SOLON, Ohio-Like one of those truly perceptive beer commercials observes: ``It doesn't get any better than this.'' He may not let on, but some might say Bob Whitehead is a lucky stiff, sitting in the proverbial ``catbird seat.'' Not that it hasn't taken a heckuva lot of hard work and skill to get where he is today.
For 26 years his full-service Sunoco station has commanded a busy crossroads location in the continually growing community of Solon, southeast of Cleveland. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
It seems to enjoy the best of both worlds: an affluent clientele who drive pricey vehicles and generally don't blanche when the topics of routine and necessary maintenance-and tire purchases-crop up in the conversation.
Mr. Whitehead spoke with TIRE BUSINESS recently while participating in a Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.-sponsored dealer event in the Cleveland area promoting its ``Blizzak'' winter tires.
His station is, Mr. Whitehead pointed out, among Philadelphia-based Sun Oil Co.'s top three tire sales operations nationwide, and the company's largest single service station user of Sunoco motor oil-``by a factor of 10.''
He wears those mantles proudly.
The owner of Rogo Enterprises Inc., which does business as Solon Sunoco, also prides himself on continually educating people about their service and tire needs.
``Most customers are not aware they need tires on their vehicle,'' he notes, ``until made aware-either by loss of traction, or by my employees.''
On every automotive job, Mr. Whitehead insists his employees do a tread-depth-gauge reading on a customer's tires. About 30 percent of his sales are in tires.
``My personal responsibility is to show people what their vehicle requires,'' he said. ``Whether or not they do it is up to them.
``But there's an awful lot of people who depend on me to do that.
``And once I do, I've fulfilled the obligation entrusted to a responsible businessman.''
Take, for instance, one of his well-to-do customers, a physician who puts about 50,000 miles annually on the Lincoln Mark VIII he usually trades in every year-just about the time it's ready for new all-season tires.
After Mr. Whitehead convinced him to try a set of snow tires last winter, the doctor was so pleased with their performance, he decided to keep the car for a while.
A big advocate of training, Mr. Whitehead employs 19 people, including seven ASE-certified automotive technicians and 11 others certified through a Firestone training program.
His station participates in Sunoco's ``ultra-service center'' program, which he called a profes-sional bay-management system that provides warranties, auto-motive training, equipment and professional advertising.
Whenever his employees work on a vehicle, they're required to find three items of routine maintenance or in need of repair. ``Once they do that, we also give the customer a handout on the tires we sell, featuring our `good-better-best' recommendations.''
Mr. Whitehead primarily sells Bridgestone- and Firestone-brand tires-he said he's the single largest Firestone-certified location that Sunoco has. He also handles some Goodyears and Michelins.
The station maintains a stock of up to 300 tires-including four passenger lines plus performance and light-truck selections. Mr. Whitehead orders snow tires based on last year's sales, checks his inventory daily, and because of his close proximity to a Firestone warehouse, can usually get deliveries within hours.
His snow tire sales have grown steadily over the past few years, in part because Mr. Whitehead has learned to cater to two types of potential customers:
Those who own expensive sports cars such as Jaguars, as well as luxury touring cars like BMW's and Lincolns. (Those vehicles are normally shod with original equipment performance-type tires that don't perform well in snow or on ice); and
People who do high-mileage driving, such as salespeople. (Station employees make note of that fact by checking the odometer while servicing the vehicle.)
Customers have gradually begun to realize, Mr. Whitehead said, that ``radial all-season tires are not the end-all answer to winter driving, especially in the Great Lakes area. So they're looking for something more.''
Each customer has a unique driving experience-and need.
The ``hot button,'' as Mr. Whitehead puts it, ``changes from person to person. It might be a safety item for one, a status item for another. There is no 1-2-3 formula, otherwise the world wouldn't need salesmen.''
Bob Whitehead recently participated in a Bridgestone/Firestone event held at a Cleveland-area ice-skating rink.
Tire Business photo by Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk