Family run firm built itself on old-time values
But today Town Tire Auto Service Centers, run by Turbyfill’s son, Ernie Jr., is far different than it was then. No longer does Town Tire handle washing machines, refrigerators, lawn mowers and bicycles—items that tire stores typically carried half a century ago.
Another change is that automotive service has become a greater part of the business mix, says Ernie Jr., who took over leadership of the company in 1997, when his father retired at the age 70.
In addition, the company has grown to four locations. Besides the original location at 605 NW Eighth Ave., Town Tire operates a store in Ocala and one near the intersection of Archer Road and Tower Road. And Turbyfill is a partner with Jules Gerding in Town Tire Commercial Service Centers, with a site located at 5105 SW 41st Blvd.
Turbyfill says he’s proud of the businesses and how they are competing against national tire chains that have a strong presence locally, but he’s quick to spread the credit around.
“All our managers have been with us a long time, and the customers see the same face every time they come back,” he says. “Our people are what makes us stand out.”
How did you become involved in the business?
I worked in the business a little going through high school—changing tires and working in the warehouse. I went to Santa Fe College for two years, studying accounting. School wasn’t for me, and I decided I wanted to come work here fulltime.
I talked to my dad about coming into the business. I started working in our one location and worked along with my dad for 18 years.
How did you transition from your dad’s management to you taking over?
As time went on, he started relinquishing more of the duties to me. Even after he retired, up to close to when he died in 2010, he came in every day. He loved to greet the customers.
My first goal was to generate more automotive service. As we expanded to other locations, it became much more apparent that we needed to move in that direction.
In our early days, probably 80 percent of our revenue came from tires. Now we’re 70 percent service.
What was it like opening your Ocala location 12 years ago?
Ocala was a challenge because nobody knew who Town Tire was. Also, Ocala is a completely different market.
It was challenging in every way, from marketing to making sure you had the right people to deal with personalities of a different community. In the last two to three years, we’ve had the right person there, and it seems to be going in the right direction.
In Gainesville, we’ve had a good name in the community since 1959. I’m not as confident that our names makes as much of a difference in Ocala.
Is it hard to compete with the national chains in your business?
Many independents are either going out of business or being taken over by chains. However, our industry trade journals say that the lifeblood of the tire industry is the independent dealer network. There are a lot more of us than there are of those guys.
In Gainesville, the chains are growing, but I don’t feel threatened by them.
Our major goal is to build relationships with customers. You can’t do that by changing the people running your locations. You’ve got to have somebody who’s been with the company a long time. That way customers can see the same face when they come back in.
Is that as important as it was 10 years ago? I don’t know. There’s a large segment of the population for whom it’s important, there’s a certain segment for whom it’s not.
Our managers are a key part of that. My dad always taught me that if you take care of the customers, the customers will take care of you. Treat them how you would want to be treated.
How do you market the business?
Right now we’re featuring customer testimonials on TV: Why they do business with Town Tire, what makes us different and what makes them comfortable with us. Hopefully people can relate to that.
We also support several groups, including the Boys Club, the United Way and the Council for Economic Outreach.
Do you emphasize price in your advertising?
We emphasize treating customers fairly and honestly more than competing on price. We feel like we’re competitive, but we don’t want to be known as a low-price location.
Price is just one part of the picture. We have certain offers like price match-guarantee on tires. We don’t use coupons anymore because we saw they weren’t working. We have specials on our website. All of our advertising directs people to our website.
One form of advertising that’s been most successful for us is reaching out to our existing customer base. Our software uploads all of our invoices every night, and it sends out reminders to customers and tells them about specials.
To what extent do you use electronic communication?
About a third is through e-mail, and the rest is through the mail. More and more of our dollars are going to be spent electronically, whether it’s e-mail marketing or texting, our website or Google AdWords.
We just backed way down in the Yellow Pages, which was a tough decision. Our advertising agency and I felt that fewer and fewer people are using those books.
How difficult is it to find employees today?
This is a hands-on industry. You get dirty hands. There are fewer and fewer people who want to do that type of work. For the most part, we train our own employees. It’s always nice to find someone who’s had experience, but a lot of times, if they’re in the job market, they come with some baggage.
Most of the people in key positions in our organization, including our managers and service managers, have been with us a long time. While that sets us apart from other companies, people in our entry level positions come and go.
You have a fairly small office. Do you rely heavily on computers to keep things running smoothly?
Mark Walters, our business manager, does a great job with our computers. He’s definitely a key employee. He’s responsible for our IT operation, including updating our computers, our accounts receivable, and inventory flow.
With the slow economy, are people keeping their cars longer and coming to you for more work?
Definitely. People used to keep their cars an average of eight years, but they’re keeping them 10 or 11 years now. Cars need maintenance, and cars need repairs. Our service business has picked up. Our tire sales are down. If I were only selling tires, I’d be very concerned about the livelihood of my business. The service end of the business is truly where it’s at.
We’re facing greater competition, with everyone wanting a piece of the pie. Car dealerships used to focus on warranty work, but now they want not only your service business, but also they want to sell you tires.
You’ll go down the street, and on every corner you’ll see a repair facility that also sells tires. The dealerships sell tires now. They’re going after that business because the car business isn’t what it used to be.
The tough economy has forced us to tighten up our operations. We’ve put into practice ideas that we probably should have done earlier.
What’s your essential philosophy?
We try to go the extra mile and to make people feel that when they walk in our door, they can trust us. Our slogan is: “Hometown service you can trust.”