SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Please, no analogies to Tom Deringer being a little fish in a big pond. He may be a bit sensitive to that. While on a four-hour deep-sea fishing excursion off the coast of Puerto Rico recently during Continental General Tire Inc.'s international dealer meeting, Mr. Deringer got nary a nibble from a fish of any size. That's just the opposite of the kind of luck his dealership, Palm Beach Tire Inc., seems to be having in the three short years since he opened it in Lantana, Fla.
Operating literally in the shadow of an outlet of the Sunshine State's big fish, Tire Kingdom, he's flaunted the old wisdom: ``If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.''
Actually, Mr. Deringer's developed something of a cozy though wary relationship with Florida's major player.
``Yeah, they advertise a lot,'' he said from the top deck of a swaying fishing boat while scanning the cobalt seas for anything with fins.
``But when people go in there and Tire Kingdom (ticks) them off, they just come across the street to me, and I treat them like a neighbor.''
And like a neighbor who comes calling for a cup of sugar, if he's in between deliveries and in a pinch for a particular tire, Mr. Deringer traipses over to his competitor, plunks cash on the counter and leaves with what he needs.
``They won't give me a credit account,'' he said, ``but they'll take cash from me. I guess they figure I'm such a small operation that I can't really hurt them.''
Small? Yes. But don't let that fool you.
``The first thing the (Small Business Administration) handbook says is `location, location, location,' '' he pointed out. Being across from the kingdom—and next door to a Don Olson Tire outlet that recently opened—hasn't hurt.
It seems Mr. Deringer, 43, is one of those guys so common to the industry: bitten by the tire bug—perhaps ``infected'' for life.
When he first moved to Florida in 1981 from Michigan, he worked as a commercial tire rep for Montgomery Ward & Co., until the big retailer got out of that end of the business. He then worked for Firestone and also for General Tire.
But it was while employed by a large commercial dealership that Mr. Deringer experienced what might be considered his ``defining moment'' in the business.
It was the last day of February 1993, he recalled, ``and one of my good commercial accounts didn't receive an order that was supposed to have been delivered.''
With that tiny voice in the back of his head bellowing, ``Remember: customer service,'' Mr. Deringer hopped in his pickup truck, drove to where the 14 aircraft tires were languishing on a loading dock, crammed them into his truck, then delivered them to his customer.
Rather than reward him for his resourcefulness, his boss told him he had made the delivery without his permission, and fired Mr. Deringer on the spot.
Defining moment. It seemed as good a time as any to become his own boss.
``For the first year, I was just tailgatin'—selling tires from the back of my truck,'' he said, ``so I had no overhead and ended up making money.''
In 1994 he decided to open a retail/commercial tire outlet in a former car dealership—and proceeded to lose money. He edged back into the black in 1995 and '96, and is hopeful this year will be profitable.
Starting out with two service bays and only a part of the building, the dealership now occupies the entire facility, with an office, a customer lobby, nine bays and plenty of room for service trucks. An alignment rack and equipment were recently added for the passenger/light truck business.
The operation's commercial end caters to some fleet accounts such as the local gas company and small trucking chains, since there is no major trucking hub in the West Palm Beach area. A local Case equipment dealer, for instance, buys off-the-road tires from the dealership.
While Continental General is his primary supplier, Mr. Deringer also sells some Michelin, Bridgestone and Dayton brand truck tires, and will get his passenger and LT customers practically any brand they desire.
As part of the ``young guard'' of tire dealers, Mr. Deringer is interested in exploring the Internet's retailing possibilities, and an-ticipates being online before the year is out. He's got four Pentium computers for the task, and plans to take Conti General up on its offer to produce ``home pages'' on the World Wide Web for its dealers.
``I see things headed that way,'' Mr. Deringer said. ``I guess I've put off being on the `Net' longer than I should have.''
Although a number of dealers at the meeting complained of difficulties obtaining tires from Conti General, Mr. Deringer has had no supply problems. ``Usually, they'll backorder, but they do a pretty good job.''
But he does have a message for the tire maker's management: ``I probably sold about 500 light truck tires last year—and most of them were Generals. But because of the company's pricing structure, I bought less than a hundred from Conti General.
``Even with all the discounts and incentives General offers, I can buy them cheaper from someone else.
``I'm a General dealer. I buy practically everything from them. But I would like to buy all of my General tires from them.''
Palm Beach Tire usually finds its best deals with wholesalers, Mr. Deringer explained. Ironically, ``In a lot of cases, they're getting their tires from Tire Kingdom, which can buy them even cheaper and then offer them discounts.
``So that makes Tire Kingdom's light truck sales look great.''