Aaron Telle, the fourth-generation owner of Telle Tire & Auto Centers, says he learned the ropes of running a tire business in his late teens and early 20s while working alongside his father, Scott, and uncle, Mark, who then co-owned the now 77-year-old family business.
At the time, in the early and mid-2000s, Telle Tire was a single-store operation at the corner of Big Bend Boulevard and Dale Avenue in Richmond Heights, a suburb of St. Louis (a location that still serves the community today). But as the young, motivated Aaron became more familiar with the workings of the tire industry, he began dreaming of opportunities to sink his teeth into more.
“I would always have conversations with my father about expanding and growing, but he always felt that there had to be a Telle behind the counter,” Aaron says. “[He’d say] ‘no one cares as much as a Telle.’ So, for him, expansion was a kind of a non-starter. But for me, personally, it was very important. It was something that I wanted to try.”
It was only a few years later, two years after his Uncle Mark announced his retirement, that the 26-year-old Aaron was unexpectedly handed the reins of the business after the sudden passing of his father in 2009. The responsibility of guiding Telle Tire and all its employees through the recession was thrust upon him at a time when he was without the familiar guidance of his father.
“To lose someone who is kind of your right-hand man, someone you can always lean on for support, to not have that second-guesser next to you … To not have him there, it was a true wake-up call,” Aaron says. “It was a situation that was kind of my make-it-or-break-it moment.”
It was that moment, Aaron says, that led him to steer the Telle Tire ship toward the shop’s first-ever expansion, opening a second location in 2011.
“I would always say, I would rather try to open up a second store and fail than 30 years later sit back and wonder, well, what if?” Aaron says.
But how could Aaron honor that old saying, “there has to be a Telle behind the counter?” Aaron says it was about giving employees the tools and support they needed to care like a Telle would. For Aaron, that meant closing all stores in St. Louis on Saturdays so employees could enjoy their lives outside of work. Employees are given the day off with pay on their birthday. Long-term employees get to take one-week trips on the house at anniversary milestones to the location of their choice. Telle Tire also engages in profit sharing with employees, so they can reap the rewards gained from successful shops.
“I look back at all those conversations I had with my father, and it really made me realize that if we’re going to grow and expand, what do we need to do to get our team to care as much as a Telle? That’s how we go about our business,” Aaron says.
In part due to this strategy, Telle Tire continues to expand to this day. Between 2014 and 2017, the business acquired eight independent, single-outlet stores in the St. Louis market, and earlier in 2020, it acquired five more in a multi-store deal in the Kansas City market. This past October, Telle Tire acquired its 16th store.
Aaron says “timing is everything in life.” The ink dried on that five-store deal on March 1, 2020 – just six days before the first confirmed positive case of coronavirus in Missouri. As the nation began locking down, the shop’s revenue dropped nearly 50%, and, worse yet, he says Telle Tire’s five new stores didn’t qualify for PPP funding, as Telle Tire hadn’t owned them the year before.
To ensure the business would survive, Aaron says he took drastic measures that went against Telle Tire culture. Business hours were slashed, and 40% of the staff had to be laid off. Salaries of the business’s key leadership team were cut by 25%, and Aaron says he worked closely with his bank to delay principle and interest payments for as long as possible.
And, he says, most importantly, he remained transparent with employees with every decision.
“I sent out weekly memos, and I went to every single store personally to talk with every employee face-to-face about why we had to make these decisions. We kept an ongoing dialogue, and that helped everybody support us; it wasn’t just going to be me who was going to get that business back, it was going to be everybody,” Aaron says. “And, I’m glad to say, I believe within 90 days we had all of our staff back, and we’ve tried to make people as whole as possible in the wages that they’ve lost through two different bonus rounds. Our business still isn’t back to 100%, but we’re in a position where we’re moving forward.”
That is why in good times and in bad, Aaron says, it’s Telle Tire employees who keep the business strong.
“I want to work every day to ensure that we don’t lose our way, and while growing is important, the biggest thing is to ensure that we keep our great culture while we grow,” he says. “I almost have to pinch myself. I spend many nights thinking about what my father or grandfather would say about the transformation of this company.”
Check out the rest of the November digital edition of Tire Review here.