People Can Make or Break You: Building and Keeping a Winning Tire Team - Tire Review Magazine

People Can Make or Break You: Building and Keeping a Winning Tire Team

Surrounding yourself with good people is the dream of every manager. From the President of the United States to the store manager at your local Subway, having good people is not a new idea.

But here’s the rub. How do you keep them happy?

Nearly 70% of tire dealers questioned by Tire Review say they’re concerned about finding employees, and most claim it takes between three to six weeks to fill a tire sales or service technician job. That’s a lot of time and expense to risk.

Fortunately, the turnover rate among tire dealers is relatively low, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to having the right mix. We all know how critical it is to have good people – they can make or break your business.

The question becomes one of employees getting the most they can out of their jobs and you getting the most you can out of them. By any measure this mutual fulfillment is a delicate balance, one that demands careful attention.

And the real bottom line answer, at least according to the successful dealers we spoke with, doesn’t lie in paychecks and perks. Sure, you have to compensate fairly, and secure employees (benefits?) are happy employees. Happier still are employees that feel respected, especially since they know respect is earned.

But getting the most out of your team – and keeping them as part of the team – comes down to one simple word.


Not hugs and kisses or anything tawdry, but respect, support, security and communication.

As one dealer put it, "You have to love them. You have to make them part of the ‘family.’"

Sage Advice

Self-help management books are a dime a dozen. So are personnel experts. That’s not to say course study is a waste of time. It isn’t. But aren’t we overstocked with workshop modules and back-ordered in "get it done" employees?

For most tire dealers, the simple truth is you get what you hire and what you nurture. Eighty-two-year old Olin Mott, owner of Olin Mott Tire in Tampa, Fla., says without hesitation, "Without my employees, I’m nothing.

"When there is a death in an employee family I attend the funeral. If it’s a wedding I try to attend, and I always extend my best wishes if there is a birth. The relationship between ‘boss’ and ’employee’ is very personal.

"I don’t care if you are General Motors, employees are the key to anyone’s success," he says. Always the philosopher, Mott believes employees take their cues from him. Known for his charity work in the Tampa area, the longtime tire man is good to his word.

His mantra: You live on what you make and you make your life out of what you give. "Helping high school kids with their problems, working with underprivileged children with no homes, and being involved in the community is a lot more fun than running a tire business," he says.

Mott’s employees have a role model to follow, a teacher. "I build my team of employees by telling them to be up front with all of our customers. Don’t argue with them. Ever. If we don’t have a customer with a problem, we don’t have a business.

"Compliment customers about how well they take care of their cars. I constantly remind my people that what the customer drives in here is the best they can afford. If you defame their car, you defame the customer. Here the customer is boss," he says. "Not me."

Mott leaves no room for confusion or ambiguity. Yes, his employees must be expert tire and service technicians because that’s the job requirement. "Beyond that, the only thing they need to remember is to take care of the customer," he says.

Tough Love

If you’ve concluded that Mott is a big softie, try again. "I have an obligation to pay my employees a living wage, to treat them the way I want to be treated, and to expect a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay," he says. "But if an employee cheats, lies or steals from me or the customer, he’s gone in a heartbeat. That is something my people understand clearly, and it is widely known throughout the community."

But there is a benefit to Mott’s tough-love. An Olin Mott employee is a person who can be trusted. "If you work for me, you will be recognized in the community as an honest, hard-working person."

In Mott’s world, team building is based on trust, something he didn’t learn from a textbook. "Trust is all about needing one another. It’s almost like a marriage. If you don’t need each other, it doesn’t work."

That goes a long way toward explaining his almost non-existent turnover rate. "Some have died since I started back in 1955, and others have retired. I’ve got one man here who has been with me since 1958."

If Mott’s formula for team building seems too simple to be believed, a trip to Tampa will validate his approach to running a business and allowing his employees to be a part of it.

"Communicate, communicate, communicate," says Mott. "Always make sure your employees know what you want and make sure you know what they want."

Setting New Standards

Up in Buffalo, Randy Clark, chairman and president of Dunn Tire, says his people are his "number one competitive asset."

"We believe so much in our people that we give them the go ahead to take care of problems in their stores. If a customer says we scratched their $200 wheel, the store manager can put on a new wheel immediately with no argument from me."

