Some of North America's oldest, active tire dealerships can trace their roots to the 19th century. They've withstood the Depression, world wars, natural disasters and family upheavals—as well as competition from mass merchandisers, shopper's clubs and even auto dealers. So, what does it take for the independent tire dealer to survive and prosper?
Earlier this year, Tire Business asked its readers to submit names of tire dealerships in continuous operation for 75 years or more. Here are some of their stories.
The oldest dealership dates back to 1854—the year composer John Philip Sousa was born and Henry David Thoreau's book Walden Pond was published.
Since the first automobiles were still about 40 years away, Philip Lebzelter's Eagle Wheel and Bending Works in Lancaster, Pa., provided hickory bent rims, shafts, hubs, spokes and other parts for wagon wheels.
C. Clair McCormick, current president and co-owner of P. Lebzelter and Son Co., as it's now called, said the firm controlled its own source of raw materials. It owned a parcel of land with hickory trees. Lebzelter also had boilers on-site to provide steam for bending the wood into wheel parts.
Around 1900, the company began selling Goodyear tires when the Lebzelters saw the emergence of the auto. They changed their business to servicing vehicles with horsepower in their engines rather than horse-drawn vehicles.
``Over the years this company has anticipated change and met the challenges,'' Mr. McCormick said. Lebzelter now has three locations in the Lancaster area and is still primarily a Goodyear dealership.
In 1863—the year auto maker Henry Ford and journalist William Randolph Hearst were born and Union forces turned back the Confederate invasion at Gettysburg—the second oldest dealership in Tire Business' search also opened in Pennsylvania.
Kress Brothers Wagon Co. of Pittsburgh built wagons, coated wooden wagon wheels with rubber and ran a blacksmith and tannery shop.
When cars began to replace wagons on the city's streets, the company started selling Firestone and U.S. Royal tires.
Today, CEO Charles Zebley and two of his sons operate two locations of what is now Kress Tire Co. Inc.
They carry Goodyear and Eldorado brands. ``We've been with Eldorado since it started,'' Mr. Zebley said.
Kress actively cultivates business within its immediate area on the city's north side. ``In Pittsburgh, people don't go across town because of the hills and rivers,'' Mr. Zebley said.
``The old Kress Brothers company had a very good name. We're really proud of it."
He said the dealership's main challenges have been the emergence of strong private brands in the 1970s and 1980s, and mass marketers selling major tire brands as loss leaders in the 1990s.
President Herbert Hoover and author Gertrude Stein were born in 1874 when the nation's first daily newspaper hit the streets in Philadelphia. That same year, Foster Birch II started a boiler retubing and repair company in Dover, N.J. Later, his company also sold hay and coal, and manufactured its own brand of boilers.
Around the turn of the century, Mr. Birch brought his two sons into the business. In 1912, Birch and Birch began selling autos and trucks—carrying 31 different brands over the years including Cadillac, Buick and International Harvester. Birch dropped auto sales in 1954, but continues to offer full auto service and tire sales.
Birch Tire Corp. President Richard Reed said the company sold Cooper and Armstrong tires in the early days, but the Rockaway, N.J.-based dealership has been an independent Goodyear dealer since 1949.
And the reason for the company's success? ``We make believe we're the customer,'' Mr. Reed said.
In 1896, the year Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe died, Edward T. Paul bought a blacksmith shop in Columbus, Ohio. Soon, the operation employed a dozen smithies to shoe saddle and carriage horses of affluent residents on the city's east side.
E.T. Paul Co. Inc. evolved into a tire dealership and prospered through three generations of the Paul family until 1983, when Donn H. Paul, the founder's grandson, died suddenly.
``Business was down and profits were hard to come by,'' said his son, Michael Paul, company president. Two major mass marketers—National Tire Warehouse and Tire America—entered the Columbus market, and the dealership came close to closing.
Mr. Paul decided to concentrate on auto service and high performance tires and custom wheels, many of which he sells to high-end auto dealerships such as Mercedes and BMW.
``With all the new places (other tire dealerships), we had to create our own identity,'' he said.
In 1897, journalist Walter Winchell was born and the first subway opened in Boston. In a neighboring state, Charles Horace Goss founded the C.H. Goss Co. in St. Johnsbury, Vt.
Begun as a plumbing and heating shop, it started selling the Hupmobile auto in 1906, then added Dodge and Plymouth in 1919.
