Bridging the past and present: Totten Tire may be Birch Run's best kept secret in tires

Bridging the past and present: Totten Tire may be Birch Run’s best kept secret in tires

The single-location shop has always been able to draw the business it needs to keep busy, keep customers happy, and keep true to its roots.

Jim Garno isn’t one to brag. In fact, he had no plans to nominate his business, Totten Tire Center in Birch Run, Mich., for the K&M Tire Top Shop Award program — until a customer heard about the contest and made the nomination.

In the close-knit community in central Michigan, Garno’s humble nature fits in well and likely is one of the reasons Totten Tire Center draws a loyal customer base and staffs its employees long-term. The single-location shop, which was founded in 1969 and currently performs a sales mix of 60% tires and 40% vehicle service, has always been able to draw the business it needs to keep busy, keep customers happy, and keep true to its roots.

For these reasons and many others, Totten Tire Center was named a Finalist in the 2024 K&M Top Shop Awards.

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The single-location shop was founded in 1969 and currently performs a sales mix of 60% tires and 40% vehicle service.

Looking back

Interstate 75, which runs up through central Michigan, used to end at the Birch Run exit, at which point drivers would need to rely on smaller roads to travel farther north. It was at that spot where Totten’s Corners stood, offering travelers and locals a gas station, body shop, vehicle repair shop, a restaurant, and cabins for rent.

Owned by the Tottens, one building was converted into a tire center in the mid-1960s, though it had a much different history.

“Before it was a tire center, it was actually an illegal gambling casino during prohibition,” Garno said. “You could see where they had bars on the windows, and there’s still old, steel doors in one corner of the room. Years ago, there was an escape tunnel; older guys would come in and show us these spots and tell us how it used to be.”

As the business grew, the Tottens expanded the building in the 1970s. The large addition included three service bays, which meant the old portion of the building could be used for tire storage.

In 1981, Don and Joan Compton purchased the tire shop from the Tottens. The couple expanded the business in the early 1990s, adding an oil change facility onto one end of the building. After operating the oil change portion of the shop for a couple of years, the Comptons leased that end of the building to a separate company, forming a referral partnership that Totten Tire Center still honors today, since the shop does not perform oil changes.

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Totten Tire Center regularly donates to churches, benefits, fundraisers, schools and sports programs.

Shortly afterward, in 1994, Garno began working at the shop at the age of 15.

“My sister was helping out and doing paperwork at the shop,” Garno recalled. “The summer before I started high school, she would drive me up to work and I’d unload semi-trailers of tires, load up scrap tires, and clean the shop.”

Garno worked at Totten Tire Center for the next several years, after school and on weekends. After high school graduation, he headed to college and took a job for a different company, driving a tow truck and doing mechanical work.

“About a year-and-a-half into college, I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing and the opportunity came back here for me to start buying shares,” Garno said. “I had been friends with the owner and kept in touch. So, I came back to work around 2001, and in 2003 I started buying shares, purchasing so many a month.”

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Though it might seem repetitive to himself, Garno explains every service in detail to each customer.

While working at Totten Tire Center and buying shares, Garno started as a tire tech, then earned certifications and served as a mechanic before working the front counter — eventually learning everything about the business.

“I showed the right amount of initiative, took on what needed to be taken on, and handled it like it was my problem,” he said. “Compton saw that and he trusted me. He’s honestly like a second dad at this point. He put me in this position and told me, ‘This life will be exciting. You’ll meet tons of great people and it’ll be fulfilling. You won’t get rich, but you’ll have a good life,’ and that kind of stuck with me.

“He showed me how to listen, how to work hard, how to be patient, and how to be confident in what I was doing,” Garno continued. “He already had the customers’ trust and he showed me how to earn it for myself.”

In 2015, with plans well underway for Garno to take over the business, Compton agreed to build an addition on the front of the building, adding a new showroom and office while converting the former showroom into two additional bays.

“The day finally came in 2017 when I was ready to say, ‘Okay, I want to buy it all now,’” Garno said.

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Garno’s staff stays up to date with training opportunities from tire manufacturers and parts vendors, as well as programs at tire conferences.

Present day operations

Today, Totten Tire Center is a bustling, five-bay shop that employs a staff of nine full-time and five part-time workers. The shop regularly stocks Bridgestone, Firestone, Continental, General, Mastercraft and Carlisle tire brands.

Garno’s staff stays up to date with training opportunities from tire manufacturers and parts vendors, as well as programs at tire conferences. The shop participates in Bridgestone Driving Force and eCooper University, while also having the opportunity to attend drive-and-learn events with Bridgestone and Continental.

“Through the years, I have attended K&M tire conferences religiously, and at them, I talk with other shop owners about how we handle situations, compare values, and share ideas that have worked for our shops,” Garno said.

Joan Compton, the former co-owner, stayed with the company in a secretarial role after Garno took over, covering payroll and accounting. Manager Ryan Clark is second in command, handling any issues and overseeing everything when Garno isn’t at the shop, and employees Gavin Moored and Tammy Dorr are both trusted with the responsibility of being third in command as needed.

“I spend a lot of time floating around the shop,” Garno said. “When we’re busy, I’ll go out and keep morale up in the shop and I’ll be out changing tires with the guys. If a mechanic calls in sick, I’ll be a mechanic that day.”

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Totten Tire Center’s technicians are booked out at least a week on average, and tire changes — which are walk-in appointments — bring the shop steady business each day.

Fair pay and a positive work environment keep employees happy and loyal. Totten Tire Center has several employees who have been at the shop for more than five years; a technician and manager who have been at the company for 10 years; and a mechanic who recently retired after working there for 39 years.

