When a customer hands over the keys to his or her vehicle to the counterperson at any Telle Tire & Auto Centers location, it seems customary that they do it with the phrase: “You know, I remember when my grandpa or dad used to bring his car here.” Fourth-generation CEO and President Aaron Telle says comments like these are a regularity inside the walls of not only the company’s original location in Richmond Heights but also across the St. Louis, Jeff City, Kansas City and Springfield markets where many of the company’s advisors and technicians alike have remained in place for, in some cases, 20-30 years or more.
These rich customer relationships are built on far more than longevity alone, but 80 years of goodwill certainly doesn’t hurt. From 1942 to 2010, Telle Tire & Auto Service operated as a single retail store with eight employees in Richmond Heights, a suburb of St. Louis. Since 2010, Aaron has grown the business into 18 locations and over 130 employees.
So, how did Telle Tire create such strong bonds, establishing connections that take a customer on a journey to becoming a friend and eventually an honorary family member? The kind who will go out of his way to bring the staff fresh donuts even when he has no other reason to visit the tire shop?
“It goes right to the top. That’s from Aaron,” says Rich Oppits, Telle Tire director of service department operations.
A (Growing) Family Affair
Though they make it look easy, the truth is that for the Telles, top-notch service begins with top-notch company culture.
Laura Telle, the company’s chief people officer and Aaron’s wife, says it’s this company culture that is responsible for driving an employee’s demeanor, customer engagement and overall team execution that impacts brand and customer relationships. That relationship within the business is then extended to customers, making Telle Tire customers feel valued, appreciated and respected.
Telle Tire’s employee benefits list is extensive: It starts with paid-for training and ASE certifications, 401(k) with match and notable company contributions to medical/dental/vision and life insurances. As an employee’s tenure grows, the company begins to offer more unique perks as well, like free oil changes, paid birthdays off, emergency paid time off, profit sharing potential, free airline tickets and even anniversary and retirement trips.
“We really look at the basics. Why do people want to come to work here, and why do people want to continue to come to work here? At the end of the day, you’re not a number here, you’re an important person,” Laura says. “Without people, what do we have? We have some buildings and some equipment, but we don’t have a business. In all of our actions, we’re trying to reiterate how important our people are, because they’re everything.”
“We’re in a very labor extensive business; our biggest expense is labor,” Aaron adds. “We sought out very early on to say that’s not a liability, that’s an asset for us. Car repair and tires are unique, in that for the consumer, it’s like going to the dentist. So, we have to work that much harder to create a good experience for them. By providing our employees the tools and the processes and then aligning our values together, that’s how we hopefully continue to grow and create those unique, personalized customer experiences for many years to come.”
Creating a level of company comradery that endures generations requires an unwavering team effort, and becomes exponentially more important as Telle Tire continues to eye growth opportunities with new acquisitions.
“When we’re acquiring a store, Aaron will come in and tell the story of who we are as a company, where the company’s been, and where the company’s going. And people are always very excited about that next journey,” Laura says.
Integrating a new acquisition into the Telle family is as much a science as it is an art.
When Telle Tire first began making acquisitions in the early 2010s, Aaron and his team exclusively looked at “successful” businesses – those that had a good team in place; appeared to have a good culture in place; had good, strong sales; and were profitable.
“Paying for that upfront is always an easier transition and always worth the premium,” Aaron says.
Eighteen stores later, the Telles have learned a lot. They’ve routed unexpected scenarios, like signing a five-store deal in the Kansas City market just days before the first confirmed positive case of coronavirus hit Missouri in 2020, and triumphed in stores that previously had no real identity. Mixing this extensive experience with Telle Tire’s strong company culture, Aaron says he and his team can thoughtfully consider different kinds of acquisition options today.
“We’ve become more successful now and we’re a more sophisticated business today. If we believe that it’s a good location, then we’re confident with what we do as a company,” Aaron says. “By us implementing our processes and our systems and the way that we do business, we can build up a new clientele and make a store successful.”
Aaron says as many associates are kept on board as possible with each acquisition. Each new store location is also provided with a leadership team that has experience and perspective from working for Telle Tire to help train and inject that all-important company culture.
