Independent tire dealers, pelted by competition from all corners, seek market assistance and advantages, with ways to distinguish themselves in their markets or “fool proof” systems that actually deliver increased sales and profits.
At the end of the day, most of these require a great deal of dealer involvement and effort; nobody rides for free and there are no magic solutions.
Over the years, we have seen many responses to competitive pressures, from full turnkey franchise operations to dealer-based marketing/buying groups to tire company affinity offerings. And now we have the latest hybrid in the form of American Tire Distributors’ Tire Pros franchise program.
It’s not quite a full-on franchise program like Big O Tires that has a heavy dollar commitment and restricts the owner’s buying and operational freedom. And it’s not a looser-knit marketing/buying group like American Car Care Centers. It’s a little bit of both – and then some.
At the same time, it is not a “come one, come all” program: Tire Pros dealers are already quite successful on their own, but see the program as a way to take it up to an entirely different level. And member dealers expect their colleagues to live up to their promise and responsibility to the group.
Take Phoenix’s Community Tire and Auto Service, a two-time Tire Review Top Shop Award finalist and well-recognized as one of the best independent dealers on the continent. Owners Howard and Pat Fleischmann and Kim Sigman attended the late-March Tire Pros Dealer Meeting in Miami to do more investigation of the program and see first-hand the types of dealers who have already taken up the Tire Pros mantle.
By the end of the two-day meeting, the Community Tire owners had signed on the dotted line and joined fellow Top Shop Award honoree Curry’s Auto & Tire Pros of Chantilly, Va., and 2010 winner Tires, Tires, Tires of Sioux Falls, S.D., as Tire Pros members.
There are 272 like owners who control 348 Tire Pros locations across much of the U.S., and ATD officials made it quite clear the company has ambitious growth plans for its Tire Pros program – and won’t skimp when it comes to choosing top flight dealers.
The meeting at the historic Loews Hotel on Miami Beach was the second such gathering; the 2010 meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., attracted 138 owners/principals. This year’s meeting brought in 179 owners/principals and 158 co-owners and spouses, plus five prospective Tire Pros dealers like Community Tire.
Also in attendance were the 45 field and home office personnel assigned full-time to the Tire Pros program, and 23 vendors who were on hand to meet with dealers.
As of the meeting, there were 348 Tire Pros locations, according to ATD, and 37 new locations from 30 owners are “in process.” Going forward, ATD plans to add 100 new Tire Pros dealers by the close of 2011 and another 100 in 2012.
That’s pretty impressive growth when you consider that in 2009 there were just 53 dealer locations in the Tire Pros program, which was acquired by ATD in December 2008 as part of its $75 million buy-out of AmPac Tire Distributors.
At that time Tire Pros was a traditional marketing group, and carried 300 members, primarily in the western U.S. Once ATD developed its Tire Pros franchise concept – including a definition of what a Tire Pros dealer and location should be – they went through that original roster of dealers and matched them to the new program. Not every dealer made the cut.
Those that did are now part of what ATD senior vice president of marketing Ron Sinclair called “a critical initiative” for ATD.
“Our goal is to establish Tire Pros as the premier retail program in our industry,” said Sinclair, and the primary focus is the quality of dealers joining the program.
“We have a thorough process for identifying prospective Tire Pros dealers,” he said. “This nomination and verification process requires multiple approvals across the organization prior to discussions being held with a dealer concerning the Tire Pros program.”
The process, he explained, is as much about finding the right dealers as it is “making sure that the dealer has a positive experience” with Tire Pros. That’s why the process includes an annual comprehensive review on both sides. The franchise agreements allow the dealer and ATD to part ways at virtually any time if either side feels it’s for the best.
“We also don’t want what has happened with other programs where they are strong out of the gate but over time things start to slip here and there,” Dan Brown, ATD executive vice president of sales, said after the meeting. Consistency of look, feel and message are important, he said.
“The dealer-count growth we’ve experienced over the past 18 months would indicate there is a high level of interest in joining the Tire Pros program in the market today,” Brown added.
The “high level of interest” extended to those already in the family and attending the two-day “Grow With the Pros” meeting.
So why are dealers looking at Tire Pros? The benefits of the Tire Pros program, said Sinclair, are rooted in two key areas: retail support and marketing support.
