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2009 Top Shop Finalist: Jack Williams Tire & Auto Center

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Jack Williams Tire Co. is no stranger to disaster. Founded just before the stock market crashed in 1929 and ravaged by a hurricane in the early 1970s, Jack Williams not only survived, it built a successful tire and service business that is integral to eastern Pennsylvania.

And that perseverance, coupled with exemplary customer service, innovative merchandising and commitment to the communities it serves, are the reasons why Jack Williams Tire Co. was named a 2009 Tire Review Top Shop Award finalist.

Many in the area still remember when Hurricane Agnes, out in the Atlantic, made a hard left turn, pounding many eastern Pennsylvania cities including Scranton, Moosic and Wilkes-Barre. Unfortunately, the Williams’ store was directly in the target zone.

“I was on a Civil Defense boat on the roaring, flooded Susquehanna River looking down through 16 feet of water at the roof of our one and only tire dealership. That was 1972. It was difficult watching our inventory floating down the river and knowing there wasn’t a thing I could do about it,” says Bill Williams, son of founder Jack Williams. “Worse, we had no flood insurance.”

But with a bit of help from the government, Jack and son gutted the store location, fixed it up and went back into business. “We were fortunate enough to receive $100,000 from the government and some low interest loans, and our suppliers gave us extended terms. The tire business was all I really knew so I took a chance and it worked,” he says.

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Jack Williams Tire was open and ready for business as soon as the debris was cleared away and the place freshened up, but it wasn’t easy. There were mounds of paper work, clean-up, repair, painting and more before the grand re-opening. With the entire region devastated, the future looked very bleak.

But the tire dealership was no stranger to bleak. The now 80-year-old business opened its doors in 1929, just months before the great stock market crash. Jack Williams couldn’t have picked a worse time to start a new business; the next two decades were spent struggling as the nation was engulfed in the Great Depression and a world war. But with a $500 loan from his father, a good bit of determination and luck, and a unique touch with customers, Williams made it work.

A lot of locals thought Jack was crazy for trying his hand at entrepreneurship at the time, but Williams knew better. He knew the business, he was honest and fair, and he also understood that despite all that was going on, his customers were going to need tires and automotive service.

He was right, and though it was difficult, Jack and Bill Williams scratched out a business that today counts 25 retail stores, five of the most modern, electronically-controlled warehouses in the country, nearly 500 employees and 127 Jack Williams trucks, 28 of them big box trucks.

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The headquarters in Moosic is two hours from New York City, two hours from Philly, two hours from the Poconos and three hours from the Atlantic shore. In other words, there are lots of people in his market area and four interstate highways wind their way through his valley stronghold – I-80, I-81, I-380 and I-84.

And Jack Williams Tire remains a true family affair. Bill’s wife, Sandi, is vice president of the firm’s real estate business; son Scott, president and CEO, is the sales and marketing guy; son Jason, executive vice president, is the operations whiz; and daughter Tracey, vice president, takes care of public relations and community affairs with the help of daughter-in-law Stephanie, who is married to Scott.

“My kids have been following me around the business since they were toddlers,” he says. “Like me, they’ve worked in every job in the place, from window washing to planning next year’s marketing strategy. None of this is really new to them.

“I started working with my dad when I was 12,” Bill says, “and went to work full time when I was 17. I learned from my dad, and now I’m teaching my children what he taught me.

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“Just after I joined the business full time, dad asked me to ride out to a farm with him,” Bill recounts. “A farmer was well into arrears on his farm tire payments. It was a rundown homestead, and the farmer said he couldn’t pay right away. We were invited into the house for something to eat, but when dad saw how little they had, and barely enough food to eat, he pulled out $20 and gave it to the wife for groceries.

“We went out to collect money and ended up giving them $20. That’s the kind of man my father was and that’s the kind of reputation he built over the years. For a long time, he extended credit, wrote out receipts by hand for whatever the customer could pay, completed a sale with a handshake.

“Dad’s philosophy was always ‘heavy volume over large profits per sale.’” Bill says. “In order to make this work he watched his overhead and worked more efficiently, something the corporation practices vigorously to this day.”

Details, Details, Details

If nothing else, Bill Williams is meticulous to the core. “We don’t overlook the detail work, no matter how large or small. When I see a piece of paper in the parking lot I pick it up and hand it to the manager so he can dispose of it. If I walk into a dirty store I warn the manager. If it happens again I warn him again; the third time he is gone. I’m a stickler for cleanliness and believe it’s just another detail that helps us maintain distance between our stores and our competitors.”

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Every one of the stores is cleaned once a day – the restrooms get cleaned three times daily. The fleet of 28 shuttle vans is cleaned each day. It’s the “Williams Way,” and the Williams family is very serious about it.

“I see it this way,” said Williams. “If I’m in a restaurant and the table is dirty, I wonder what the kitchen looks like. You can bet I won’t return to that establishment. Again, it’s about details. Customers expect cleanliness and if they dirty a dress sleeve on one of my service counters they won’t be back. It’s such a basic concept I don’t understand why so many businesses don’t put it into practice. That’s why I talk to my people about detail all the time. It really matters.”

“The customer is always first at Jack Williams Tire,” said Bill. “We offer 100% customer satisfaction and we don’t use it for marketing, we mean it. It is the only policy we have for our customers. If they’re not happy, we aren’t happy.

