There are a million ways to say it: “Pay it forward,” or “One good thing leads to another.” For Black’s Tire & Auto Service and BTS Tire & Wheel Distributors, based in the Carolinas and Southern Virginia, the best way to put it is: “Black’s Has Your Back.” It’s not about making the most money or expanding the fastest; it’s the motto that Black’s does business by. It just so happens that having customers’ backs tends to lead to opportunities and expanded territory.
“If you support your community it’s going to come back around to your business. That’s why we’re here to serve our community,” says Rick Benton Jr., Black’s Tire vice president of sales/marketing, managing director ownership group. “Our business and our teammates and our customers are all No. 1, but it’s these little things we do every day that give us the opportunity to focus on our business as No. 1.”
Here’s a perfect example from Rick’s brother and Black’s Tire Vice President Ryan Benton: When Hurricane Matthew hit the Carolinas in 2016, a nearby lower-income housing development became flooded, relocating the community, destroying valuable property and ruining beloved home after home. In response, Black’s team members drove their own box trucks to volunteer as long as it would take to get the area back to some semblance of normalcy.
“We moved so many people’s things. We did what we could to clean up, and hauled it off what was ruined. We collected goods and brought in whatever we could,” Ryan says. “Our team steps up like that. That has happened a lot over the years. Once one of our teammate’s houses burned down and we did the same thing. It’s our culture. We like to think there’s a multiplier effect that happens where one good thing leads to another good thing.”
The company’s focus on people – its teammates, customers and community – is why Black’s Tire & Auto Service has been named Tire Review’s 2023 Top Shop Winner.
Building the Black’s Brand
The Black’s story begins with its founder, W. Crowell Black, who established Black’s Service Station in Whiteville and southeastern North Carolina in 1929. Meanwhile, in 1976, Ricky Benton Sr. and his wife, Dianne, opened a gas station and garage called CEGO Service Center in Cerro Gordo, NC. Ricky and Dianne operated this business until 1981, when Ricky began working with Black’s Tire Service in Whiteville, where his attention was focused on expanding the business. Later, in 1996, Ricky and Dianne purchased Black’s Tire from Crowell, but continued to operate it under the Black’s Tire name out of respect for its founder and the Black family.
Now, after nearly 50 years, Ricky and Dianne are still involved in the daily operations of the company as president and CEO, respectively. Their three children – Rick Jr., Ryan and Jeremy – also play prominent roles in today’s leadership and operations. The company currently operates under the division names “Black’s Tire & Auto Service,” “BTS Commercial,” “BTS Tire and Wheel Distributors,” and “Carolina Retread.”
All three sons were raised in the business and took on multiple roles throughout the ’80s & ’90s. Rick Jr. joined the business in a full-time leadership role after graduating from East Carolina University with his business degree in 1996, while Ryan took on his full-time leadership role in 1999 after graduating from the University of North Carolina. The youngest brother, Jeremy, who helps overlook the commercial side of the business, joined the Black’s team full-time in 2006 after attending North Carolina State University.
“My playpen when I was a baby was in the service station that our mom and dad started,” says middle brother Ryan. “Rick… as soon as he was big enough to reach the gas pump to pump gas or the cash register to make change, he was working. We kicked tires coming off the trucks and we checked air pressure. We worked in the warehouse. We swept the rooms. We even cleaned and repainted over usable wheel weights. We would clean them off with a wire brush, spray paint them silver and inspect them. The ones that weren’t good would go into the fishing weight bucket. We were recycling before it got cool.”
The family affair doesn’t stop there, either. Also working at Black’s are the Benton sons’ cousins, cousins-in-law, and even a few of their own kids. And, if you ask any of Black’s leadership, they’ll tell you that every team member is a member of the family, too.
“It is a neat environment to be able to work alongside your family,” Ryan says. “We all look at things a different way. One of us may go into a store or a facility of ours and see something that someone else didn’t see or wouldn’t see, especially our mom and dad. You know, our dad’s 68 and our mom’s 70, and they’re still around. Having that wisdom is something that we don’t take for granted.”
