PORTLAND, Ore.—The tire business is losing one of its ``elder statesmen,'' but to paraphrase the words of Evita Peron: ``Don't cry for him.'' Eighty-two-year-old Art Lutz, president and owner of Lutz Tire Co. Inc., a Portland-based wholesale operation that opened its doors Sept. 1, 1969, will be turning out the lights and shuttering the company at the end of December.
All told, he's put 60 years into the industry. It's been a long run, and a good one. The tears will come soon enough, when he sadly bids adieu to his almost 250 tire dealer customers.
But with characteristic low-key Lutz humor, the octogenarian intimated his health is ``apparently good, so I want to take advantage of it with a few years of retirement while I can still enjoy them.''
He then goes on to confess that he's been ``slowing down.'' Yeah, sure. Shows up at the office at 6 a.m. every day, leaves at 5 p.m. That makes for a cushy 11-hour day, rather than his previously normal 12-hour routine.
A hands-on operator for years, Mr. Lutz called his ``one of those rare companies where the president is the sole owner, writes the checks, cleans the restrooms.''
And he's quick to dispel any insinuations that he's bailing out due to financial trouble. To the contrary. The business is profitable. A few years back, it was turning out sales in the neighborhood of $18 million annually, although today it rings up about half that.
For a while Mr. Lutz tried to peddle the business. ``Frankly, I found it rather difficult to find people with the funds who could purchase it,'' he said. ``At the time we put it up for sale, and when we began liquidating, we had $3.5 million in inventory.''
About 75 percent of his stock has been cleared out, with between 600,000 and 800,000 units remaining. It will all be gone by the end of January, Mr. Lutz believes, when he and a few remaining of his 11 employees will close up shop for good after retiring any outstanding adjustments, handling credits due, and collecting bills that still account for ``a lot of money out there.''
``I would have been glad to sell to somebody,'' he continued. ``I had several opportunities to do that and finance the sale myself. But then I might as well stay here and run it.''
So Mr. Lutz made the somewhat bittersweet decision to close.
Oh, he had a nominal discussion with his daughter, a school teacher in California, and his son, who has an established real estate business in Portland. Neither had any interest in running the firm.
``Besides, my son is 60 years old and is too smart to get into the tire business,'' he added, chuckling.
A former president of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association, from 1993-94, Mr. Lutz still revels in introductions of him at NTDRA functions as ``a guy who only works half-time,'' in reference to his 12-hour days.
Never afraid of hard work, he grew up on a farm in Nebraska. During college he also worked 10-hour nights. Then at age 21 he moved from corn country to Portland, launching his first venture, a Shell service station. It sold a lot of tires, which got him interested in that end of the business.
When it appeared that a financially fit buyer for Lutz Tire wasn't to be found, Mr. Lutz sold one of his three warehouses a couple of months ago.
The other two have been put into escrow pending acquisition for a massive redevelopment project slated for some 60 to 80 square blocks in downtown Portland. According to architectural sketches he has seen, one of his tire warehouses will have a fourth story added to it to incorporate apartments and retail store space.
Not an ``overnight decision,'' Mr. Lutz acknowledged he has been weighing retirement for some five years—along about the time the widower married his wife, Cheryl, about 34 years his junior, who has helped him run the wholesale operation. He calls her his cherished partner both in business and life.
``Now, she has so darned many activities and trips planned for us,'' he said. ``Let's just say that I'm going to start having fun.''
Then he quickly added: ``I have been having fun all these years, otherwise I guess I wouldn't have been in business this long!''
Lutz Tire started out with a single line of tires—Cooper Tire & Rubber's former ``Falls'' brand, now called Mastercraft—and still carries that, along with a wide assortment of others. The company, a 23-year Remington distributor, has supplied dealers in Washington state, Oregon, and parts of Montana and Idaho.
``That takes a big inventory,'' Mr. Lutz said, ``because I've always hated to tell somebody, `Sorry, I don't have it.'''
Despite rampant changes, the tire business ``has always been a pleasure to me,'' he stated. ``Never, never, never have I said that I'd give anything to get out of this place. That's why this process we're going through now is one of the most emotional experiences I've ever had.
``It's been the toughest thing in the world. My employees have been with me for years. They're like family. And so many dealers have been with me since the first year. They're just part of us.''
On the other hand, Mr. Lutz said he doesn't want his obituary to read that he was still in business when he died.
``I've gotta have some time. I'm 82. How many years do I have left to enjoy travelling and things?''
When he married Cheryl two years after losing Audrey, his first wife of almost 55 years, Mr. Lutz ``promised her I'd give her 25 years more. Then she reminded me that by then I'd be 101.''
He once joked that he expects to ``die young—at the oldest age possible!''
Soon—without worries about inventory, trucks, deliveries, keeping the customers satisfied—that prospect is looking mighty good.