Warren Tire & Auto Center has been a trusted family business in the heart of Tuscaloosa, Ala., for more than 50 years. When Jimmy Warren started the business on University Blvd. in 1961, he never could have imagined how much his small southern town would grow over the years, thanks to a large degree to the University of Alabama.
“It was a Texaco gas station with a little two-bay garage,” Warren Tire general manager Brad Johnson says of the dealership’s humble start.
As college enrollment grew, Warren decided to expand to an eight-bay shop and full service gas station about a quarter mile down the road from his first location.
“He bought that in 1976, and we’ve been at this location ever since,” Johnson says. “We’re literally right on campus.”
In the nearly 40 years since, the college grew and grew around his business. Today, Bama boasts a student enrollment of more than 35,000, more than 60% attending from out of state. Thousands of faculty and staff have come from all over the world to work in some of Alabama’s renowned academic programs.
While Jimmy Warren retired in 2006, the dealership has remained in good hands. His son, David Warren, grew up in the business and purchased the shop from his father in 2008.
“He began working here when he was literally 10 years old,” Johnson says. “He went on service calls and changed tires, and he’s been here ever since.”
Johnson joined the business in 2005 after graduating from Alabama, while David’s two sons, Russ and Parker, have also recently joined in the family business.
Johnson says there was only one big change David made when he took over. “Jimmy Warren said as long as he was down here he was going have gasoline, and the day he retired, we cut the gas off,” Johnson says.
He explains that the full service gasoline side of the business was too hard to turn a profit on, so they decided to focus on the more profitable vehicle service and tire sales.
Today, Johnson says business is split about 60% service and 40% tires. They keep about 1,700 tires in their inventory, so they can get customers on the road as quick as possible.
They have a staff of 20 at the University Blvd. location and another five employees that work at a nearby overflow repair shop.
“It’s a four-bay garage, and it helps us do extra repair work that we can’t get to here,” Johnson says.
He says several employees have dedicated their careers to the dealership. “Three technicians here have got 20-plus years, and two technicians have been here over 25 years,” he says.
As the university has grown so has the town itself, and Johnson says there’s competition on every corner. “We have a Sears, Firestone, Pep Boys, Express Oil Change, another local independent store with a few locations, and all your major car dealerships,” Johnson says.
Whether you’re a student in town for a few years, or if your family has been in the area for generations, the staff at Warren Tire treats every customer with the hospitality for which the South is known.
“When people come in here to get their car worked on, they’re not happy to be here,” he says. “So we try to create the best customer experience when they’re here. Our goal is to make sure they feel warm and welcomed and that they get quality service.”
He says personal relationships with customers make all the difference. “You really have to sell service,” he says. “We care more about you and your kids, than your car. We want you to be comfortable and safe, and if you have a problem, we’re here to help you and try to make the frustration of car repair easier.”
Warren Tire & Auto Service is part of the Tire Pros dealer marketing group family, giving customers a nationwide warranty on all the work that comes out of the shop. Johnson says its warranty has been a selling point to the parents of out-of-state students attending Alabama.
“We’ll talk to their mom and dad and tell them, ‘If they have any problem on their way home from school, it’s going to be taken care of,’ and that gives them peace of mind,” he says.
Johnson says the marketing and business advice offered though Tire Pros has also been useful. “They really are a well-oiled machine, and they know exactly what it takes to be successful in the tire industry,” he says. “There’s not another program out there that offers the training and expertise and knowledge that Tire Pros has.”
When it comes to advertising, Johnson says it’s always important to keep your name out there, even if you have a 50-plus year reputation. “We still buy ads in the football programs, and I buy billboards on the baseball fields,” he says. Again, the affiliate with the ‘Bama sports community pays dividends.
The Warren family is also well known in the community.
Since retiring, 82-year-old Jimmy Warren spends most of his free time as a volunteer at DCH Regional Medical Center where he greets patients and families at the front entrance. He also volunteers for Meals on Wheels and is an active member of his church.
“He checks in with us at least once a week, and sometimes he’ll drive the shuttle for us as long as it’s not on one of the days he volunteers,” Johnson adds.
The shop operates a full shuttle service, which goes around town and throughout campus. “We have a few retired guys that take turns driving for us,” Johnson says.
They also have a small waiting area decorated with Crimson Tide memorabilia. “We’re all huge Alabama fans,” he says. “Every coach’s photo is on the wall. We have a coaching wall of fame.”
They also have various posters and game calendars on display. “A lot of the athletes will come in and they’ll show us who they are on the poster,” he adds.
Johnson credits the Warren’s success to Jimmy’s two longtime business philosophies: “The customer is always right” and “Never sell someone something they don’t need.”
“These folks are honest, they care about doing business the right way,” Johnson says. “They give people the benefit of the doubt, no matter what.
“Our kids go to school with their kids. It’s more than working on a car. We see them at PTA meetings and football games. We would much rather that be a pleasant experience when we see them outside of the store.”