HOMESTEAD, Fla.-Question: What do the Florida Independent Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association (FITDRA) and the characters in the hit movie Interview With a Vampire have in common? Answer: Both are trying to draw some ``new blood'' into their ranks.
There, fortunately, the comparison ends.
Two years ago the FITDRA established a scholarship program for employees, and children of employees or owners of the association's member dealers, to try to bolster their thinning regiment of automotive service technicians.
While the effort hasn't been a runaway success yet, Jeff Crozier, ardent supporter of the program and the association's scholarship chairman last year, said the FITDRA's board has decided to broaden its scope in an attempt to entice more people into the industry.
That has also created what he called a ``moral dilemma'' among some members who felt the association would end up paying for the education of a tech who might work a couple months in a tire dealership, then leave seeking the greener pastures-and higher pay-of new-car dealerships.
That notwithstanding, the program has begun to catch on, with FITDRA members ``excited about it, once we take the time to explain it to them,'' said Mr. Crozier, currently an FITDRA regional director.
At the beginning of each year, the FITDRA board determines how many scholarships of $750 each it will provide to students, who must attend a school with an accredited vocational education program. The last two years it set aside money to give at least four annually, and expects to increase that number this year, though Mr. Crozier admitted, ``when we rolled out the program, we had no applicants. This year we finally had enough to give four scholarships.
``We did a real bad job letting people know about it. But since then, we've been publicizing it in our monthly Tire Talk newsletter, and word of mouth is starting to get around.''
He won't call the program a success ``until we're overwhelmed with applications.''
The FITDRA also offers scholarships of either $750 or $1,500 for non-vocational subjects at two- or four-year colleges. In the past year, including the technician program, it provided a total of $21,000 in endowments.
Like so many tire dealerships around the country, those in the Sunshine State have experienced a dearth of qualified auto service technicians. The FITDRA's program is an attempt to relieve that problem.
Mr. Crozier, president of Homestead Tire & Automotive Service Inc., an independent Goodyear dealership in Homestead, Fla., said dealers have found that ``our main source of technicians was rehiring people who, for some reason, we had let go in the past. We needed to draw some new blood into the industry.''
After 26 years in the business, he said he's recognized a pattern within the industry: ``A guy you let go a couple years ago is available when you need a technician, so you minimize the reasons why you originally let him go and you recycle him. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.''
It's also tough finding children of owners who are interested in following in their dealer-parents' footsteps. In reality, tire dealerships are not perceived as ``glamorous'' businesses by kids who prefer to go to college in preparation for white-, not blue-collar professions, he said.
And that, Mr. Crozier believes, is creating a fast-approaching ``generation gap'' in tire dealership ownership.
``We went through one about 15 or 20 years ago, and it appears we're heading into another one, where there's a 20-year age gap in people owning and operating dealerships.''
``Let's face it,'' he said. ``The general public's perception of an auto repair facility or tire dealership is just slightly higher than a used car lot,'' although ``those of us on the inside know otherwise.''
Television investigative programs have contributed to that perception. ``All the exposes haven't helped,'' he said. ``They've found two or three guys in the country who are clipping their (auto service) customers, and all of a sudden there's 20,000 of us in the same boat.''
That boat includes Homestead Tire, which has two outlets in the town that was clobbered by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, and is still slowly rebuilding.
The dealership pulls in an average of $150,000 monthly in auto service sales, which comprise 35-40 percent of its total annual sales. Mr. Crozier said it's always tough finding good technicians. Each of his stores has four techs. Of those, half have been with the company since prior to the hurricane; the remaining four positions have been caught in a ``revolving door.''
The pool of available talent has been limited, Mr. Crozier said, because of county and state laws requiring Florida mechanics to be certified, eliminating persons ``who don't have the desire to educate themselves.''
Ironically, while the town of Homestead is amidst what he said is ``a long, arduous recovery'' from Andrew's devastation, Homestead Tire's business is booming-its year-to-date fiscals are up 21 percent, with an accompanying increase in gross profits that downright ``flabbergasted'' him. Predominantly a retail dealership until a year ago, the company got into the commercial and wholesale business last fall and has been doing ``very well'' with both.
After the hurricane, the firm experienced a ``blast of storm-related business'' which eventually softened, he said, but has now settled into a growth cycle.
Even the firm's tire sales have been ``excellent,'' he said, ``. . . because we've aggressively gone out and stirred up the market. But the business we're getting is coming out of somebody else's business-it's not new business.''
Meanwhile, the town-and Homestead Tire-are banking their continued recovery on projects such as new shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, and a $52 million motorsport complex due to open in November.