Most tire dealers believe you can't successfully operate an independent tire dealership without having extensive experience in the business. But Steve Sears and Bill Gustafson are proving that is a misconception.
The two former employees of Amax Inc.-once the third largest U.S. coal producer in the U.S.-opened their six-bay Big O Tire outlet in Gillette, Wyo., in December and are doing very well, thank you.
``Neither of us had any actual tire experience, but we both had business backgrounds and we both wanted to get into business for ourselves,'' Mr. Sears explained.
Mr. Sears was a coal sales manager and Mr. Gustafson, a mine manager for Amax.
``When Amax merged with Cypress Minerals Co. in 1994, Bill and I took a buy-out and decided to get into the tire business,'' Mr. Sears said.
``Why the tire business? Well, for myself, I got interested as a satisfied customer (of a Big O franchised dealer). I liked the way Big O did business.
``I think the thing that impressed us most was their business philosophy. It mirrored our philosophy. We are both customer-oriented and that meshes with the Big O philosophy. From there we just had to learn about tires.''
The partners pooled their savings to buy the land and construct a 5,000-sq.-ft. building. ``It took a year to get the building built and financing put into place. Our severance was part of our capital.''
Mr. Sears said the business has done very well from the start, even though the opening was ill-timed and plagued by bureaucratic delays.
``If we had planned it, we couldn't have opened at a worse time-two weeks before Christmas,'' he said. ``Our first ad in the newspaper just said `opening soon' because we weren't sure when we were going to get our certificate of occupancy.
``Well, the first day we opened at one o'clock and by the end of the day we had done $2,000 worth of business. So it wasn't so bad after all,'' he recounted.
Mr. Sears said he believed much of the dealership's success was due to their efforts to promote the business long before the opening, while the building was under construction.
Gillette, a town of 17,000 with oil and coal for its economic base, has a facility in which various businesses are invited to exhibit their wares. ``Bill and I bought some display and exhibit material from Big O and did this,'' Mr. Sears said..
``Then a local hotel was sponsoring a `Big Buck' contest for hunters-this is big hunting country-and Bill and I set up a display for opening night. We got a chance to talk to hunters about light truck tires and announce that we'd be opening soon.''
Asked if they had not been hesitant to make such a large investment in a business they were not entirely familiar with, Mr. Sears said: ``We are not afraid of the investment or the debt. We both have a good strong business background and we have done a lot of research as far as the demographics of the territory are concerned.''
For their tire training, the partners relied entirely on Big O, North America's largest franchiser of retail tire outlets.
Mr. Sears said he spent five weeks at Big O's training center in Mesa, Ariz. ``It gives you a real good exposure-first of all to the retail world,'' he said. ``They start you out on promotion, advertising, how to talk to customers. Then how that applies to the tire business. Then you get into some of the more technical aspects of the tire business, fitment, that type of thing.''
All of the store's equipment was purchased from Big O.
``Bill and I did visit 12 or 15 stores, talked to other owners about what they liked or disliked,'' he continued. ``Then we went to Big O and said this is what we want. They provided pricing. We did some of our own pricing and we just couldn't beat the prices that Big O quoted.''
Mr. Sears acknowledged that owning a business requires greater concentration, harder work and longer hours than working as an employee. ``But I love being in business for myself,'' he said. ``You work harder for yourself and you do a lot of varied things. We've put a lot of money into it. So we get here early. Bill and I are the ones to mop the floor. We have a lot of pride in our facility.''
The firm is organized as a corporation with Mr. Sears as president and Mr. Gustafson executive vice president. Their wives are vice presidents.