SMITHTOWN, N.Y.-When the car Richard Reim was working on 15 years ago fell off its jacks and broke his hand, he decided he'd had enough. He quit his job as a mechanic and began managing a deli in a supermarket. Now, more than five years into owning his own single-outlet tire dealership, he's found the stick-to-itiveness that may have been lacking in the late 1970s and early '80s, when he held a variety of jobs.
The tire business, after all, is more difficult than he thought it would be when he purchased an existing outlet in 1989 with his father-in-law, Saul Siegal.
A trickling New York economy, thriving competition from independents, warehouse clubs and mass merchandisers and the lack of prior business experience has made owning American Tire Works Corp. ``a struggle everyday,'' he said.
But, although the ``School of Hard Knocks'' has taught Mr. Reim plenty, he said he couldn't imagine putting 50 or 60 hours a week into a job he didn't enjoy.
``I figure I'm here for the long run,'' he said. ``I've got far too many hours in this to turn back.''
So he said he intends to stay in the business despite the fact he has not found the riches he believed would be his once he owned his own dealership.
``I always used to treat things as my own,'' Mr. Reim said of his previous jobs as an auto mechanic, deli manager and, later, a carpenter. ``I was one of those guys who always wanted my own place.''
His ``own place'' is a 5,000-sq.-ft. former Sears, Roebuck and Co. appliance repair outlet in Smithtown. Mr. Reim, who is president of the company, added five service bays to the building where his four employees perform minor mechanical repairs, oil changes, shock, strut, brake and exhaust work and full tire service.
Sitting among 15 automobile dealerships, American Tire generates about 60 percent of its revenues through wholesale tire sales and service to these businesses, Mr. Reim said. That number, however, has dropped from 70 percent since the outlet moved about 1/2 mile to its present location on Jericho Turnpike in February.
``I used to hear three or four times a week that people couldn't find us,'' he said of his original location, which was off the turnpike and tucked directly behind an automobile dealership in nearby St. James.
Ironically, however, Mr. Reim said he believes the poor location was a blessing in disguise. ``If (the outlet) had been on the road, it probably would have been too expensive for me to buy it.''
Boosting his retail sales, which have higher profit margins, has been a long-standing, although not easily attainable, goal for Mr. Reim. He has found it difficult to compete in the price-oriented tire business, using sales philosophies that stress quality products and ``loyal customer service.''
American Tire primarily sells BFGoodrich and Dunlop brand tires and Del-Nat Tire Corp.'s Delta private brand because he believes in their quality. ``I can't sell a product I don't believe in,'' he said. ``If I believe in a product, I can get that over to you. If not, I just start mumbling.''
He has found it better to avoid newspaper ads because his ``all-inclusive'' price is higher than other local dealerships that advertise tires without add-on costs like mounting and valve stems. Instead, he relies on his salesmen's abilities to convince people who stop in the outlet or call after seeing his Yellow Pages ad.
But low prices and larger selections at two nearby independents, a Price Club and a Pep Boys outlet have steered some of his business away, Mr. Reim admitted. Still he continues to work hard at building loyalty ``by bending over backwards'' for customers. If he can't get a tire right away, American Tire puts a used tire on the car until the new tire arrives. And he does ``little things'' like fixing flats for free for regular customers.
``It's an attitude you have to have,'' he said. ``If you want loyal customers, you have to give loyal service.''
As if finding and keeping customers isn't challenging enough, Mr. Reim believes he remains a victim of poor cash flow, primarily because he ``came into this without enough money.'' American Tire's profits are below what they could be, he said, because he leased equipment and maxed out his credit limit at the start.
His latest attempts to boost his bottom line come from taking advantage of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association's Bank One Express Line credit program and Money Express credit card service.
The credit program has helped, he said, especially in renovating his new location. The Money Express credit card program, however, has yet to begin. Mr. Reim said he hopes the card's 90-day, same-as-cash benefit will help him compete with other outlets.
Since opening, American Tire has doubled its sales volume, although that number ``remains well below $1 million,'' he said. Despite the growth, profits are not what he expected.
``I struggle just as hard (today) as I used to,'' he said with a chuckle. ``On paper it (the increased sales) looks good. But that's not always how it feels.''
Still Mr. Reim won't let the disappointments push him out.
``I really enjoy the (tire) business,'' Mr. Reim said. Then he paused briefly and continued, ``Actually, I ran delis for supermarkets and I enjoyed that; I was a mechanic and I enjoyed that; I was a carpenter, I enjoyed that...I guess I realize I don't mind working, and nobody promised me a free ride.''