Tires tend to be one of the most underrated components in terms of a vehicle’s performance and keeping drivers safe on the road, yet tire dealers often don’t get the credit they deserve. It’s a tough business involving long hours and slim margins. Those in the industry know that it takes a deep passion for this business to achieve success.
“You know, I love the tire business because ultimately it’s how we help people,” says Tim Winkeler, president and CEO of VIP Tires & Service. “I’m huge on safety, and I think tires go way underappreciated by most people for how important they are for helping a vehicle be safe on the road. There’s not much else that’s more important for a vehicle, whether it’s myself driving or one of my loved ones driving.”
With around six dozen stores and growing, New England’s VIP Tires & Service is a pristine example of how a tire business can succeed to its fullest potential. The acquisitions, partnerships, expansions and store renovations at VIP just don’t stop coming, and it’s in large part due to its fearless leader – a true, blue, all-American Vehicle Care Rock Star.
Walking into one of VIP’s stores next to Tim is as close to a rock star’s welcome as you’ll ever see. His employees don’t just love him, they’re inspired by his leadership to bring about VIP’s full potential. Whatever song-writing gene John Lennon, Brian Wilson or Freddie Mercury had that gave them that ability to buckle your knees from the first note, Tim’s got whatever the vulcanized rubber version of that is.
Now, let’s make one thing clear: VIP’s success is not simply due to the work of one man, and Tim will be the last person to take any of the credit. He doesn’t rule the VIP kingdom from a throne built from stacks of tires – but that’s what makes him a rock star. In fact, Tim just might redefine virtually everything you thought you knew about the rock star lifestyle.
A Disciple of Discipline
Do you want to be a rock star in the tire industry? You rise and shine before the roosters sing – at least if you’re Tim. As it turns out, it’s not about how early you rise, it’s more about establishing a routine, and keeping to it. It’s a lesson Tim has engrained in his son, Sam, who typically joins his dad on a morning run, and who also happens to be a VIP employee.
For Tim, these early-morning runs are partly for him, partly for his family, and are partly for that daily reminder that running a successful business doesn’t come from spending five more minutes under the covers.
“I think there’s a lot of discipline involved, and I think that mental discipline benefits you in terms of just being great at whatever you’re going to do,” Tim says. “When you have that mental discipline, you can do what you know is right. I’ve been running now for 15 years, but it’s still not easy. It’s comfortable in bed, and I still don’t want to get out and run. But it’s that discipline that tells me that I know what the right thing to do is. Let’s go do the right thing.”
Tim is always looking for ways to tie in the things he loves in his personal life into his VIP family. With the obvious benefits regular exercise brings, incentivizing his staff to live healthier lives was a no-brainer.
“From a business perspective, as a company our health insurance expenses continue to go up every year, and unfortunately it has become really expensive for our employees as well. So, one of the strategies that companies tend to do is try to put in some sort of wellness programs that help employees live healthier lives, and we’ve dabbled in some things,” Tim says. “We have a financial wellness program. We’ve done step programs, and we did a ‘Biggest Loser’ program last year. This coming year that’s going to be a big: How can we get more of our employees involved in different wellness programs and help them become educated about eating right and living healthier lives?”
Tim’s sense of discipline touches nearly all aspects of his life, and this is particularly evident when considering his faith. As a proud Catholic, he attends a men’s group at Holy Martyrs in Falmouth, Maine every Saturday morning at 6:30. It was through this group that he met the church’s deacon, who thought Tim might make a good deacon candidate himself.
“It is kind of like we’re all working to earn a master’s degree in theology. It is also a monthly meeting with a priest with a deacon couple. Then, in addition to the college coursework, there are other trainings we go through with priests from the dioceses on different ways to understand the mass and the liturgical rituals,” he says. “I’ve been in the program about two-and-a-half years and we have about three years to go. It’ll be summer of 2026 will be ordination, God willing.”
Running a successful business, studying to become a deacon, supporting local businesses via mentorship, advocating for Right to Repair legislation, spending time with this family, and regularly giving his time and money to charity – are all part of Tim’s average day-to-day life, and he is well aware he has more to keep up with than your average Joe. Discipline is certainly a powerful tactic in accomplishing these tasks, but he says it’s actually the relationships he’s made in all of these aspects of his life that allow him to keep moving forward.
“Early on in my career, I realized that what I felt was my gift was this idea of management and leadership. But it was really born out of an ability to create relationships. I realized that my gift was getting to know people and understanding the trials they were going through, and then ultimately helping them become great in whatever pursuit they have,” Tim says. “That’s kind of culminated today, because we’ve built an unbelievable team at VIP. What I’ve done is I’ve helped build relationships, get to know people, understand what their goals are or what they’re good at – what their gifts are – and then help them sort of activate that and step into leadership roles in whatever way that may be.
“I’m blessed. I’m one of those people where it doesn’t feel like a job. We’ve got such great team members and I feel like they have the freedom to do their best work. When they have that kind of freedom and they are empowered to run their part of the business, it makes my job much easier to do what I do. All I have to do is continue to foster that environment and help people.”