“When we go in there, we provide the tools and we put in place the processes and systems to clearly identify what our company values are,” Aaron says. “The ones that are able to take and run with that, we see how they get empowered – and a lot of these individuals haven’t been empowered to do their jobs before. Seeing us be able to make that environment for them and seeing individuals turn and accept that and thrive in that, for me, has been personally rewarding.”
Oftentimes, stores acquired by Telle Tire are primarily service-based operations with little or no tire sales, but soon after being acquired, these locations see a notable increase in tire sales due to Telle’s equipment investment, extensive training and brand recognition.
Laura says acquired stores are also remodeled to enhance the community where the store resides.
“The remodeled stores are a morale boost to the hard-working associates who remain working at the store location and are inviting spaces to have a cup of coffee, work or relax,” she says. “Need to use the restroom? Don’t be apprehensive – it’s clean in there!”
Trained Like a Telle Tire Technician
Telle Tire offers its technicians a continuous stream of educational training, including on-demand training, training via zoom, in-person training, hands-on formal training and on-the-job training. One of the company’s master technicians has developed a custom training curriculum for all of the company’s technicians to follow. Telle Tire even had one technician named an Auto Value/Bumper-to-Bumper Technician of the Year finalist in 2021.
Technician training is never “set it and forget it,” though. New automotive technology is always showing up in one form or another, and this is especially true following an acquisition. It’s one thing to implement a new digital vehicle inspection program and a new POS system, like Telle Tire did last year; it’s another to implement it successfully with buy-in from technicians.
“When we implemented this, we took a couple of our top-level technicians, and we had them go with me and talk with the other technicians, explain the program to show them how it’s done, and that was very successful,” Rich says. “Just through having guys that have been with Telle for a period of time, and then bringing those guys into the new acquisitions or into the stores that are newer shows another level of commitment. It shows we’re willing to provide and lets them know that, hey, we’re here to help support you and we want the best for you to succeed in this business.”
Of course, training at a Telle Tire establishment goes well beyond automotive service. It’s just as much about customer service, too.
“We educate our people about our company values. Who is Telle Tire? Why are we successful? Why it’s important to have a personalized experience and all the goodwill that’s been created over the years, really making sure that those values are in line,” Aaron says. “The easiest way to sum it up is: How would you treat your mother, or your father, or brother or sister if they came to the shop? What’s right? What’s wrong? Make the right decision, and make the decision right now. We will back you on that.”
‘We Don’t Go Hungry’
If you’re new at Telle Tire & Auto Centers, you’ll learn fast that packing a lunch every day probably isn’t necessary anymore. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to eat – you just don’t want that bounty of edible offerings from satisfied customers to go to waste.
It doesn’t matter which of the 18 locations you’re working from, it seems it’s a borderline tradition for Telle Tire customers to show their appreciation for the consistent, quality, customized service they receive with every visit.
“We don’t go hungry, especially around the holidays,” laughs Oppits, Telle Tire director of service department operations. “It’s funny because I’ll be at the Oakville [Missouri] store and customers will bring food in, but then I’ll have to go over to the Sappington [Missouri] store and it’s there too. I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, where did you get those?’ and our guys behind the counter will say customers brought them in. We just have that depth of customers, we know them so well. They’ve come to us for generations.”
Marketing Acquisitions Strategically
Telle Tire has grown steadily and strategically via acquisition for over a decade, and this results in unique storefronts and layouts at each location. Despite this, the Telle Tire team prioritizes cohesive signage, messaging and images throughout each store location to build brand awareness and consistency in customer expectations.
For example, every Telle Tire location includes:
- A Telle Tire Tire Comparison – to physically show and educate customers about the importance of tread depth
- Telle Tire messaging – focus on customer testimonials and associate experience and expertise
- A Telle Tire mural and fourth-generation messaging – emphasizing the longevity of the company built on the foundation of integrity and long-standing customer relationships
- A clean, welcoming lobby with bathroom access
In addition, Telle Tire continues to this day to use the company’s 80-year logo across all types of advertising, including print, the web and social media.
Telle Tire was also a 2021 Top Shop finalist.