well-known and coveted instructors in the industry.
For the Telles, devotion to service doesn’t stop with the shop. Aaron is a dedicated board member for Joe’s Place, which offers homeless teenage boys in the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District in Missouri a caring home environment that supports them for high school graduation, self-sufficiency and positive transitions into their adult lives. He is also on the board for the Lutheran Family & Children’s Services of Missouri. As a business, Telle Tire also contributes to a broad range of charities on a local level.
Guiding the Future of the Tire Industry
Aaron acknowledges that, in his mind, the biggest challenge facing the industry is the technician shortage, the same issue that has permeated automotive repair shops from coast to coast for decades. Despite everything the Telles have done to fight it, even Telle Tire isn’t immune to its effects.
Aaron says the automotive industry can fix this issue by putting employee care front and center.
“In our industry, you have to purchase your own toolbox. You have to purchase your diagnostic equipment in some situations. So now you’re talking about an individual, if they want to be a real player in this industry, investing fairly early on $50,000-$75,000 of their own money,” Aaron says. “I think that we really need to focus on looking at making some changes so we can be better prepared to help bring people into the industry.”
Go With Your Gut
From 1942-2010, Telle Tire & Auto Service operated as a single retail location with seven employees. When it first came time to expand, Aaron leveraged the small business advantages of individualized attention and personalized service to guide him through the process, opening a second Telle Tire location in 2011. Between 2014 and 2017, the business acquired eight independent, single-outlet stores in the St. Louis market, and early in 2020 it acquired five more in a multi-store deal in the Kansas City market. In October of 2020, Telle Tire acquired its 16th store, and this past spring the business made its most recent acquisition: two more stores in Springfield, Missouri, bringing the total to 18.
That five-store Kansas City market acquisition was signed on March 1, 2020—just six days before the first confirmed positive case of coronavirus in Missouri. No one knew then how COVID would affect the Midwest, but Aaron says he knew there would likely be extensive, unprecedented challenges that he would need to face if he were to move forward with acquiring those five stores at that time. Despite this, as a man of his word, Aaron signed on the dotted line to make the largest acquisition in the company’s history.
“We just felt so good about it before COVID happened,” Aaron says. “This was Laura and me pushing all of our chips on the table, and if that did not work that would have put us in an extremely difficult situation.”
Aaron says while he didn’t know all the answers to protect his business, he did know to trust his instincts. He sent out weekly memos and went to every single store personally to speak with every employee face-to-face about strategy. Due to the Telle Tire leadership team’s quick thinking, since the spring of 2020, Laura says those acquired shops are now stronger than ever, with several months following being the best ever in their company’s history.
“Sticking with my instincts and being extremely transparent was helpful for us getting past that,” Aaron says. “All of our energy spent meeting those individuals and analyzing it proved to be right, and implementing some of our processes and systems has helped us improve. Now, as we look back, I’m so fortunate that we did proceed and follow through with it.”