The company also sold Firestone tires and opened a retreading shop in 1936. By 1956 the company had seven Goss Tire stores in Vermont and New York state. The parent company, now called Gossco Inc., operates an Oliver precure retread shop and sells Firestone, Nokian and Hercules truck tires.
``We just change with the times,'' said Vice President Sally Goss.
The fledgling automobile industry gained one more player in 1903 when Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Co. That same year, Orville and Wilbur Wright's engine-powered airplane made its first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
In North Tonawanda, N.Y., Joseph Hurtubise founded Hurtubise Service, a gas station which also serviced cars and sold U.S. Royal tires. Hurtubise Tire Inc., now owned by the founder's grandson, Joe Hurtubise, and his son Eric, has two locations and sells Kelly, Cooper and General tires.
The company has six service trucks, 15 employees and operates an Oliver precure shop that retreads 35 truck tires a day.
Mr. Hurtubise said the dealership once had nine locations and was the eighth-largest retreader in the country.
The company endured its toughest time as it began manufacturing its own Streaker-brand tires in the late 1960s—only to be blindsided in 1973 by the oil embargo of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
``You couldn't get rubber,'' Mr. Hurtubise said. He was forced to sell all his tire-making equipment to a Brazilian company.
A fire in 1975 destroyed most of his main building, leaving only the office, he said. The staff changed tires for customers in the parking lot until the building was replaced.
Good, hard work and long hours have been the reasons for his success, Mr. Hurtubise said.
In 1907, Ford Motor Co. introduced the Model T—the first automobile to be mass-produced on an assembly line.
Herbert F. Bates and his 15-year-old nephew, Russell Wilder, opened a chauffeuring service and car rental business that same year in the coastal town of North Scituate, Mass.
Mr. Bates, a railroad agent, knew that affluent Bostonians coming to spend the summer at this resort community needed transportation from the train station to their cottages.
When cars became common, Mr. Wilder and his son, Glenn, opened an automotive service facility in 1928.
The company, known as Bound Brook Garage/Wilder Brothers, sold Fisk, Michelin and Firestone tires. Mr. Bates managed the business until he died in 1938. Russell Wilder turned it over to his three sons, Malcolm, Gilman and Glenn, in 1960.
In 1990, a fire destroyed the company's building, but Wilder Brothers was back in operation within six weeks at a vacant gas station across the street.
Today, Glenn Arthur Wilder, Russell Wilder's grandson, operates the dealership, which sells Michelin, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich, Delta, Bridgestone and Yokohama tires.
``We try to treat people like we want to be treated,'' he said. ``Honesty has been our benchmark for 92 years.''
In 1908, Ben Katz opened Katz Tire Co. near downtown Columbus, Ohio. Actors Bette Davis and Buddy Ebsen and comics Milton Berle and Lou Costello were born that year.
Mr. Katz's sons, Norman and Paul, still operate the dealership.
Norman Katz said Katz Tire closed for two years during World War II due to the government's rationing of tires. The construction of a freeway years later forced the company to move about a block from its original location.
In 1909, Lee Tire & Rubber Co. opened a company-owned outlet in Minneapolis, the same year American explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson reached the North Pole.
Today, that dealership, Northwestern Tire Co., operated by its fourth owners, Tim and Mary Gallagher, primarily caters to commercial customers. ``We've been pretty lucky,'' Mrs. Gallagher said. ``We're in a niche where we can give a customer personal service.''
About 90 percent of Northwestern's sales are commercial, she said, but the retail segment is growing. The company sells tires made by the big three manufacturers, Bandag retreads and also provides road service, repair service and wheel refinishing.
Petterson Safety Service in Des Plaines, Ill., also opened in 1909 and still occupies its original building. Owner Greg Petterson said his great-grandfather, Axel Petterson, bought the blacksmith shop and began selling tires and repairing and strengthening truck frames.
``We got big into tires in the 1950s and '60s,'' he said. The company offers full auto service and light- and medium-truck tire service and sells many major tire brands.
In 1912, six years after much of San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake and fire, Harry Kahn and Hugh Keville opened Kahn & Keville Tire and Auto Service.
The dealership moved to its present location, near the city's Civic Center, in 1934 and began selling batteries and gasoline and doing auto repairs.
Corporate Secretary William Brinnon said the company's original owners took employees on as partners—a practice that continues today. He said the company survived a serious fire in 1958 that took two weeks to extinguish and a three-month-long strike the following year.
On its building Kahn & Keville has a marquee displaying a ``thought for the week'' that is viewed by thousands of passers-by.
``People know us by that,'' Mr. Brinnon said.