From Truck Bed to K&M Top Shop Finalist: The U.P. Tire Story

From Truck Bed to K&M Top Shop Finalist: The U.P. Tire Story

U.P. Tire offers first come, first serve maintenance and quick service that gets the job done right the first time.

Charles “Charlie” Brown, founder of  U.P. Tire in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, knows firsthand that sometimes, what it takes to establish yourself as a preferred tire service center is asking the right questions. “Can I do this?” was one he asked himself as he began what would become his career in the tire industry. The growth of his company from a one-man operation out the back of his step-father’s truck bed to a full-service tire center with four bays and nine employees answered Brown’s original question over time. Now, he knows he can “do this,” yet as a K&M Tire Top Shop Finalist, Brown still finds a way to remain humble.

“I’m just a little, wee dealer way up in northern Michigan,” he explained. “A lot of people don’t even know where Sault Ste. Marie is. It’s not like saying, ‘Oh, he lives in Denver.’”

Brown’s journey to success is a testament to the power of asking questions and determination. Before he founded U.P. Tire (originally U.P. Tire and Supply) in 1974 and established his shop in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he worked at his local auto parts store in 1973 for about six months. When the owner failed to pay bills, he sold the business and Brown was forced to move on.

Following the sale, Brown stuck around to help wholesalers load the remaining inventory from the auto parts shop into a truck. In an off-hand conversation, Brown asked one of the employees if they thought he could sell tires and auto parts. The wholesaler encouraged him to try – Brown took that advice and never looked back.

From Four Wheels to the Showroom Floor

Brown and his father-in-law’s pickup truck made 90-mile trips to Gaylord, Michigan to pick up tires and parts for his clients in Sault Ste. Marie in the early 70s. Like a true tire industry Batman, Brown worked day and night hitting the streets to help his customers with their inventory needs.

“What I’d do is pre-sell,” Brown explains. “I’d find out what [a client] needed, whether it be for a wrecker service or dealership, and get it for them. I’d sell tires during the day, then run to Gaylord at night and pick them up.”

Brown soon made enough to buy his own pickup, fit with a tire rack for extra hauling. However, he wanted to expand his reach beyond what he could accomplish on the road. In 1976, he leased a gas station in Sault Ste. Marie and focused on growing the business by selling tires himself to customers through the station’s single service bay and showroom, while also selling gas to cover rent costs. Brown partnered with Cadillac Wholesale Tire in 1977 to provide him with the inventory.

“I had a very small little showroom, and I could at least show some tires,” Brown says. “Luckily, the station had one bay with a compressor and hoist in it, so I was all set to service vehicles. We had a very good relationship with them [Cadillac Wholesale Tire]. We were on a twice-weekly schedule, and they’d even run up a third shipment if I needed it during busier months.”

“We try to do everything a Top Shop would do,” he explains. “Customer service starts with the best manners, greeting the customers and putting our hands on the tires for inspection to repair or replace. We get the car into the shop as soon as possible to support customer needs and always offer free air checks, which keeps our customers returning. We never, ever, leave a customer stranded.”

Charles “Charlie” Brown, founder of  U.P. Tire

Cadillac Wholesale Tire was bought out by K&M Tire in 2019, kickstarting the wholesaler’s relationship with U.P. Tire. Brown highlighted K&M’s excellent customer service, inventory options and ability to communicate through supply chain challenges.

“Our partnership with K&M has been tremendously good,” says Brown. “[K&M] provides a continuous flow of trucks and material, which really helps. With today’s crazy sizes, you don’t know whether your next customer’s going to have Mercedes or a Ford Focus with 18-inch tires.”

By 1981, U.P. Tire outgrew its single-bay location, and Brown decided to upgrade and move down the road to the location U.P. Tire is today.

On the lot he bought sat a two-bay Gulf station with attached storage and a more accessible parking lot. After almost two more decades of growth, U.P. Tire once again needed more space and an upgrade. In 1995, Brown tore down the Gulf station and built a new 40-by-80-foot tire store with a mezzanine, where U.P. Tire operates today.

Pride in Customer Service

Brown says U.P. Tire offers first come, first serve maintenance (excluding snow tire rush season) and quick service that gets the job done right the first time. Customers don’t sit around too long to wait for service, but if they have to, U.P. Tire offers a large waiting area and clean amenities. He says updates were made in the summer of 2022 when the entire showroom was remodeled.

“We did a major overhaul this summer – tore the wallpaper out, painted everything and cleaned the walls all up,” says Brown. “There hadn’t been really anything done to it since ’95. So this was a major cleanup. Even though it’s nice, I don’t want them staying in the waiting room if we can get a repair in and out in 20 minutes.”

Brown has more than enough tire work to keep his staff busy – thanks in big part to large government contracts.

Charles “Charlie” Brown (left) and the team at U.P. Tire in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

U.P. Tire has a long-standing relationship with the US General Services Administration (GSA) in the area, providing maintenance services and inventory storage for the US Coast Guard, US Border Patrol and immigration services. He says that while working with the government can be challenging, U.P. Tire has a good relationship with employees of these organizations, garnering repeat business from them.

The shop also benefits from its partnership with three prisons in the area, providing tire service for delivery vehicles. Brown also touched on U.P. Tire’s relationship with Chippewa County.

“We get a lot of service truck tires [from the county] that need maintenance,” he explains. “Our county service drivers probably cover about 40 miles, not including back roads.”

Staying Up-to-Date

Brown says U.P. Tire’s nine employees remain up to date with training thanks to local county trade schools and representatives. When new hires join U.P. Tire, they are introduced to machines slowly and with a focus on education.

“We start new reps with jacking up a car, then move to wheel removal, then balancing or repair and re-install,” Brown says. “We do not do any under-the-hood or mechanical repairs like that – it’s mainly tires.”

It’s no wonder why the community trusts U.P. Tire for tire service needs, as Brown says about 95% of total service is tire related and the other 5% is battery help.

Brown knows that his employees and commercial accounts are a major part of U.P. Tire’s success and growth. To show his thanks and appreciation, Brown rents a large tour boat once a year to thank both his employees and clients for everything they do for U.P. Tire. Fit with snacks, drinks and fancy dress, Brown says it’s the least he can do to show his gratitude.

Community Outreach

Local community members know U.P. Tire as a household name. The shop stays active in the community all year by sponsoring the Chippewa County Fair, participating in Farm Bureau activities and sponsoring local high school sports like hockey and football teams. Brown says U.P. Tire also supports several churches in the area and the local Salvation Army food kitchen.

“We’ll put about 20,000 people through the Chippewa County Fair,” says Brown. “Between the boat tour and the fair, that’s probably our single biggest impact where we feel closest to the community. I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of it.”

Brown feels U.P. Tire exemplifies everything a Top Shop nominee should. He says his dedication to excellent customer service and his willingness to continually improve for his customers sets U.P. Tire apart from other single-location shops in the country.

“We try to do everything a Top Shop would do,” he explains. “Customer service starts with the best manners, greeting the customers and putting our hands on the tires for inspection to repair or replace. We get the car into the shop as soon as possible to support customer needs and always offer free air checks, which keeps our customers returning. We never, ever, leave a customer stranded.”

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