CANTON, Ohio—Partially hidden behind the truckstop's repair shop service desk, it's hard to tell. But Butch McNutt, not a small man as standards go, is doing a slow tango with a guy on the other end of the phone line. "Yeah...|if you come in I'll give you the balance—you have the weights—and that'll save you 18 bucks.
Graceful move. Like a ballet dancer with a sales quota.
"Is the one that needs replacing cupped real bad? Yeah, they dish pretty good. I've seen that tire do that a lot. If I can see 'em, I'd try to give you something for it.
"...You come in and I'll tell you what I might be able to give you on a trade. OK, see ya' then."
The dance about over, Joe Carter, a long-hauler working for a moving company in Bluegrass Country, ambled up to the counter with that worried, time-is-money look. "I just pulled in and hit a curb. One of the rears sprung a leak."
With a smile Butch waved toward one of two gaping drive-through service bays yonder: "Pull it in over there."
Sprung a leak, indeed! The Michelin Pilot truck tire has a chasm in the sidewall resembling a mini Grand Canyon and is sinking fast.
It's midway through a warm, sunny day at the TravelCenters of America (TA) truckstop in Canton, Ohio, and Butch, the day shift's lead parts man, hit his stride hours ago.
"I try to do what I can to sell a tire—especially on the phone," he said, grinning wide to a visitor to indicate he likes what he does. "If someone's callin' around trying to get the best price, then over the phone is the only chance I get."
And today has been a good day. In less than an hour he's already sold three tires to truckers who pulled in off the interstate alongside the TA wearing that "How fast can you fix it and how much?" expression.
Mr. Carter, the A. Arnold Moving Co. jockey out of Louisville, Ky., is heading for points south and owns the rig he's driving. If he flinched when Butch told him the new Firestone will run him 350-plus bucks, it's almost imperceptible as he opens his wallet.
"You gotta put good rubber on your truck," he told the visitor. "It ain't worth paying with your life. Lotta guys take the cheap route and end up...." His voice trails off, but the missing word is obvious.
If a knight of the road needs something, the TA's hired help provides that take-care-of-business attitude to fix a tire, repair a fuel leak—whatever it takes.
"This guy's been here less than 25 minutes, and he's paid out and his truck's back on the road," Butch said proudly of Mr. Carter as he eased his rig from the bay.
A short time later—after another sale of a $350 Firestone to another wayward trucker—Butch beamed as if the boss had just given him a raise and enthusiastically declared: "I love it! We already did four tires today!"
No need to get out the calculator. At more than 300 bucks a pop, that's not a bad day's work. And it's still early.
He used to drive a truck. "I can BS with the best of them. I know about trucks and tires, so I'm enjoying myself."
Butch loves to sell tires. Mentioned that probably a half-dozen times in a couple of hours.
Apparently he's in the right place to do it. TravelCenters—the nation's largest full-service truckstop network—happens to sell the most Bridgestone truck tires of any truckstop chain in the country, according to TA officials. Compared with North America's largest commercial dealerships, those sales would put TA in the Top 10, and within shouting distance of the No. 5 spot, according to Tire Business estimates.
Overall, TA services at least a half-million tire units annually—a number that includes sales of new and used tires, retreads and tire repairs. Without getting too specific, Garland Foster, the company's shop programs manager, said that translates to sales of about 250,000 tires annually across TA's 160-site network, which includes about 40 franchisee-operated locations.
"We can do eight or nine light repairs," Butch said, "then sell one tire and it equals the same amount. Looks good on paper."
Founded in 1972 by Phil Saunders, TA was one of the first truckstop chains in the country, starting out with six sites known as Truckstops of America. It was sold that year to Ryder System Inc., then purchased by the Standard Oil Co. of Ohio (Sohio) in 1984, which itself was bought by British Petroleum three years later.
BP sold the chain in 1993 to its current owners, New York-based Clipper Group, a private equity investment company associated with CS First Boston.
Since then, the group has hardly looked back.
After combining the chain with National Auto/Truckstops in 1997, it changed to the TravelCenters of America Inc. name. In 1998, TA acquired 17 Burns Bros. Travel Stops, located primarily in the Northwest, and last year merged with the 17 units of primarily Northeast-based Travel Ports of America.
With headquarters in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake, TA currently has 160 locations in 40 states coast-to-coast and is well into a $250 million capital improvement project that will result in the re-imaging of some older facilities and construction of some new ones. So far, it has built four new outlets, said Michael O'Connor, TA's director of advertising and public relations.
TA has 12,500 employees and rings up annual sales of $1.5 billion, the lion's share of which is from diesel fuel—it pumps more than 1 billion gallons a year. But it also includes revenue from gasoline, retail store, restaurant and fast-food store sales, as well as smaller receipts from truck weigh scales, laundry, vending, lodging, pay telephone and other ancillary services.
Always on the lookout for acquisitions, TA is shooting to have 250 units by 2003 via buyouts of smaller chains and new builds, Mr. O'Connor said, noting, "There's been a lot of consolidation in this business in the last few years."
Back at the TA in Canton, Butch pointed out that if his two-man crew can service eight trucks in one shift "that's not bad. Had 17 one shift, and that's really movin'." That includes trucks requiring anything from tires to engine work to repairing a hole in the metal skin that covers a trailer.
TA is a Goodyear national account for Kelly-brand truck tires but, as a Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. national account, also push Bridgestone and Firestone brands, and retreads made by BFS' Oncor process. They also sell used tires, and Butch usually gives a casing allowance on trade-ins when a customer buys a new tire. National accounts aside, Firestone is his biggest seller, he said.
Dan Pugh, shop manager in Canton, guessed his operation sells at least 30 tires per month, but Butch chimed in: "I'm not happy if I don't sell 20 myself." The outlet's tire budget for March is $30,000, for instance, but changes monthly based on previous work history, Butch said, and "goes up in the hot summer months when tires get chewed up on the road a lot more."
TA draws many of the major trucking companies' national account business.
Two service trucks are always on the clock at the Canton location for emergency tire and mechanical repairs. "A lot of times truckers get shut down by the DOT at a weigh station. We have to run down and get them back into service," Butch explained.
TA sites don't do alignments, and send out tire section repairs to a local retread shop. But they do mounting and computer spin balancing and minor tire repairs.
Because space is scarce, TAs stock a limited number of tires—there are about 400 new tires in the Canton shop—that share space with wheels, bearings, brakes, and an assortment of parts and supplies—not to mention doodads like chrome lugnut covers, mirrors, etc.
Butch, who confesses he's been a "wrench all my life," said one big difference between a TA and a commercial tire dealership is "we're 24-7"—that's short for open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Always. If a trucker breaks down but can make it to a TA, parts and labor are warranted throughout the chain.
TA also recently formed a partnership with Freightliner Corp., a leading manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks, and is now the preferred provider of express service and maintenance on Freightliner trucks. Called "Freightliner ServicePoint," the program will be available at more than 137 TA locations by year-end.
"You name it, we do it, including engine work," said Nick Turner, head mechanic and one of five technicians at the Canton shop. He praised TA for its efforts to "educate and re-educate" employees on everything they do—especially when it comes to tire handling and safety issues.
Asked if he's ever seen a so-called "catastrophic zipper failure" in a truck tire, he slowly pulled back his ball cap to reveal a scar at the scalp line and the faint image of 27 stitches.
"It was a new tire," he recalled. "I had 70 pounds in it when it blew. Luckily, it was in an inflation cage, which we always use."
The force of the explosion flung the cage into him. That's all he remembers.
"You get a lot of training here," he said. "You could watch training videos from day to dark. And you get tested on everything."
Mr. Pugh—who's been at the Canton TA for 22 years, beginning the day its foundation was poured—said every mechanic goes through an intensive two weeks or longer of training. "I can't release a guy into the field until I know the job can be done right the first time.... Safety is the most important thing. I really preach it here."
While his service operation produces almost $70,000 in monthly sales, the corporate objective is between $75,000 and $80,000, and "we're working toward that goal."
It helps that he doesn't have any real competition for 35 to 40 miles. There is a Ziegler Tire commercial outlet about 15 miles away, "but they can't handle what we do—and it's not right off the interstate like us, so it doesn't have the location or the hours."
The Canton TA also sells a lot of rims, Mr. Pugh said. "The DOT won't let you hammer 'em out if they're damaged, bent or cracked, and that's good. It's dangerous enough on the highway."
"One guy who pulled in this morning hit something in the road," Butch added, "so we sold him tires and rims. I call that a home run."
Of the total revenue of TA Truck Service, the name for the company's service shops, tires account for 44 percent, with the rest consisting of labor, oil, parts and preventive and emergency repairs.
The company's strategy is to offer a premium tier-one tire product, Mr. Foster said, "so we're always evaluating Goodyear, Bridgestone, Firestone and Michelin." But TA makes periodic long-term agreements with tire makers and just renegotiated a three-year pact with BFS. Its deal with Kelly, which concludes at the end of the year, currently is under review.
While TA's customers usually are looking for a couple of reliable top-tier tires for an emergency replacement situation, he explained, a commercial dealership often makes multiple sales to a fleet.
Although TA "doesn't want to favor any one brand over another," Mr. Foster acknowledged that BFS has the industry's "premier program in the truckstop channel."
And with the sales of Firestones he's been cranking lately, that makes Butch McNutt very happy.