CHINLE, Ariz.-As a child, Deborah Martinez worked summers in her parents' Navajo grocery store, where customers often traded bracelets for bags of flour, sugar or coffee. It was an experience that formed her passion for retail business. It was also an experience that gave her the determination and knowledge to become the first Big O Tires Inc. franchisee on an American Indian reservation-an area where a depressed economy and the complexity of tribal government presents unique business challenges.
Two years ago, Ms. Martinez fixed her mind on opening a tire store in Chinle, believing there was a strong need for service in an area nearly devoid of tire outlets.
``I wanted to go with Big O for the protection, exclusive label and support,'' said Ms. Martinez, who attended ``Big O University'' in Mesa, Ariz., for five weeks in 1993 before opening her franchise.
Initia;ly, things didn't go as planned.
Ms. Martinez found herself in a two-year legal battle over the developed land near her parents' Impala Mart grocery store, where she had intended to locate her new store. Rather than wait for the dispute to be resolved, she transformed her uncle's gas station, which adjoins the Impala Mart, into a five-bay Big O outlet.
The store, located about 20 miles west of the New Mexico border, officially opened Jan. 5. It has already attracted so many customers through word-of-mouth advertising that its nine employees, all Navajos, sometimes work on cars outside the bays using jacks, she said.
It's no wonder the retail outlet is busy. It's the only tire store within an 80-mile radius of undeveloped roads that support not only the resident Navajos, but also thousands of tourists visiting the nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
Six months after opening the store, Ms. Martinez joked about her Big O-dubbed nickname, ``The Tire Princess on the Reservation,'' while discussing her frustrating attempts to acquire land for a larger outlet.
A nearby undeveloped area she is attempting to purchase is again being held up by litigation, she said.
Despite the amount of traffic at the store-which also attracts consumers from outside the reservation who want to avoid Arizona's 6-percent sales tax-there are problems that make running her Big O store difficult, Ms. Martinez admitted.
Navajo law requires her to pay cash on delivery for parts shipped onto the reservation from surrounding areas. And, because many of her customers receive some type of government financial assistance, her business activity cycles around government pay periods, leaving little business during other parts of the month.
Those two facts require her to pay particular attention to cash flow, she said.
Because of the harsh, dry reservation terrain, most of her business comes from light truck tire sales, wheels, undercar service and ``a lot of flat repairs.''
The store's best-selling brand, by far, is the Big O private label, made by Kelly-Springfield Tire Co.
It also stocks Michelin, Uniroyal, Endurance, Arapaho and Comanche brand tires, she said, joking that ``if someone comes out with a Navajo (tire brand) it will sell really well.''
Despite all the problems, Ms. Martinez said she is confident her outlet will grow.
``I don't have children; this is my baby. I have more baby photos than you'd believe'' she joked, adding that she videotaped her store conversion for posterity.