“It starts with having the right people taking care of our customers. We are very selective on who we hire, especially for management and advisory positions. We only want positive, customer-focused individuals.

“Our daily goal is to be the customer’s best retail experience. Every car that leaves one of our stores does so with a sticky note on the rear view mirror that reads ‘Did We Wow You Today?’ It also provides our 800-number for our customer service department and our Web site address. This information is noted on the top of our invoices, business cards, our service counters and on signs in our waiting areas.”

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The Web site features Williams’ “CustomerFirst” feedback survey, and the results are sent to the entire Williams family for review and action as necessary.

“Along with that, we send a postcard to each customer as well as follow-up service reminders. Additionally, we also make follow-up and thank-you outgoing calls to ensure our customers are happy. Customer service at Jack Williams Tire is the catalyst that has made the company what it is today.”

“We empower all of our associates to do whatever it takes to make a customer happy and to go out of their way to make a customer’s day,” he says. We want to set the bar for great service and be the place customers compare other retailers to.”

Every store has a courtesy shuttle service to get customers to and from work or home. Waiting customers enjoy a sparkling clean waiting area and restrooms, with free Internet access, coffee and water, up-to-date magazines, TV and daily newspapers.

One key to customer service, Bill Williams understands, is employee training. “We employ a full-time director of training, Tom Vose, who coordinates continual training as well as new employee orientation. Vose is a certified TIA Tire Service Advanced Instructor, who encourages all technicians to participate in ASE testing. Lately, Williams Tire techs and managers have been attending advanced hybrid service training.

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A lynchpin distributor member of American Car Care Centers, Jack Williams Tire carries ACCC’s American Radial, as well as Toyo, Goodyear, Michelin, Nokian Continental, General, Mastercraft, Kumho, BFGoodrich, Kelly, Dunlop, Yokohama and Nexen lines.

Each sales employee must complete online training modules from ACCC, as well as product training on all of the brands. Each year, eight employees travel to Rovers North with BFGood­rich to learn about traction and off-road tire capabilities. New this year, Jack Williams Tire also offered each employee first aid and CPR training through the Red Cross.

Making an Impact

At the top of Jack Williams Tire is the gratitude it firmly believes it owes to its community. Despite the naysayers early on, Jack never looked past the support he received from the local community, a trait handed down to his son and grandchildren.

Local youth sports throughout the region have benefited, as have countless local charities, schools and school groups, and community organizations. Throughout the stores, Jack Williams Tire is involved in local Toys for Tots and Coats for Kids drives, and is the homebase for the National Guard to collect items for local troops serving overseas. And each year, the company makes sizeable donations to the United Way, Volunteers of America, the Penn State Milton Hershey Hospital and more. And Bill and Sandi recently started their own foundation for sick children and those less fortunate.

The company is very active in the Tire Industry Association, the Motorist Assurance Program, the Better Business Bureau, the greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber and Industry, the greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Pocono Chamber of Commerce, the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, the Palmyra Area Business Association, the Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Berwick Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Lehigh Valley Auto Dealers Association and Kings College Family Business forum.

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The Williams’ largess extends to their customers, as well. To celebrate its 80th anniversary this year, they held the “Jack Williams Tire 80 days of Summer Campaign.” Customers won more than 80 prizes including a Yamaha ATV, big screen TV, tires, custom wheels and more. The dealer also participates in the regular promotions put on by ACCC and its main tire brands.

While Jack Williams Tire spends a lot of money on advertising and PR, Bill feels that “a good location and clean appearance is one of the best forms of advertising available.

“Part of our location marketing includes a ladder style sign which features lighted signs from all of the major brand tires we represent,” he says. “We also have attractive displays inside the showroom so a customer can ‘touch and feel’ the tires we are suggesting and compare the tread and designs. We want our customers to see that they do have several options available. Most of our locations have between 40 and 60 tires on display, representing each segment and over 15 brands.”

Most of Jack Williams Tire’s advertising focuses on its “The Williams’ Way” elements. “The biggest part of ‘The Williams’ Way’ is our out-the-door pricing,” Bill says. “We don’t charge for all of the add-on tire service charges. We’ve been marketing out-the-door pricing for over 15 years and it has set us apart from other dealers.”

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Jack Williams Tire’s commitment to innovation extends to constantly improving the way it does business – for its retail and its wholesale customers. “We’re constantly working to come up with new processes to make the retail stores more efficient, provide new products or services for customers, or find ways to streamline our wholesale, warehousing and distribution systems,” Bill says. “Over the past few years, we have fully integrated and innovated the warehousing and distribution system to make handling and distributing tires more efficient and cost effective. I think we have one of the most modern tire warehouse systems in the country.

“We always keep a vision in mind as to where we want to see the company go,” he continues. “In the next five years we have plans for additional retail and wholesale locations, and we have plans to focus and grow certain segments of the business and increase our online presence.”

That’s a ton of work for Bill and the rest of the Williams clan, but as the Williams family has proved time and again over the last eight decades, the hard work and focus on details pays off.

“We (the family) cover every aspect of the business and we always will,” he says. “We’re a family-oriented business that still bases its business plan on a very simple rule: take care of the customer first, foremost and always.”

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