Clark believes in setting new retail standards by empowering his employees who face the customer every day. "If a customer tells one of my store managers that he was so unhappy he took his business elsewhere and that it cost him $200, we write a $200 check and send it to that customer immediately."

Like his counterpart Olin Mott, Clark has a clear understanding of trust. "We make our money on repeat business," he says. "That’s why the customer receives the very top of our attention."

Empowerment, though, has to be earned. And that comes from the customer.

Dunn Tire includes a customer satisfaction card with each of its 200,000 invoices every year. "We get a 7%-8% return or about 14,000 cards direct from our customers to my office," says Clark.

"When we introduced our customer satisfaction program in 1997, I knew that the culture here was not geared to the customer. Today I can say proudly that it is. The program has become so refined I can look at our lowest performing store and match that store’s P&L to the number of customer satisfaction complaints about that store. It is a cause-and-effect thing, pure and simple."

Does that mean someone gets the ax? No, but it means someone is going to be told to pay more attention to what Clark calls the "Sustainable Competitive Advantage (SCA).

"There are four elements to the SCA," says Clark. "Professionalism, the ambiance of our stores, the condition of our stores and customer service. If a particular store continues to perform poorly, we know we have a problem that needs fixing and fast."

Ingraining Beliefs

"Great pride is taken in doing what the other guy can’t do," says Clark. "When the first snow flies and we have 18 people in line trying to buy snow tires. Each customer in that line is made to understand that his or her business is important and that they will be taken care of accordingly.

"Every employee in every store has been ingrained with a belief system tied to the undeniable fact that a happy customer will buy more and recommend Dunn Tire to their friends.

"We also understand that we cannot advertise our way out of poor customer satisfaction. A word-of-mouth culture fix is the only way out of a customer problem, and we’re very good at repairing relationships," he says.

Keep in mind that Clark runs a tires-only format. "We sell tires and we service tires. That’s it," he says. In Clark’s culture you don’t have to be big, but you have to be efficient. And toward that end, he makes sure all his employees have the right tools.

When Clark passes one of his 26 outlets, he sees a high-production factory. He sees a store equipped with brand new tire changers because they are faster and able to handle 23-, 24- and 26-inch wheels. He sees a store with new alignment equipment that cuts down on service time because it can handle a wider range of vehicles faster than an older machine.

More importantly, he sees an employee culture of customer care built on individual and team pride, of "ownership" in the system built on trust.

Family Affair

"Our mission is to make our customer’s purchase an enjoyable experience," says Dick Matschke, owner of Richlonn’s Tire & Service Center in Greendale, Wis. The 40-year dealer veteran knows that if his employees don’t have an enjoyable place to work, his customers are unlikely to have a positive experience.

With 44 employees and four outlets in the greater Milwaukee area, Matschke says keeping his people in the communication loop is vital. Along with his son, Brett, president of the company, Matschke has empowered his employees to do what they have to do to make the customer happy.

"If a store manager needs to adjust a tire on the spot or if they have a customer with a failed tire repair, they don’t have to call me or Brett. We want them to put on a new tire or write the customer a check for any inconvenience they may have experienced." In this way, Richlonn Tire has built a reputation for being a no-nonsense tire dealership.

How exactly did Matschke get to this point? By treating his employees like family, that’s how. "Every year we have an annual golf outing for our employees," he says. "We also throw a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game outing complete with a pig roast (this year 92 people were there) and an annual Christmas party.

Matschke also offers one of the most complete employee benefit packages around. "Our vacation plan is very liberal," he claims. The plan ranges from five days for a one-year employee all the way to 27 days for his five 20-year employees.

"I feel that today’s tire and service technicians are largely underpaid," he says. "Some of our people are on commission, which helps. We also put more money in their pockets through a 401(k) program. We match 25 cents on the dollar for the first 5% an employee contributes to the program."

Additionally, he pays 70% of the cost of an employee’s family health care insurance program. A 125 program is also in place for all Richlonn employees. That means the 30% he doesn’t cover for health care premiums can be paid for by employees with tax-free dollars.

Dependent care is another big-ticket item at Richlonn Tire. Built around a flexible spending account up to $1,000 a year, it allows employees to use tax free dollars to pay for such things as day care for their children. "This money may also be used to cover eyeglasses, or health insurance co-payments," says Matschke.

