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The Politics of Being a Tire Dealer

And as a tire dealer, you have far more political expertise and influence than you may realize. From serving on boards and councils locally to speaking on industry issues before the House and Senate – even running for office – tire dealers have a reputation for getting involved.

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Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords went from El Campo Tire Warehouses to the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a business leader and manager, you’re tasked with many of the same duties as professional politicians – building consensus, communicating a shared vision, dealing with the public and staying visible within your community.

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And as a tire dealer, you have far more political expertise and influence than you may realize. Your voice, experience and wisdom are highly valuable to your community and your industry. From serving on boards and councils locally to speaking on industry issues before the House and Senate – even running for office – tire dealers have a reputation for getting involved.

In fact, your experience as a tire dealer provides high-value experience for life on the political stage – as confirmed by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords during an interview with Tire Review earlier this month.

From the Bays to the Beltway

Gabby Giffords grew up in the tire business. Her grandfather, Gif Giffords, started a gas and tire station back in 1949 in Arizona, which he turned over to his son (her father), Spencer, in 1957. In the 40 years that followed, her father grew the business from the original store to 11 locations. In 1996, he handed the reigns to Giffords, who left her job at Price Waterhouse in New York City and drove back to Tuscon at age 26 to take over as president and CEO of El Campo Tire Warehouses.

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Like many children of tire dealers, Giffords grew up working summers in the business, but she never expected to be the one in charge.

“At the time, I was very excited about entering the tire business, but I was the first to admit that I had almost no experience,” Giffords says. “I had to learn the tire business from the ground up, while also managing the company’s philanthropic arm. It was a busy first year, but I managed to increase annual sales by $1 million and make up our past losses. Three years later, after careful consideration including negotiations [to protect] all of our employees’ jobs, I sold the company. I then decided to pursue public service and [that’s when I first] ran for the Arizona House of Representatives.”

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Giffords, a Democrat, was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2000, then ran and won a seat in the Arizona State Senate in 2002, and again in 2004. In December 2005, she resigned from her role in state politics to focus on campaigning for national office.

“Working in the tire business gave me great insight into the business community and local economy. And my experience running El Campo gave me the confidence as a leader to engage in a variety of complex issues,” she says.

In 2006, Giffords was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the third woman in the history of Arizona to be elected to the House. She served three terms (2007-2012) before an assassination attempt in January 2011 forced her resignation in January 2012.

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When asked what first attracted her to politics, Giffords says it was her involvement in the community as a tire dealer that made her aware of deeper concerns within the district.

Tire dealers… have a lot of clout because of their friendships and because of the trust  that those customers have in them.

“Growing up, I didn’t have any big plans to run for public office,” she says. “When I took over my father’s tire business, I started to see things in southern Arizona that needed to be improved. I ran for office because I wanted to give back to my community and to represent those who didn’t have a voice.

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“My daily interactions with El Campo’s customers and employees helped me understand the most pressing financial and social concerns of our region,” Giffords adds. “Being exposed to so many different people and hearing their concerns made me feel even more obligated to help.”

Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association, has spent most of his career in Washington as a lobbyist and advocate for the tire and retread industries. He recalls the day he got a call from the tire-dealer-turned-politician when Giffords first arrived in Washington.

“I remember she called me up and had me come down to make sure I knew who she was and that she had come from the industry,” says Littlefield. “She really loves this industry.”   

On the Job (Political) Training

So, how could running a tire business prepare a person for a leadership role within his or her own community – or on the national stage?

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Giffords noted there is a strong connection between being a tire dealer and being a politician. She said the tire industry offers great experience with management, advocacy, and marketing. But the real value is in working with those who count on you – the people in the community.

“Tire dealers pay close attention to their customers and employees. People trust tire dealers with the safety of their families – it’s a big responsibility to be part of someone’s life like that,” explains Giffords. “Public servants do the same thing by listening to people’s needs and responding accordingly. Those listening skills are incredibly valuable in public service – and, if you ask me, Washington could really benefit from listening more to the American people,” she adds.

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Littlefield agrees. In fact, he believes Washington can directly benefit from hearing from the public – especially from tire dealers – once they get involved.