The business has 55 Black’s Tire & Auto Service tire and vehicle repair centers in operation across North and South Carolina, and several of these facilities bill themselves as truck and RV repair centers. There are also 10 distribution warehouses – seven full-service wholesale distribution centers and three satellite wholesale distribution operations – and a tire retread manufacturing center located in Clarkton NC. There is also BTS Tire and Wheel Distributors; the Black’s Tire & Auto Service corporate headquarters in Whiteville, NC; the BTS Training Center located beside the corporate headquarters; and RBR Enterprises located in Cerro Gordo NC, the racing arm of the business that supports the company’s participation in race marketing and promotions.
Together, these entities provide employment for more than 1,000 team members (Black’s leadership calls the word “employees” “the ‘E’ word” and it’s a big no-no in Black’s culture), and services over 4,000 wholesale dealers (called BTS Partner Dealers) across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.
Always Be Prepared
Black’s leadership prides themselves on always having their fingers on the pulse of what’s coming around the corner when it comes to training. Whether it’s ADAS, EV, connected vehicles or other future mobility changes, Rick says he knows Black’s technicians must be prepared for a fast-approaching future.
“We have moved a lot of our time and focus into training, which has resulted in us several years ago constructing our BTS Training Academy and conference center. This allows us to bring BTS team members as well as our BTS partner dealers our wholesale partner dealers training on topics like full and comprehensive new hire orientation, ADAS and EV training, apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs and even micro-learning,” Rick says.
Two Black’s team members who are heavily involved in training are Dewain DeGarmo, training director, and Gary Collier, talent acquisition/training & apprentice director. Dewain says that he’s found a successful training program tends to start with the relationship.
“Training can mean different things to different people, but at Black’s Tire we believe that good training starts with the same thing every other successful endeavor we embark on starts with the relationship,” Dewain says. “Building and developing a solid relationship from day one during the interview process – before an individual is hired – will define and direct the training needs of any one individual to successfully become part of the BTS family.”
Dewain added that the company uses multiple online platforms and LMS systems to give the team the latest training in ADAS and EV technologies. He says one of their premier training programs includes the company’s partnership with Today’s Class, which operates on a micro-learning platform backed up by AI.
As the company’s apprentice director, Gary says he’s spent a lot of time developing comprehensive pre-apprentice and apprentice programs. For example, Black’s offers a pre-apprentice program marketed specifically to automotive and agriculture mechanics programs in local high schools.
“The pre-apprentice program allows the student to leave school and report to one of our facilities. They follow a competency-based program that trains them in oil and filter service, tire mounting, tire balancing, tire repair, suspension inspection and also brake inspection in an environment that emphasizes safety, timeliness and organization,” Gary says. “Each of the items that are mastered are also the duties of an entry-level tire and lube technician. Each pre-apprentice is paid a predetermined rate and at the successful completion of their rotation, the student receives a high school credit toward graduation. We have the potential to develop at least 150 trained tire and lube technicians every year.”
Black’s also has an apprenticeship program that is approved and registered in both North and South Carolina.
“When BTS identifies a candidate for our apprenticeship, we look at our pre-apprentices first and we partner with them for a period of two years. During their apprenticeship they will master a comprehensive list of competencies that are commonly faced by an automotive technician,” Gary says. “Our apprentices are paid on a graduated scale based on performance benchmarks and time and end at approximately 70% of the salary of a master technician. The apprentice, based on successful completion of the program, is registered and identified by the Department of Labor as a journeyman automotive technician.”
There’s an argument to be made that the “Service” in Black’s Tire & Auto Service isn’t just referring to vehicle maintenance and repair. The company has also made a name for itself donating time and money to serve every community where you’ll find a Black’s Tire location.
“We try to participate in every community we serve across North Carolina, South Carolina and Southern Virginia,” Rick says. “Black’s Tire & Auto Service as a company has long held an appreciation for the importance one can have in the development, success and quality of life of others, particularly those in need.”
Rick says one of the company’s biggest and most exciting service events is the annual BTS Boys & Girls Home Charity Golf Tournament.
“We started our charity golf tournament back over 25 years ago to benefit the Boys & Girls Homes. This year, Team BTS and its partner dealers, vendors and friends donated over $200,000 to the Boys and Girls Home – that was a new record. We are now at nearly $2 million donated to the Boys and Girls Home located in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina,” Rick says. “Black’s Tire’s founder, Mr. Crowell Black, was on the founding board to help create the Boys and Girls Home back in 1954, and we strive to continue this support over 70 years later.”