Richlonn Tire also offers payroll deduction for employees, covering everything from house and car insurance to dental work and long-term disability premiums. Matschke also provides short-term and long-term disability and life insurance. "We also allow our employees to build up sick days, one day per year, up to a total of five days," he says.

The average age of a Richlonn employee is 47, and that didn’t happen by accident. Part of that comes from his hiring process, which Matschke treats with the respect it deserves. "All prospective employees must complete a full physical and drug testing examination. We make it a point to check every reference. Then if everything looks good, we begin a series of three interviews with the prospective employee.

"Brett conducts an interview, the store manager conducts an interview and if requested, the store service manager may also conduct and interview. We get together to compare notes. If we are agreed, we hire the person. Although we spend a lot of time with the hiring process, it ends up saving us lots of headaches later on."

Building ‘Comfort’

About 2,000 miles west, Alpio Barbara cooks up a barbecue for his employees on the first Friday of every month. "This is for employees only," says the owner of Redwood General Tire in Redwood City, Calif. "It’s a time to relax and enjoy each other’s company."

He also "huddles" with his people Tuesday evenings for 30 minutes to go over the numbers for the week. But Barbara has learned that the numbers don’t mean much if his employees aren’t comfortable in their jobs.

"The time we spend together is invaluable to me and to them," he says. "It gives me a chance to tell them not to wing anything on a repair job, for instance. I tell them straight out not to embarrass me with my customers. Don’t try an experimental axle shaft job until we are all agreed that the new procedure works."

More than that Barbara tells his people he demands excellence and perfection. He doesn’t expect these things ®€“ he demands them. It’s how Barbara indelibly etches his store culture in the minds and actions of his employees.

Like Mott and Clark, he leaves no room for misinterpretation. One slip up from anyone who lies, cheats or steals means no second chance. "It’s important to establish what I want from my people, but it also follows that their thinking must get through to me."

One good example is the issue of being open on Saturdays. "Many of my employees don’t want to work on Saturday," he says, "and it’s a difficult day for me to get parts. So we’re open Saturdays for tire sales and tire service only, but the auto service bays are open so employees who have the day off can come in and work on their cars. It’s something they asked about and we were able to accommodate them."

Barbara is dedicated to his employees and values their trust. "With 100% certainty, I have the top technicians and mechanics in the Bay Area," he says proudly. In return for their loyalty, Redwood General Tire provides better-than-average benefits, including a 401k program and pension plan for all employees.

The formula works. His "newest" employee is a four-year veteran, the longest has been with him for 26 years. His senior tech even knows what Barbara is going to say before he says it.


Deserve Respect

Interestingly, one of Barbara’s concerns is that customers don’t show enough respect for his techs. "My people are well-trained professionals who take their jobs seriously," he says. "They are in company uniforms, which we supply. They are smart people and quite frankly, without their expertise and support, I would have nothing.

"While it’s true that we have points of disagreement, it is also true that I care deeply about each of them."

At the end of every day, Barbara is a happy man. Happy about his business and happy with his 32 employees. And the employees are equally happy about the family atmosphere. "That’s why 85% of our business is repeat business," he believes.

"We make everyone feel comfortable here," says Barbara. "All of us are eager to talk with our customers about their problems. To me the bottom line is as much about communication as it is anything else."

To underestimate the power of communication is to undercut the route to success. Imply that you want more sweat for the same pay from your employees and get ready to duck. That’s miscommunication that will be heard loud and clear.

The better idea is to speak clearly and be understood. Don’t say what you don’t mean. Tell them what you can do and tell them what you can’t do.

And make them part of the process. Instead of telling them you want more work for the same pay, ask them what they need to make more efficient use of their time.

Be their champion, not their punching bag. A happy employee is a satisfied employee and that almost always leads to a happy customer. That’s the way it works when you’re actively and openly communicating with your employees. So what are your waiting for?

Tuna on Team Building

During a particularly sloppy pre-season practice, Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Bill Parcells walked off the practice field. Why? He said he wanted his players to realize they must correct their own mistakes. He wanted them to figure out how to do it right instead of always looking to him for answers.

"I told them that they’ve seen basketball games where teams are down two points, then eight, then 12 points and the coach still doesn’t call a timeout.

"That’s because the team on the floor has to dig themselves out of trouble," he said. "If you don’t have a team that can do that, you’ll never win because there will be trouble every week at some point during a game."

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