“People who have a political interest, who get involved in some kind of a group – whether it’s TIA, their state association, the local NFIB, whatever – can get a feel for how the government works and soon realize that they can make a difference on bills that they’re comfortable with.”

He went on to say that once tire dealers have an understanding of the topic, the policy and know what they’re talking about, they quickly build the confidence to get involved more often. He added that who you know can be as valuable as what you know.

If you’re going to be successful, you have to be able to talk like a Democrat and you have to be able to talk like a Republican.

“I think anybody who’s dealing with the public, especially someone like a tire dealer, has probably more involvement with people than they even realize. They have a lot of clout because of their friendships and because of the trust that those customers have in them. [And some of those customers] happen to be in positions of power,” he says.  “In the end, those relationships that we have through our members back home, along with their legislators, are the biggest [assets] we have.”

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He said that having a business owner in meetings who may be impacted by pending legislation is a powerful thing when working with Congress. The honesty of tire dealers, being able to look committee members in the eye when discussing important issues, is extremely valuable when discussing industry issues.

“We rarely will testify on a bill without a group of dealers there,” says Littlefield. “We want them to be there, to be part of the testimony. My whole philosophy is that they’re the experts. Nobody can tell their story better than they can. My job is to understand the system and how it works, and then plug their expertise into the right place at the right time.”

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On working with the new administration, Littlefield notes the real secret of influencing political outcomes is to be flexible enough to put party aside to advance your goals regardless of who may be in office.

“If you’re going to be successful, you have to be able to talk like a Democrat and you have to be able to talk like a Republican. But a lot of times, our members don’t understand that,” Littlefield shares. “You know, I think when they get involved, they realize that a vote is a vote. You’ve got to be able to work both sides of the aisle. [After the November election], a lot of people were down in the dumps, bummed about it, but my attitude from the beginning has been to just shift. Depending on who’s in power, you have to go with what you have and go in that direction. Frankly we have an opportunity right now to do some amazing things on issues that we’ve been fighting for, for many, many years.”

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Littlefield said that the best way to influence Congress on tire industry and other business topics is to come together as a “single voice” – dealers and manufacturers uniting around specific issues to make a greater impact.

“The combination would be phenomenal. The manufacturers have a lot of the expertise and a lot of money behind them, and we have the grassroots,” Littlefield says. “That’s a pretty powerful combination. Just by coming together and understanding where each other is coming from, I think, can make a huge difference.”

Giffords with her husband Capt. Mark Kelly, a retired Navy combat veteran and NASA astronaut.

People Make the Difference

When asked what she misses most about being in the tire business, Giffords didn’t hesitate.

“The people!” she said. “I was very fortunate to have met so many incredible employees and customers during my time in the tire business. I will always be grateful for that wonderful period in my life and proud of the service we were able to provide to our community.”

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Even after her injury, Giffords remains loyal to her roots in rubber.

“A couple of years ago, we had our OTR conference in Arizona and we had her husband (retired Navy combat veteran and NASA astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly) as the keynote speaker – and Gabby came, too,” says Littlefield. “I remember he said, ‘You think I really could come and talk to a bunch of tire dealers and she’d stay home?’ It was after the incident… and what a moving experience that was. There was so much emotion in that room, so much pride that one of our former members was this phenomenal national leader who had been through so much.”

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Though no longer in Congress, Giffords remains active, working to make a difference on issues of impact, particularly gun safety.

“This January marks the fourth anniversary of Americans for Responsible Solutions, an organization that my husband, Mark, and I started to reduce gun violence in wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” explains Giffords. “Together, we’ve traveled across the country to advocate for responsible, commonsense solutions that make families safer from gun violence and protect the rights of responsible gun owners, like us. In four short years, we’ve turned a message of responsible gun ownership into a powerful national movement for change – and we’re helping save innocent lives and make our country safer.”

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In the end, politics is more than ideology – it’s about people, leadership and being heard. And as a person in the tire industry today, you have more opportunities to influence positive change than ever before – once you commit to the challenge.

Editor’s note: Ready to get involved? For a current list of nation and state associations as well as contact information, please refer to Tire Review’s August 2016 “Sourcebook” issue, page 122. 

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