CINCINNATI-Envision a juggler keeping several balls aloft. Now picture Nanette Walker-keeping a single-outlet tire dealership afloat among big city retailers, overseeing trackside services at regional car races, producing her own radio commercials, raising two young boys as a single mother-oh, and racing an Alfa Romeo.
``My life is nuts,'' the Liberty Tire Co. owner concedes.
Ironically, Ms. Walker never intended to work in the tire business, even though her father operated Liberty Tire, which he co-founded in 1946 in Cincinnati. Instead, Ms. Walker pursued a degree in teaching.
It was while working on a master's degree in special education that she accepted her father's offer of a part-time job at the dealership. After a successful sale in April 1976, Ms. Walker was hooked. She went on to earn her master's degree, but she never went back to teaching.
In 1992, Ms. Walker became the sole owner of the dealership, a wholesale/retail operation that garners 70 percent of its retail sales from tires.
Her typical day now involves going to the store at 7:30 a.m. while her two boys, age 7 and 10, take a bus to school. She gets home at 6 p.m. to relieve the after-school sitter and then takes the boys to their ballgames or other extracurricular activities.
In between, she faces the daily challenges of many owners of small tire dealerships-``trying to keep our head above water and turn a profit,'' in her words.
How does she do it? ``I'm very independent and headstrong,'' she explained.
But she knows her limits. She has no aspirations to expand her company to, say, five locations: ``I don't want someone calling me in the middle of the night saying they can't open the store,'' she said.
After a decade of struggling with declining and stagnated sales, the dealership has seen an upturn during the last two years. ``Our greatest goal is to continue increasing sales,'' Ms. Walker said.
To meet that goal, Liberty Tire has been changing its marketing approach-in 1993 the dealership got involved in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) regional racing events and two years ago it dropped newspaper advertising to focus on radio commercials.
The dealership's commercials jump around the dial because ``we're not big enough to take on major stations for a year,'' she said. The commercials will leave one station for a period and then return again, usually with listeners not noticing the absence, she said.
Liberty Tire publicizes its name with sponsorships of drive-time traffic and weather reports that include 10-second spots by Ms. Walker touting the dealership as ``the original tire discount center'' or ``the high performance specialist'' or ``a great American tradition for 51 years.''
``We constantly change our ad program and try new and different things,'' she said. ``The money we have to spend doesn't change, but the ways we spend it do. We keep tabs on payroll expense and then the cost of inventory.''
As a small tire dealership ``it is very difficult to stay in business. The key for us is to keep our expenses under control. And keep the payroll down,'' she added.
``We have a lot of return customers. We're well respected in town for the service we give customers.''
During the past few years, that service has extended to regional race tracks where, as a Toyo Motorsports dealer, Liberty Tire provides trackside tire temperature checks, mounting and balancing for the drivers.
Liberty Tire got involved in selling racing tires after a customer came in looking for Toyo racing tires. The store ordered the tires and after talking with the customer-who later came to work for the dealership-Ms. Walker's interest was piqued.
Her dealership also became an in-house BFGood-rich Team T/A dealer.
At least two employees spend their weekends driving the Liberty Tire truck filled with equipment to SCCA races in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. This year, Liberty Tire will make its presence known at 13 weekend races.
Participating in racing events can be expensive-especially when two employees are taken away from the store. So the dealership depends on reimbursements under Toyo's Motorsports program.
The racing bug bit Ms. Walker herself last year and she began racing an Alfa Romeo, earning her novice permit and attending three driving schools.
Her racing record? ``I should paint the car pink and write on the back `Pokey Little Puppy'!'' she joked.
What is currently emblazoned on her race car, and ``hundreds'' of customers' race cars is the Liberty Tire decal.
Flaunting the dealership's name at the race tracks and providing trackside services has helped build residual sales, according to Ms. Walker.
``This group of people is loyal to those who support their hobby,'' she explained.
The dealership shows up at the track and gives support, but sells very little at the site.
``The money is made before we get there,'' she noted. By building brand-and dealer-recognition, Liberty Tire has developed a customer base of out-of-town and local drivers who buy racing and street tires.
A loyal customer base helps when you're a smallstore in a city of large retail chains. But so does belonging to a national buying group, Ms. Walker said.
To offset price competition from the likes of Michel Tire, Sam's Club and Wal-Mart Stores, Liberty Tire has been a longtime member of the Del-Nat Tire Corp. buying group.
While some buying group members pick and choose a few lines of Del-Nat tires, ``we carry all the lines,'' she said.
``Being small, we depend on what (Del-Nat) has to offer us. It's one-stop shopping. We're not big enough to have two suppliers.''
Her future plans for the dealership?
``To make it at least another 50 years-I got two kids to send to college!'' she said.