PORTLAND, Ore.—So what do you do when just saying ``thanks'' isn't quite enough? Send flowers? Some bosses repay employee loyalty by giving them a little extra in their paychecks. Or maybe an occasional day off.
That stuff's OK, but Quin Banta had something distinctly different in mind for two longtime automotive technicians at his Art Stearns Automotive and Tire Factory Inc.: He went the whole nine yards and made them partners.
The lucky guys on the receiving end are David Gettmann, who has been through thick and thin with the one-outlet dealership for the past 25 years, and Nick Flues, recruited by Mr. Banta 10 years ago while he was still finishing his degree in automotive engineering at a local college.
Mr. Banta was well aware that such longevity in the rather transient automotive service and tire business is something of an anomaly.
``This was just a gesture on my part to return to them some security and also in return for all their efforts,'' he told TIRE BUSINESS recently on a typically busy day at the 60-year-old downtown Portland business.
While Mr. Gettmann's and Mr. Flues' entry into the world of owning a business wasn't entirely unexpected, Mr. Banta admitted that his own initial involvement in the company was.
Here's a little history:
Art Stearns, the dealership's namesake, was well known in the Portland area during the 1940s and '50s, when he operated one large retread shop and tire store.
During the 1950s Roger Madtson, Mr. Banta's future father-in-law, began working at the dealership, eventually purchasing it from Mr. Stearns in the 1970s. At one time, when the industry was booming, he operated three outlets under the Stearns name. But he ended up selling two of them and kept only the original flagship location.
Meanwhile, after marrying Mr. Madtson's daughter, Lisa, Mr. Banta worked in the maintenance department of a school district in Washington State. That is, until one day he received a job offer from his father-in-law, who wanted to ``enjoy his first grandchild'' and hoped he and the Bantas could work together in the dealership as a family.
So in 1985, the Bantas moved to Portland, where Quin started his on-the-job training as a tech in the service shop while his wife did the company's books.
``Somehow, some way we survived,'' he recalled.
But in late 1987, Mr. Madtson was killed in a car accident, and Lisa and another daughter inherited the business. Armed with their instincts, and a few basics, the Bantas were hastily thrust into the position of having to run it.
Two years ago, Mr. Banta acquired Art Stearns Automotive from his wife and her sister, and as of this past April 1 was in his second fiscal year as sole owner.
``These two guys,'' he continued, referring to Messrs. Gettmann and Flues, ``helped us struggle through Roger's death, and our not knowing the business.''
So making these employees his business partners seemed to be the logical next step in an evolving relationship.
``This is a monumental event for all three of our families,'' he said. ``We already do a lot of things together as families, anyway.''
And that move has strengthened the dealership on a long-term basis, as well. ``We've now got three strong assets, as opposed to just employees coming and going, which seems to be the downfall of a lot of our automotive bretheren,'' Mr. Banta said.
``One reason we've been so effective is that the three of us have been equal partners for the last 10 years. I just now officially put it on paper.''
What has also helped preserve Art Stearns Automotive in the highly competitive Portland market is its membership in the Northwest Tire Factory Group.
Almost 20 years ago, Roger Madtson had the foresight to become one of the first of seven original dealers who began the buying group, according to Mr. Banta. It has now grown into a strong force within the industry in that part of the country, numbering 100 independent dealer/owners who operate a total of some 160 locations.
``Going into that group has been a success story for us in our ability to stay afloat,'' Mr. Banta said.
``And with Nick and Dave being the type of techs a business wants, we've been able to open up the facets of our business to full automotive service,'' including driveability, tune-ups, preventative maintenance, tire and wheel sales, suspension and brake work.
``We also put up a shingle saying we do complete automotive service—from broken door handles to brakes—and promote that in our advertising.''
That full plate is something Mr. Banta considers a definite advantage as he watches his competitors continue to diversify.
Art Stearns Automotive, he said, has also been ``reaping the benefits'' of catering to the sport-utility and high-performance vehicle crowds, which he called ``a huge market'' in the Northwest.
The outlet makes available to its customers practically every tire brand because, ``being independent and due to our location right in downtown Portland, we have to cover all lines,'' he explained. And because many of the store's customers own a high-end caliber of cars, it tends to do a big business in Michelin and Pirelli tires.
In offering the partnerships, Mr. Banta said he's also acknowledging the efforts of his techs ``to relearn the business.''
``It took me five years to realize I had to get out of the shop and concentrate on running the business from the inside,'' he admitted, ``rather than getting my hands dirty while trying to do both.
``And of course, Dave and Nick had to continue to do driveability and all the things that a normal tire shop isn't expected to do.''
While Mr. Banta now includes sales among his many responsibilities, Mr. Gettmann manages the service shop and Mr. Flues, aided by three other techs, handles the repairs. All the company's techs are ASE-certified, with the exception of Mr. Banta, who admitted he still gets under the hood—and his hands dirty—when needed.
The shop averages about three tune-ups daily. Tire and wheel sales comprise a quarter of its business while suspension and brake work accounts for 50 percent. Preventive maintenance rounds out the picture.
To mark the dealership's 60th anniversary, as well as to acknowlege the new partnerships, on April 3 Mr. Banta threw a catered bash for customers, employees and their families.
``It's amazing all the benefits this has had for us—and it's not just for morale,'' he said. Some 750 persons came through the dealership's doors in a three-hour period during the celebration.
``A lot of good has come from this besides the publicity and marketing,'' Mr. Banta added. ``And to think, we're just a small, eight-bay spot on the earth. I guess it's kind of a `small town boys do good' story.''