One of VIP’s newer shops came online around three years ago in Auburn, Maine. The shop had been renovated out of an old pool hall tucked behind an O’Reilly’s – and it’s already one of the company’s top volume stores. Tim says this is in large part to the leadership of the store’s manager, Bob Guptill, who once owned his own automotive service shop but joined VIP to head up operations at this location.
“It’s a lot less stress [working at VIP] as opposed to running my own store,” Bob says. “I love it here. Being such a big place with so many locations, we can really serve the customers. If a customer has problems anywhere in New England we can take care of it, no matter which location a customer comes to. Plus, I think the biggest thing that VIP doesn’t talk about is how good the warranty is. Our warranty can’t be met by anybody. If anything goes wrong at any store, we’ll fix it up and take care of it.”
As we walked around the store, it got easy to connect the dots that led to the company’s satisfied customer base. The typical friendly amenities like free Wi-Fi and coffee are just the rubber sprinkles on top of this tire shop sundae. The show-stopping ice cream here was the clean, open shop floor, the five ASE-certified master technicians on staff and the beautifully organized warehouse.
It was around this time, after talking to Bob for a while, that it dawned on me: Tim might be our rock star, but you’re known by the company you keep. Guys like Bob are rock stars too, and Tim depends on these bandmates to keep the rock show customers expect to see going night after night.
Think of Tim like David Lee Roth. One of the greatest frontmen of all time? Sure. But Diamond Dave isn’t selling any one-man a cappella records – at least I hope not.
“We are blessed to have a great team of leaders in our business, starting with John Quirk, our owner. John is a third-generation owner in the tire and service business. His grandfather was in the tire and service business 96 years ago in Watertown, Massachusetts, where we still have a VIP store today. As a third-generation owner, John has a real appreciation for how to best take care of customers and run a tire and service business,” Tim says. “Then there’s Gary McCausland, who’s our senior vice president over operations. He’s been running tire and service businesses for 35 years.
“We have such a great team of leaders who are the ones who are sweating the details every day. I may well keep my finger on the pulse of our stores, but a lot of that is through the communications I have with those district managers and those regional guys.”
We’ve already established that Tim doesn’t subscribe much to a top-down leadership style, so it should come as no surprise that he and the rest of the VIP staff do their best to carry that tone into customer relations. VIP counter professionals are taught that, rather than tell customers what they need, they should instead educate them to make an informed decision on their own.
“You won’t hear us talk a lot about selling. You’ll hear us talk about educating customers,” he says. “One of the things I’m most proud of that our team here at VIP has accomplished is our culture, this idea of having a team culture where everybody is on the same team and we’re all supporting each other. When you’re just in the tire and service business, your people are everything. If you don’t have great people, you’re not going to win in this business.”
You’ve gotta fight for your right… to repair!
I asked Tim: What is one thing you’re keeping an eye on that will most profoundly affect your business over the next five to 10 years?
“Right to repair is a big deal when you start talking about the next five or 10 years. We’ve got to make sure that our technicians maintain the ability and the right to diagnose and repair all the vehicles that are on the road, and that are going to be on the road, over the next ten years,” Tim says.
This answer shouldn’t surprise anyone close to Tim. He has quite the reputation as a staunch advocate for the Right to Repair movement, and as a resident of the state of Maine, it’s one that is certainly dear to his heart.
Maine was the second state behind Massachusetts to have the Right to Repair initiative qualify for the ballot. Soon each of Maine’s 1 million or so registered voters will have the opportunity to decide for themselves if they want to have the right to access the data that their vehicles are producing.
“I got started because, as a member of the board of directors for the New England Tire Service Association, we were all of the same mind that Maine needed to be the next state to get this ballot in front of the voters. Once I knew it was going to be Maine, as CEO of VIP, it made sense for me to become a leader of the coalition,” Tim says. “We needed about 65,000 signatures, roughly 10% of the number of people who voted in the last governor’s election. We collected in excess of 75,000 signatures in about three or four weeks.
“The next step in Maine is for it to be on the ballot in our November elections. We’ve done very passive awareness campaigns to try to help people be aware that Right to Repair is going to be on the ballot, and I think what people will see as we get closer is a lot more activity to educate those voters.”
With a white-hot spotlight on Maine, Tim’s tireless dedication to advocating for Right to Repair might be one of his most rock’n’roll attributes, empowering his audience – VIP’s customers – with his gift for driving change via a chorus of service and education.
With its growing network of stores and a relentless pursuit to better the tire industry, VIP’s tour of excellence is one of those that personify the rock’n’roll all night and party everyday lifestyle. Not in a chaotic, tongue-hanging-out-of-its-mouth kind of way – rather, thanks to pulling double-duty as a recognizable frontman and orchestral maestro, we recognize VIP Tires & Service President and CEO Tim Winkeler as the very definition of what makes the tire industry deserving of the highest levels of respect.
Tim – you’re a rock star.