LEWISTON, Maine—Take a healthy dose of buffing dust, mix in some speed shop experience and a stubborn streak of independence. The result? An entrepreneur who, from an early age, couldn't wait to get out of bed every morning and get to work.
Some might look upon that as a curse, but you won't convince Thomas J. Auger—pronounced ``Aw-zhay''—that it hasn't been a blessing.
Today, his labors have helped build his family's dealership, Lewiston-based VIP Discount Auto Centers, from humble beginnings into 47-store auto parts, tires and automotive service chain they expect will be a force to be reckoned with in New England. If that doesn't materialize, it won't be from a lack of effort.
``I was born in a tire and raised in a rubber-dust pile,'' Mr. Auger jokes. ``No, I'm serious. I remember being 5-6 years old and begging my father to let me go to work with him. When I was 10, I went to the retread plant to trim tires.''
At 43, Mr. Auger still can recall the big blisters from that job, kind of a badge of honor that he was a card-carrying wage earner.
Mr. Auger's dad, Thomas O., began his career as an outside salesman for a tire store in 1955, after a promising baseball career with the St. Louis Cardinals was cut short due to a rotator cuff injury.
After about three years, he borrowed $300, bought an old barn in Lewiston and opened L*&*A Tire Co., eventually growing it to five stores.
Meanwhile, young Tom had been severely bitten by the automotive bug. At 15, he began racing his dragster throughout the country on the NHRA circuit. Then, while a senior in high school, he opened his own speed shop, called ``Pit Stop,'' and ran that from 1973 to early '76.
``I had only one credit left to get in high school, in geography,'' he remembers. ``So I went to school from 8 to 9 a.m., then opened the shop. Luckily, my father knew the teacher.
``My mind wasn't on school. I really loved the automotive business. It's still a passion.''
After that venture ran its course, he opened VIP in 1976 as a parts store. ``I remember being a 20-year-old punk, thinking I knew what to do,'' he told Tire Business.
``In about 1980, I got the idea we needed to put in a counter.''
Eventually the senior Auger merged his stores into his son's enterprise and VIP took wing.
``When I started VIP, I did the buying, the advertising, ran the store, did the returns, the deposits,'' the younger Mr. Auger said.
``I had 10 stores before even putting an advertising guy in.''
VIP now has 46 retail stores in New Hampshire and Maine and one in Massachusetts. Its near-term goal, Mr. Auger said, is to open seven stores in Vermont, then attack northern Massachusetts and begin backfilling the small towns.
Reminded about a recent letter to the editor a VIP executive sent to Tire Business, boasting that the dealership had plans to become ``the dominant tire and parts retailer in New England,'' Mr. Auger laughed. ``I think we could change that to northern New England for now....''
That doesn't mean the company is complacent.
Five of its outlets are billed as ``super centers''—stores of up to 24,000 square feet with nine service bays. They do tires, brakes, shocks, lubes, alignments, exhaust and axle shaft work, plus the usual accessories like wiper blades and headlights. VIP's smaller prototype stores of up to 11,550 square feet contain five or six bays.
TBC Corp. is VIP's primary supplier of all major tire brands.
``We do sell a lot of tires,'' Mr. Auger said somewhat modestly.
A lot? During the second-to-last week of October, tires and wheels accounted for 38 percent of VIP's sales—more than 10,000 tires.
Together, tires and service comprise half its business; the remainder consists of batteries, accessories, oil and antifreeze, high-performance products and tools.
The company is forecasting sales of $80 million in 1999, with $100 million its goal for next year. Based on company-owned outlets, Tire Business ranked the dealership 13th-largest in North America, with 1998 retail sales of $61.1 million.
At about 2 percent of sales, wholesale is a small component of the business that is ``growing rapidly.'' Targeting installers, jobbers and fleet accounts, VIP recently added drivers and an outside sales staff.
``We hope to have each store go after a handful of what we call `key accounts'—people that pay their bills and are `players' in their areas,'' Mr. Auger said.
The dealership also has begun to snare fleet accounts. It recently became the approved tire and parts supplier for the State of New Hampshire's 6,000 employees, who receive a 10-percent discount when they show their state I.D. Another recent fleet client is Pine State Tobacco, which delivers beer, chips, soda and tobacco products to small mom-and-pop stores throughout New England.
VIP's partial reliance on auto service has come full circle.
L & A Tire had started as a full-service operation while VIP mostly handled vehicle parts. In the early '80s, when the operations merged, the company jettisoned its service operations.
``In the early '90s we realized the future was not going to be in do-it-yourself, so we went back into full service,'' Mr. Auger said
Mr. Auger admitted he'd be ``awful nervous'' today if the company were strictly in tires or only the auto parts business. Aftermarket parts heavyweight Auto Zone has been looking for land in VIP's markets, and even twice scouted out a piece of property Mr. Auger owns.
``It's getting hard to find land,'' he acknowledged. The dealership has a full-time real estate person, but has found that many communities are putting restrictions on auto service outlets.
The company currently is building one new outlet and is working on land deals for a couple of others. It prefers to start stores from scratch, rather than go the acquisition route, Mr. Auger said.
VIP plans ``to grow as we can afford to grow,'' he said. ``We want slow, calculated growth, to remain profitable and be able to pay our bills.'' The company's goal is to have 50 stores within a year and a half.
The company's ``jack-of-all-trades'' approach caters to the do-it-yourself, do-it-for-me and professional installer segments.
As for the senior Mr. Auger, who will be 72 in January, his son noted his dad is ``involved in the business seven days a week.''
Running the dealership actually is a family affair. The senior Mr. Auger oversees the finances and does tire buying. His son is in charge of store operations and does the rest of the buying; his daughter, Nancy Hunt, is vice president of management information systems. One son-in-law handles distribution and buying and another is in charge of real estate.
``We get along well,'' the younger Mr. Auger said. ``It's fun being in a family business, though it's always tough working for your father.... He's tough on me, but I know why—he expects more out of me.''
Despite his years in the automotive trenches, he admitted he still approaches each day ``anxious to get out of the house'' and meet the ever-different challenges.
``I'm proud to have gotten to where we are.... We work hard and have fun working hard.''
Still, he has one dream ``to be in Hawaii'' and another to get to 50, then 100 stores.
He thought about that for a moment, sighed, then said: ``So I guess I've got quite a few years of work left, huh?''
Better put those alohas on hold.