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Editor's Notebook

It’s Just a Numbers Game

The “creeping normalcy” of change is taking the heart, soul and backbone out of the tire business.

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Separately, the numbers mean nothing. Could they be part of a secret code? Or a high school locker combination? Lotto ticket picks, perhaps?

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28. 105. 99. 279. 163.

Random, meaningless, with no order or organization or reason. Until you put a human face to them. Literally.

Over the past two years, about 385 independent tire dealer locations changed hands. Retail stores, wholesale warehouses, commercial tire centers.

385.

Of that, 105 were sold off to other independents. The remaining 280 locations were bought by “Others,” such as Pep Boys, Monro Muffler Brake, Midas or TBC.

And those are just the ones that have been reported. Dozens of other transactions also occurred over the prior 24 months, with many more dozens of locations getting new owners.

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The numbers may not look or sound like much to some; when you’re used to dealing with thousands or millions or even billions, 385 is like a pesky gnat that invades a restful summer nap. Or the slow drip of a cranky faucet.

Except that over time that relentless drip, drip, drip becomes a gallon, then a pool and eventually a lake.

During calendar 2011, 27 dealer locations were moved to other independents and 140 were sold off to the Ot­h­ers. Pep Boys was the big beneficiary that year, snagging 85 Big 10 Tire Stores in the south. Monro grabbed 22 Vespia Tire Centers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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Over calendar 2012, 78 locations were sold to other independents, and 139 went to the Others. Among those dealers were some real stunners, with Monro buying Tire Barn Warehouse (31 stores), Ken Towery’s Tire & Auto Service (27 stores in Kentucky and Indiana), past Top Shop Award winner Enger Auto Service & Tire (12 stores in northeast Ohio), Kramer Tire (20 stores in Virginia), and Colony Tire (18 locations in North Carolina and Virginia).

All told, Monro left 2012 richer by 135 stores in eight separate transactions. And the independent tire dealer base was 135 locations poorer.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the mega-cliché: “The big are getting bigger and the small are getting smaller.” To me it comes across as fait accompli, a shoulders-down surrender.

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And though I abhor clichés, the cold truth is the big just keep marching on. Big Boxers. Car Dealers. Tire Companies. And the Others. They add their own locations, and they take ours. And they get bigger and bigger.

Conversely, the small get that much smaller. And while another generation of brave souls opens new independent tire shops all the time, they can’t come fast enough to cover the losses.

I was recently at a national dealer meeting where independents were being courted along side a major car dealer tire supplier and a mass merchant. I met with another major that flatly stated they wanted to be, needed to be, “wherever consumers want to buy tires.”

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They all start every dealer meeting with a big group hug and endless recitations of how much they love/­need/­rely on independent distribution. And then they turn around and do the same with mass merchants and price clubs and car dealers and (with some) themselves and the Others.

How many true loves can one boy have? And how quickly the tiremakers forget just who brought them to the dance. When this industry started, there was nothing but independents selling and servicing tires.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, this magazine took on one major when it stepped out on independent dealers and took up with Sears and Montgomery Ward. We lost thousands in ad revenue when they canceled ads (for years), but the point then is the same now: Independent tire dealers are the heart, soul and backbone of this industry, and we all need to act like it – in word and deed.

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Some might cynically ask, “Why shed a tear for guys who didn’t plan for the future, or whose progeny didn’t want to get their hands dirty, or those who were over-extended, or just didn’t have enough gas to get through the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression, or were simply caught up in the numbers game of the ‘continuing consolidation of the retail market?’”

The phrase “death by a thousand cuts” often refers to what some call “creeping normalcy,” where a negative shift that occurs over an extended period of time is not seen as objectionable.

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Every dealer location lost to those outside of the independent distribution family is another cut. To the heart and soul.

And that creeping number of cuts continues to add up.

139. 79. 99. 28. 385.

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