“I think it’s probably just the mentality around here, that it’s a happy place,” Garno said. “There are no people holding grudges, there are no petty little problems; everybody works together. It’s not like how you hear about other people’s jobs, where they’re talking about their coworkers and how bad their day was. Here, everybody’s paid well and we’ve got a good work environment.”

Garno treats employees like family, hosting holiday parties and an event with camping and prizes in the summer.

“We just get together and enjoy each other’s company,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to send somebody a message, have a conversation on the phone with them, or go out and do something with them after work hours.”

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Garno treats employees like family, hosting holiday parties and an event with camping and prizes in the summer.

Caring for customers & community

For Garno, treating customers like family is also important. Totten Tire Center offers honest service at a fair price while providing customers with a comfortable waiting area and transportation as needed.

“I try to put myself in the customer’s shoes,” Garno said. “I always try to explain things, what we have to offer, and what we can help with in that situation. You have to make sure that person knows everything you’re doing and make sure they’re happy when you’re done.”

Though it might seem repetitive to himself, Garno explains every service in detail to each customer.

“Even if I’ve said it 20 times in a day, it’s the first time they’ve heard it,” he said. “They appreciate it, and that’s where we start building trust with them. It helps make that connection with them.”

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Fair pay and a positive work environment keep employees happy and loyal.

In rare instances of customer dissatisfaction, a sincere apology and taking action to fix the problem usually solves the issue, according to Garno.

“It isn’t an everyday occurrence, but when you have a problem, you take care of it,” he said. “If something happens that we caused, we’re ahead of it. We go out and talk to them about it. If something fails when they’re not here, we invite them back and take care of it.”

When it comes to supporting the community, Totten Tire Center regularly donates to churches, benefits, fundraisers, schools and sports programs.

“There aren’t a ton of small businesses that can do what we can do, and it is rewarding — and maybe that’s part of the reason why people are so loyal to us,” Garno said. “Whatever you donate comes back way more in the form of support than what you spend.”

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In rare instances of customer dissatisfaction, a sincere apology and taking action to fix the problem usually solves the issue.

Getting the word out

As part of its marketing and customer appreciation efforts, Totten Tire Center holds a free community event every other year, hosting the Bigfoot monster truck for a car crush show through the shop’s program with Bridgestone/Firestone. The always-popular event includes an on-site cookout and car crush in the dealership’s parking lot.

“Our customers come out and they love it; they’ll talk about it forever,” Garno said. “That event is by far the thing I’ve gotten the best feedback from. The cost is worth it for the results, and I recommend that to other tire dealers.”

Aside from the Bigfoot event, Totten Tire Center’s marketing is almost exclusively word-of-mouth. Though he knows social media marketing could bolster the shop’s image, Garno hasn’t taken that step yet.

“I have a dislike of Facebook on a personal basis,” he said. “If I’m not on Facebook personally, it doesn’t make sense for me to do it as a business, so I just steer away from it. We receive phone calls and emails from companies that want to handle social media for me, and so far I’ve been able to reject them all.”

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When it comes to his shop and his career, Garno hopes things will stay exactly as they are: working with good people, serving great customers, and doing something different every day.

Totten Tire Center’s website, tottentirecenter.com, does offer live pricing and accurate inventory connected to the shop’s POS system, which yields good results in the form of sales.

The dealership also places sale ads in the local newspaper, which Garno said effectively reaches a large number of customers, despite advice to the contrary.

“Everyone’s advice is to stop print ads,” he said. “Birch Run may be the anomaly, but print ads seem to work. If there are no sales to advertise for one month, then we place a nice note for customers in the ad. Customers notice and mention that. It’s a minimal investment into advertising that I keep doing — it may not be my best financial decision, but it’s not my worst.”

Another instance of being the exception to a rule is relying primarily on word-of-mouth advertising.

“Everybody knows that if you do somebody wrong, they’re going to tell 10 people what you did,” Garno said. “But I feel that if we catch problems before they start, the word of mouth stays positive. I’m fortunate that we have great customers — and maybe I can attribute that to the way we do things, or maybe it’s just luck.”

It’s likely more than luck, as Totten Tire Center’s technicians are booked out at least a week on average, and tire changes — which are walk-in appointments — bring the shop steady business each day.

“We’re busy every day and it just always seems to fall in line,” Garno says. “I think I’m really fortunate for that and I hope it always stays that way.”

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The dealership places sale ads in the local newspaper, which Garno said effectively reaches a large number of customers, despite advice to the contrary.

When it comes to his decades of experience working in the tire industry, Garno has weathered a few minor storms but admits he hasn’t felt the adversity of a major challenge.

“I keep saying to my customers and friends that life is good,” he said. “Sure, there have been some economic problems where the market’s gone up and down, and there have been tire shortages, but we haven’t had any major problems. We carried mid-price tires when things got tough and our community couldn’t afford premium tires.”

When it comes to his shop and his career, Garno hopes things will stay exactly as they are: working with good people, serving great customers, and doing something different every day.

“I’ve always been a people person,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s a good fit for me here; I’ve got a constant flow of great people I get to talk to. I don’t know what I could be doing that would be better than this.”

Editor’s Note: Every year, Tire Review partners with K&M Tire to conduct a version of our Top Shop program, strictly for K&M dealers. We would like to recognize at an industry level one of the finalists of this year’s K&M’s Mr. Tire/Big 3 Tire Top Shop Award.

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Totten Tire Center offers honest service at a fair price while providing customers with a comfortable waiting area and transportation as needed.

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