NASHVILLE, Tenn.-After 50 years in the cyclical tire business, Universal Tire doesn't wait around for favorable conditions when opportunity knocks. ``We're opportunists,'' Universal Tire President Jimmy Pickel said. ``If we see an opportunity, we go after that-even when the economy is down.''
That attribute has fostered the growth of the Nashville-based commercial/retail/wholesale tire dealership-the 13th largest commercial sales operation in North America last year, according to a TIRE BUSINESS ranking.
Since its beginnings in late 1944 as a small Shell service station and tire shop founded by Mr. Pickel's father, J.R. Pickel Sr., Eldridge Doubleday and R.M. Crichton, the company has grown to include nine retail stores, four commercial/retail locations, six commercial-only locations and five retread plants.
The dealership reported $55 million in sales in 1993 and anticipated revenues of $58 million to $60 million in 1994.
1994 was especially exciting for the company, according to Mr. Pickel. In addition to a year-long internal and public promotion of its 50th anniversary, the company had a strong sales year. The economy was upbeat in all its market areas and Universal Tire moved into the Birmingham, Ala., market with the October purchase of a Bandag-franchised retread plant and commercial tire operation.
But it takes more than just grabbing opportunities to survive in this business.
Mr. Pickel said he believes the company's two-point strategy has helped it flourish and will continue to direct future growth. This strategy involves attracting and retaining talented employees and creating a solid plan that includes filling a market niche and operating better than the competition.
Since becoming president of the company in 1971, Mr. Pickel said he has focused on providing employees with a competitive benefits package and positive working conditions and satisfying the customer with an emphasis on continued service after the sale.
``If you can attract and keep good employees, then they can be trained to satisfy customers. The bulk of our business comes from referrals,'' Mr. Pickel said.
Mr. Pickel said he empowers his people to do whatever is necessary to satisfy customers and authorizes them to handle customers' complaints on the spot.
``Tires may give up to 60,000 miles of service before they need to be replaced. Therefore, it is often a long time between purchases,'' he said. ``Our goal is to develop a relationship with each customer through `service after the sale.' And surveys indicate our efforts are paying off, with more than 90 percent of our customers returning to Universal Tire for tire maintenance and service and for future tire purchases.''
The dealership is a distributor member of American Car Care Centers and sells Michelin, Bridgestone, Firestone, Kelly-Springfield, Toyo, American and Delta brand tires.
Mr. Pickel said the company competes on price as well. ``We feel with the quality products and the service we offer, we hopefully will get our share of the business.''
About 70 percent of sales comes from the commercial business, 15 percent from retail and 15 percent from wholesale.
While it has broadened its wholesale and commercial markets into neighboring states, Universal has concentrated its retail store growth in Tennessee, with plans to expand into two new markets within the state this year. The company's goal is to be accessible to its customers by locating stores within average traveling distances across the state.