(Editor's Note: This story is part of our #TireBiz30 in which we feature one archived story every day of September to celebrate Tire Business' 30th anniversary. Each story represents one of the most relevant news story published in our pages for that year.)
It's a long way from selling tires to the halls of Congress, but the trip may not be as strange as it seems.
At 26, Gabrielle Giffords was president of her family's business, Tuscon, Ariz.-based El Campo Tire & Service Centers Inc., an 11-store chain with 100 employees and annual revenues of $10 million.
Last November, at 36, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Tucson and the surrounding 9,000-square-mile 8th Congressional District.
Rep. Giffords, a Democrat, is only the third woman in Arizona history to be elected to the House, and certainly one of very few Arizona women to head a chain of tire stores. The way she sees it, having a successful political career isn't all that much different from running a successful business.
"I have a $1.3 million budget, 20 employees and three locations, though obviously we're not selling tires here, but crafting legislation," she told Tire Business recently.
To Rep. Giffords, business and politics require many of the same skills, not least an ability to hire the best people one can find-especially people who aren't afraid to contradict you now and then.
"If you hire people who think and do things the way you think and do them, you aren't going to get very far," she said. "I hire people who will work hard for the goals laid forth and realize they're on a team."
Rep. Giffords grew up working summers in the business founded by her grandfather in 1949. She never anticipated working fulltime in it, much less running it, either while obtaining her master's degree in regional planning at Cornell University or later working in capital management at the then-Price Waterhouse firm in New York. Then she got word that her father was ill, and she was needed at home.
"I packed up my F-150, put on my hat, and drove cross-country back to Arizona," she said.
Running the family business was a terrific opportunity, according to Rep. Giffords. "Family businesses are different from the rest of the business world. You pitch in and change a tire when you have to, and you get to know your employees a lot better than in a corporation."
With summer temperatures sometimes reaching 120 F, Arizona is a tough place on tires, she said. "Our business always spiked the first day it hit 100." In 2000, she noted, Arizona was the first place where widespread failures of Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires on Ford Explorers were reported, prior to the tires' recall.
El Campo Tire was in its growth mode in the late 1990s, and the industry had changed enormously from Rep. Giffords' girlhood, she remembered. "I learned what it was like to compete with the big chains like Discount Tire (Co. Inc.), and with the mass merchandisers such as Sears and Sam's Club," she said. "There was so much consolidation among the tire manufacturers that there was much less choice in product for dealers."
The thing that struck her most about tire retailing, and still strikes her, is the affinity tire dealers have for each other. "It's a salt-of-the-earth industry," she said. "The people are genuine, hardworking and down-to-earth."
She called Chris Publow, general manager of Ted Wiens Tire & Auto Centers in Las Vegas, one of her mentors. "He and others really took me under their wings."
Though most of her time is spent on issues of import to the nation, Rep. Giffords maintains friendly contacts with the tire industry, having recently attended meetings of both the Rubber Manufacturers Association and Bridgestone/Firestone. She also met recently with automotive aftermarket representatives to discuss corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) issues.
Rep. Giffords could have stayed contentedly as a tire dealer, she said, if it weren't for a life-changing, bolt-of-lightning experience she had at the end of the 1990s.
"I opened a newspaper and saw that Arizona was ranked at the bottom of the 50 states in both education and mental health care," she said. "I thought my home state deserved better."
Not having a background in politics, she set about learning as much about the Arizona legislature as she could. In 2000, she sold El Campo Tire to Goodyear and ran as a Democrat for the Arizona House of Representatives. She won that election and two subsequent elections to the Arizona Senate.
In 2006, with the retirement of longtime moderate Republican Jim Kolbe, Rep. Giffords decided to run for the U.S. House. She ended up defeating the conservative Republican candidate, Randy Graf, by 54 to 42 percent of the vote.
In the House, Rep. Giffords has been assigned to the Air and Land Forces Readiness Subcommittee within the Armed Services Committee; the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee within the Foreign Affairs Committee; and the Energy and Environment Subcommittee within the Science and Technology Committee.
During her years in politics, Rep. Giffords has won many awards for excellence in government service. These include Legislator of the Year from both the Arizona Planning Association and the Mental Health Association of Arizona, and "Most Valuable Player" by the Sierra Club. Gannett News Service also named her one of "America's Eight Young Leaders Worth Watching."
Rep. Giffords also recently joined the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives devoted to fiscal responsibility and to building consensus between ideological extremes on key issues.
For Rep. Giffords, who remembers the annual double-digit increases in health insurance premiums when she ran El Campo Tire, health care reform is a key issue. She is a staunch supporter of Association Health Plans, (AHPs), under which small business associations could negotiate across state lines for low-cost health care insurance for their members. The issue is supported by the Tire Industry Association (TIA).
"If a group of tire dealers could pool their insurance costs, that would be very helpful," she said, noting that 20 percent of children in Arizona alone have no health insurance.
Rep. Giffords also places energy conservation high on her priorities list. "It makes sense for us as a nation to lead in the creation of new, energy-efficient designs and technologies," she said. "It's not just a matter of what's happening environmentally, but a national security issue as well. We depend too much on oil from unstable and despotic regimes.''