Rick was just getting warmed up. Here are more examples of how Black’s Tire gives back to its communities:
- Black’s partners with local community colleges to develop programs that foster learning in the automotive industry, internships, and development of the needs of the physical building and equipment to adequately facilitate learning and engagement. Black will even help these schools acquire equipment and connect with the company’s partner vendors.
- Black’s works with local community colleges to offer night programs where the company’s team members can earn their GED. Black’s then works alongside these colleges to train its own team members to lead some of those classes.
- Black’s also works with local high schools and community colleges where the company has retail locations to develop apprenticeships. This past summer, the Black’s had four apprentices join from the Cumberland County School System.
- The company participates in career fairs from elementary schools all the way up through college.
- Black’s works with social workers who know of families in need that may need some automotive repair, oil changes, etc.
- Black’s sponsors local athletic teams, including little league, high school and minor leagues. As a bonus to Black’s team members, the company also negotiated a deal with local minor league teams where each ticket sold to a member of Black’s came with a hamburger, chips, and a drink.
- Black’s offers its facilities for its communities to use for meetings and training when they need more space or the amenities at the company’s disposal. Bladen County Schools agricultural teachers, for example, recently met at a Black’s for training and conferencing.
- Black’s sponsors a “backpack buddies” program in the schools where students at risk of hunger are sent home with food for the weekends and school supplies when needed.
- Black’s partners with tire manufacturers to assist veterans with their medical issues and benefits.
- The company regularly presents car care clinics to students on basic maintenance skills, such as checking the oil, checking tire pressure and identifying tire size and pressures for vehicles. Black’s offers a discount to students and even offers transportation back to school so they do not miss class.
- Black’s also gets involved with festivals such as the Strawberry Festival, Watermelon Festival, Blueberry Festival, Azalea Festival, Oxford Hot Sauce Festival and Dogwood Festival. The company also sponsors a Touch-A-Truck in varying areas.
‘Through These Doors Pass the Best People in the World’
At Black’s, training doesn’t end with honing your skills under the hood. Perhaps even more important, training is also about ensuring that every customer is treated like family. No matter the customer demand, Black’s does its best to be able to say “Yes.”
For example, during the height of COVID, Black’s was one of the first in the area to adapt with a “drop and go” service, allowing customers to have a completely contactless experience. The company still uses this service today for some customers.
Ultimately, Rick says, how Black’s team members treat its customers is reflected by the business’s four core values: Team, Family, Trust, Serve.
“We like to say: ‘How can we share smiles today?’ In a time where most customer service levels have dropped, we try to focus more on that than ever,” Rick says. “If we train and engrain in our team to live the family culture, it will rub off and be promoted in the workplace, and then to our customers of the future. We think we get our best marketing from word of mouth, just because of the way we treat customers and the way we treat our team members.”
Word of mouth might be the company’s best marketing tool, but that doesn’t mean Black’s doesn’t invest in more traditional methods. The company still produces radio and cable television commercials in select markets, and you can find Black’s advertisements in print, radio and billboards in the markets they serve, too.
Of course, Ryan says, digital advertising is also a huge focus for the Black’s marketing team. The company strives to have as many 5-star reviews online as possible, as repeat customers make up a huge portion of business.
The company has also promoted itself via race marketing for over 30 years. In 2023, Black’s fielded cars in the NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Camping World Series, as well as a smaller touring local series. Black’s has also partnered with various drivers over the years, such as AJ Allmendinger and Kaulig Racing from the NASCAR Cup Series and Tanner Gray from the NASCAR Camping World Series this year. The company has also teamed up with other successful teams and racing stars in the past, including Ross Chastain, Parker Kligerman, Todd Gilliland, David Reutimann, David Gilliland, Dennis Setzer, Scott Riggs, Austin Hill and Regan Smith.
At the end of the day, at Black’s team members are taught that if you treat customers like family, they will be the best marketing tool you’ve ever had.
“’Black’s Has Your Back’ is an often-used slogan at Black’s Tire & Auto Service, but it is more than a slogan, it really is,” Ryan says. “It is a belief about the importance of our customers and our commitment to them.
“On our business doors, one will see this statement: ‘Through These Doors Pass The Best People In The World…Our Customers!’ The company seeks to show its commitment to our customers by quality service at reasonable pricing, and service beyond the sale. We pride ourselves on taking care of people. It is more than a job, it is family. This is what makes the company different – the attention one receives after the service.”