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Serving the Servants: Hard Work and Supplier Support Can Bring In The Business

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Serving the Servants

Hard Work and Supplier Support Can Bring In The Business

In one of his TV commercials, a Northeast Ohio tire dealer tells a story about a customer who completely abuses his vehicle. The customer is always "tromping on the accelerator," and he "probably is always on the brakes," the dealer laments. The customer "takes corners too hard" and virtually rakes his tires over the coals.

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At the end of the spot, the dealer says, "I take good care of this guy, because you never know when he may have to give me a ride." And with that, an ambulance pulls out of the service bay.

Meeting the tire and service needs of ambulances, police cruisers, fire trucks or other emergency vehicles can be a good opportunity. But getting into the business of handling these types of accounts may be as rare needing to ride in one of these vehicles. Emergency vehicles churn through tires – and brakes, and rotors, and just about every other part a dealer can service on a vehicle. That’s a lot of potential profit if a dealer plays his cards right.

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But before anyone starts seeing big dollar signs, keep in mind that a lot of these accounts are government entities and are handled on contract basis, very much like fleets. Individual departments aren’t going to simply head out to the local tire dealer for a tune-up or rotation. An entire city or county fleet – including non-emergency vehicles ®“ could go to a single dealer for service.

Dealers need to work hard to make inroads into this type of business. Tire and part suppliers can help, but the dealer has to build the relationships with the right people and make them feel confident he can handle the job. It’s not as easy as a dealer just walking in and offering to install tires. Not when lives hang in the balance and taxpayer money is at stake.

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One Dealer’s Perspective

Getting help from a manufacturer is often the best way – if not the only way ®“ for a dealer to get into the emergency vehicle business. Just ask T&W Tire in San Antonio. The dealership currently holds the contract to supply tires for San Antonio’s fire trucks. That wouldn’t have happened without special pricing support from Goodyear.

"We had an affiliation with the city for years, handling miscellaneous stuff here and there," says Jon Theissen, T&W’s manager. "But when they put out the bid for fire truck tires, it was a big opportunity."

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The city of San Antonio began taking bids by asking for prices on four lines of tires – Bridgestone, Firestone, Goodyear and Michelin. The bid was open for 30 days and Theissen went to work.

"I called Goodyear and told them I had a month," he says, "and that I needed special pricing to get the contract. Goodyear came through for us. It’s safe to say we got the city’s contract because of them. If Goodyear hadn’t helped, we wouldn’t have had a chance."

Now, every time the city needs tires on a fire truck, the maintenance supervisor calls T&W. If the department only needs a couple tires, T&W delivers them and sends over a service tech to install them. If more than a couple need to be mounted, the vehicles come to T&W.

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Theissen isn’t in the business of supply these types of tires – mostly 12R22.5 Goodyear G124s ®“ because of the money he takes in. In truth, he only does about a couple units a year, and on tight margins. And he doesn’t do it as a marketing tool ("I don’t think there’s a reason for it, or I would.").

"The advantage for me is that it applies to my bonus schedules for Goodyear," Theissen says. "No, the margins aren’t very high, but I do charge for the labor involved. With the way the economy has been lately, you don’t walk away from anything that makes money."

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Gaining the Business

As with Theissen and T&W, sometimes dealers gain emergency vehicle work because they had the winning bid. But depending on the size of a given area – local municipality, a small county ®“ a tire dealer might just be used as a source, with no bidding involved.

"The best advice is to make contact with local public service officials – police, fire, EMS ®“ and ask for details," says Bob Toth, Goodyear’s marketing manager. "And dealers should keep in mind that the service commitment can be the difference maker. Also, especially with police pursuit tires, being able to offer the OE product is an advantage."

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The difference between a good tire dealer and a bankrupt tire dealer isn’t the prices they charge or their location. It’s their preparation and attention to details. If a dealer is ready to capitalize on business from police, fire and ambulance vehicles, and they are willing to dedicate the service it takes, the acquisition of business shouldn’t be far behind.

"The best way for a dealer to gain this business is to do their homework," said John Miller, engineering manager of OE commercial accounts for Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire. "Understanding the specialized vehicle configurations and tire applications associated with the emergency response industry is crucial to a dealer’s overall success.

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"The quality of tire service in this industry varies greatly depending on the state, city or municipality where they are located. It’s definitely worth the dealer’s time to go after this business. But, like other segments of the tire business, they must provide value and back it up with reliable service after the sale."

One Type or All?

When going after the business, a dealer has to decide which emergency vehicles he wants to service. Is it smart to handle both ambulances and fire trucks? Or is it better to focus on just police cruisers and master that one segment?

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A number of factors come into play here. The dealer has to be comfortable, and know what he can reliably handle. If its only police cruisers, then its only cruisers. Government contracts aren’t a place to bite off more than you can chew.

If the dealer can handle all emergency equipment, then he must decide if that kind of business delivers a clear benefit in profit and/or future opportunities. Civic pride is nice, but handling emergency tires is a 24/7 business. The answer might even hinge on the dealer’s location. Bigger cities may want everything handled by one provider, or require on-site service at far-flung locations.

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"Not all dealers can handle both passenger and light truck tires and medium truck tires," Miller says. "In many instances, the emergency vehicles may be serviced by a central public works garage and all the dealer has to do is deliver tires to the garage. In rural areas, they may be limited to a local co-op franchise that is really not equipped to handle tire issues. If the dealer is a full service dealer, it would make sense to try to cover all the different services."

Various Applications

All tires need to be properly mounted, inflated and maintained. But that’s Tire Dealer 101 stuff. Most passenger vehicles and light trucks have the same basic needs. Ditto for commercial applications. But because emergency vehicles have to handle so much – and have so much riding on them ®“ are there some differences dealers have to keep in mind?

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"All emergency vehicles have some degree of high-speed usage," Toth says. "Police tires are obviously speed-rated tires, and some have special reinforcement. Fire truck and ambulance tires are considered commercial applications due to their size and load capacities.

"As a dealer (gets into this market), he also must consider any special tire needs the vehicles may have – such as winter performance tires for police cars used in areas with a lot of snow and ice."

On The Line

One thing that can be easy for a dealer to forget: There is always the potential that lives could be on the line. If the vehicle’s tires fails or service wasn’t performed properly, it’s not just the dealer who suffers.

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"Dealers have to realize that the public is depending on fast response time," Toth says. "Responding quickly to a safety/service vehicle when it’s disabled for some reason – flat tire, dead battery, etc. ®“ is critical. Serving some emergency vehicles’ needs is somewhat like providing 24-hour emergency road service to trucking fleets. That is an aspect of this segment of the business that a dealer should consider before jumping in."

Getting into the emergency vehicle market is all about being willing to work hard on job bids, accepting the responsibility, and being willing to be on-call at odd hours. It’s also about vehicles that do serious work everyday. Not every tire dealer can get into that kind of work. But the ones that can certainly get something out of it.

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