“Retail support includes Tire Pros University training sessions that we conduct across the U.S.,” he said. “Our Tire Pros dealer councils assist in defining the topics for these TPU sessions. Retail support also includes a proprietary benchmarking program available to the Tire Pros dealer, and an assigned business development manager, who focuses on helping the Tire Pros dealer try to achieve their business objectives.”
Marketing support comes in the form of a dedicated “marketing team that assists the dealer in developing and executing a marketing and advertising plan,” he said. “This includes media planning, as well as assisting with the development of TV, radio, print and direct mail advertising, where applicable. And we also help the dealers utilize their co-op advertising dollars earned through various tire manufacturer marketing programs.”
In addition, he explained, there are “performance-based rebate programs” tied to tire pricing.
“The important point is that Tire Pros is driving business to you and driving incremental profit to you,” Sinclair told the dealers gathered in Miami.
While Brown admitted, “we didn’t get done all of the things we wanted to” since the 2010 meeting, the program offering still grew, much of that centered in training, field support and the benchmarking program.
The Tire Pros University program will consist of two “rounds” this year, as a “road show format with 25 stops around the country.” The first round will run in April and May, and the second will come in the fall.
In addition, there will be ongoing training on phone skills, customer care and the entire sales process. Programs on auto services and TPMS and stability control “will help you better explain and sell your customers,” Brown said. ATD’s field support efforts will continue to provide consultative support to help design a “more personalized Tire Pros program” for individual dealers, including help with inventory planning, marketing efforts and training.
The benchmarking program draws a lot of dealer interest, Brown said, and allows Tire Pros dealers to see how they stack up to other Tire Pros dealers and against their own historical results. ATD uses an outside third party to do sales analysis for dealers to help them see where successes and opportunities lie. The benchmarking package covers sales trend analysis, tire sales diagnostics, service sales diagnostics and customer analysis.
ATD is encouraging communications between Tire Pros dealers, and sees peer-to-peer communications as a key means to help dealers succeed and grow. Also aiding in communication up- and down-channel are the five Tire Pros Regional Dealer Councils and the National Dealer Council.
“We want to get communication and decision-making as close to the dealer level as possible,” Brown said. The national council will combine concerns, ideas and solutions from the regions to see if more national solutions are needed. Brown said they will expand the number of regional councils as needed based on dealer location growth.
The Tire Pros Online website is also being revamped to include all ATD Online capabilities to track inventory and ordering, host advertising materials, business center, pricing and program operations manual, and to serve as a dealer-to-dealer communications hub.
“With our goals and aspirations for Tire Pros, you have to have the right infrastructure to support this,” Brown said. “There is a tremendous commitment to all of you behind the scenes.”
Growth is the name of the game, Brown said, for Tire Pros and for its dealers. “We want to expand our footprint and gain more dealers,” with a national program covering all 48 continental states. Toward that end, Brown said, ATD is looking for new Tire Pros dealers in the Northwest, upper Midwest and New England areas.
So how much does all of this cost? Not as much as one might think, and ATD officials suggested that a typical Tire Pros dealer would recoup much of the cost to participate.
And that’s one of the reasons the dealers are attracted to the program. They are getting a lot for a little, even though they are expected to conform and be a team player. For example, ATD expects members to incorporate the Tire Pros name into their name; Smith Brothers Tire becomes Smith Brothers Tire Pros. And there are desired outcomes for store signage, uniforms, POS, ads, and even how the store’s phones are answered.
Branding the “Tire Pros” name is vital, Sinclair said, to the program’s success. ATD is working with Charlotte, N.C., agency Luquire George Andrews on a $100,000 project to develop the brand name and create messaging that will positively drive consumer action.
In addition, ATD hired former Big O franchisee and executive Tom Staker to head up the Tire Pros program. Staker originally came on board last fall as a consultant, and was named to the full-time post just before the Miami meeting.
Money has been invested to redesign and update the Tire Pros consumer and program websites, and Sinclair and his team have planned 10 tire sale promotions for this year – including three Tire Pros exclusive promotions.
After all dealers have faced, Staker said during his presentation, “It’s time to look out for our mutual best interests and support this program.”