LAS VEGAS-Picture this little guy, about 8 or 9, teetering on an old Coca-Cola crate, stretching to wash a car windshield. Then he'd climb down, grab his tire gauge and scurry to check the air pressure all the way around while the customer waited for his car tank to fill with gas.
Got that mental image?
Now flash ahead, oh, some 40 years. The crate, of course, is long gone. But that hustle, that boyish enthusiasm to do a good job, to succeed, is still there. And Ted Wiens Jr. is still reaching across
that figurative windshield-for more business and new growth opportunities. In a way, for that long-ago excitement that came from doing something you enjoy.
Back in the late 1940s, the expansive Ted Wiens Tire & Auto Centers of today were, like much of modern-day Las Vegas, just a dream-a young sprout amid miles of desert sand.
Mr. Wiens' dad, Ted Sr., a World War II fighter pilot, was stationed at a nearby Air Force base after the war teaching gunnery and flight training, his family in tow. After working part time in a gas station, he struck out on his own, leasing an old Texaco station. Eventually he got three more and began selling Firestone tires.
Meanwhile, young Ted was cutting his business teeth at his fa-ther's side, scrubbing those windshields, changing tires at eight years of age, selling them by the time he was 10.
The elder Mr. Wiens formed South Nevada TBA in 1956, a wholesale business supplying service stations. That year he built the first of his stores. By '63 he'd opened his second.
Though Vegas was by then a far cry from its Bugsy Siegel days, the casino ``strip'' was still a tiny road with about a third of the hotels now there, surrounded by vast sweeps of desert. As its gaming enterprises have swelled and flourished over the last several decades, so too has Wiens Tire.
It's considered one of the heavy-hitter dealerships there, boasting nine retail stores and two retail/commercial truck tire centers. Those include the latest additions opened last spring: a 9,000-sq.-ft. retail store in the southern part of the Las Vegas valley; and a 26,000-sq.-ft. ``super store'' to the north, a retail/commercial complex with a drive-through truck tire facility and small warehouse.
When the dealership opened its first retail/commercial site in 1979, it was on the outskirts of an area just beginning to see construction. Now, it's in the middle of town, said Ted Wiens Jr., and is so cramped that some large trucks don't have enough turning room.
The continuing increase in population-Las Vegas is considered the fastest-growing city in America-feeds the dealership's passenger/light truck business, he explained, while steady construc-tion-mostly new housing-keeps the commercial side thriving.
``We're still looking, as the population grows, to go further southeast and northwest,'' Mr. Wiens, the company's president, told TIRE BUSINESS earlier this year in an interview at its first-built outlet. His 75-year-old father, a company director, still has an office there, and ``comes by every day to check on stuff.''
The dealership is on course to open a new store every few years.
All its stores have at least 9,000 square feet and 16 or more bays. ``That's how we can service a city this size more than our competitors with more stores,'' he said.
Nearly 75 percent of Wiens' commercial business is done by service trucks on job sites, since Vegas isn't a base for very many long-haul trucking companies that would need a drive-through facility.
Its auto service roots are anchored in the days when the elder Wiens operated the full-service gas stations. Repairs-covering everything from complete undercar to medium engine service-now account for 50 percent of the dealership's revenue and are its certified ``cash cow'' at times. Especially in the spring, for instance, when air conditioning business is ``huge,'' Mr. Wiens said.
Because the majority of the Las Vegas work force is involved in the service industry, he has found that ``when they go for auto and tire service, they go to a place that offers full service.''
While his bare-bones competitors such as Sam's Club and PriceCostco ``hurt us a little'' initially with their huge inventories of tires, he said ``no one there knew anything about them.''
Consequently, he has seen the price clubs scale back their tire stocks, while Wiens Tire continues to push its flagship Firestone and Bridgestone brands, augmented by General, Michelin and Pirelli.
With recent Firestone IndyCar racing wins, the brand's sales have surpassed Mr. Wien's projections by 200 percent, he reported.
One of the biggest ongoing obstacles to a tire shop's success has always been finding reliable, qualified technicians. Wiens Tire may have hit upon at least a partial solution to that problem.
Along with input from several local Goodyear, Superior Tire and new-car dealers, Wiens recently helped the Community College of Southern Nevada update its auto-motive equipment and curriculum, and uses the school as a kind of ``farm team'' to train future techs. Mr. Wiens believes ``if your employees are going to come from there, then you should have the right to help decide what they're going to learn before they get out.''
The college's automotive courses were ``behind the times,'' he said. But ``when they decided to get serious about this program, we got involved, told them what kind of equipment was needed, even donated some of it.''
And last year, when Mr. Wiens was the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce's president, it lobbied the state legislature to increase occupational education expenditures to match what it planned to spend on vocational education.
The dealership also offers ongoing training, with management seminars plus supplier-run programs, for its 220 employees. Mr. Wiens' 20-year-old son, Ted III, a college student, works in one of the stores part-time as a mechanic-``the same as I started out,'' his father proudly stated.
Still there was a time in his late teens when Mr. Wiens ``resented'' the work. Especially when friends razzed him about his ``unglamorous,'' low-paying chosen profession. So he decided to chuck it and went away to college.
But he did return, and in 1970 participated in a Firestone dealer training program. ``What I learned there,'' he recalled, ``was much more profitable than the money I thought I should be making.''
Today, he jokes about retirement and how ``I usually contemplate it twice a week. Never seriously.''
Building and opening new stores is still a ``lot of fun,'' Mr. Wiens admitted. ``I always thought I wanted to retire at 40. Then I moved it to 50. Now I guess I'll have to move it again!''
Store manager Dave ``Sarge'' Shattuck, left, and Ted Wiens sell a lot of Firestone tires.
Tire Business photo by Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk