PORT HURON, Mich.—Back when Gene Fetterly started in the tire business, there were no such things as tubeless tires, safety rims or computerized balancers.
"I can remember the first tubeless tire that came out in 1954," Mr. Fetterly said. "That was a big thing."
He has seen plenty of changes throughout 50 years of working with tires—first as a tire changer and now as a store owner.
At 69 years old, Mr. Fetterly said he takes it easier than he used to, letting his two sons and business partners, Joseph and Mark, run much of Fetterly's Tires and Auto Service in Port Huron. Now working two to three days per week, he handles advertising and finances for the business he opened in 1973. There are eight other employees.
But make no mistake about it, he has no plans to retire.
"My mother worked until she was 88," Mr. Fetterly said. "My dad, I don't think, ever did retire until last year. He'll be 94 in April. My one great-grandfather worked until he was 88. What does that tell you?"
He said his most important job has always been keeping customers happy. "I keep the people busy while my sons are doing the work. I chat with them," he said. "I get a tremendous amount of enjoyment from my job, although I've never punched a time clock."
When he was 19, Mr. Fetterly moved with his new wife to Monroe, Mich., from Detroit, where he worked as a nun chauffeur. Needing a job quickly, he became a tire changer in a Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.-owned outlet. It was, he said, "a case of necessity."
When the store needed someone to fill in for three months doing retail sales, Mr. Fetterly got the job. But when his stint was up, he didn't want to go back to being a tire buster. So for three years he did outside sales until, in 1957, he was promoted to manager of a company-owned store in Port Huron.
In 1968, Mr. Fetterly and a former co-worker, Bill Barringer, started the Michigan Tire and Vehicle Service Association. Mr. Fetterly served as its secretary for six months until the organization became part of the Michigan Retailers Association. He also worked for another independent dealership and a distributor before opening his own business.
He launched Tires for Cash in 1973, but changed the name shortly thereafter to Fetterly's Tires for Cash. It was a small operation with two employees—he and his late wife, Eleanore.
"If I sold a set of tires, she would come down to watch the store while I went outside to change the tires," he said. "Oh, how times have changed."
When his four sons were in high school, they worked in the store after school and summers. He now has two grandsons working in the business, which changed its name to Fetterly's Tires and Auto Service some two years ago after expanding services to include automotive repair.
"This way, we can be more of a complete service to a customer when a car comes in," Mr. Fetterly said.
Even though he has seen plenty during 50 years in the tire business, he still doesn't consider himself a tire expert. "Our industry changes so much. It's a constant learning process. We go to as many seminars as we can and I do a lot of reading, since I have more time than my sons."
He also tries to share his industry knowledge with them, but acknowledged there have been surprises.
"If you would've said to me in 1951 that you're going to have some tires that'll go 80,000 to 100,000 miles, I would've told you you were crazy," he said.
As for the next 50 years, Mr. Fetterly said he can't predict what will happen, but there is at least one thing he would like to see: The demise of "so-called economy tires. Because after 15,000 to 20,000 miles, the customer comes back to you and says, `I should have gotten more mileage.'
"Next to brakes, I think tires are the most important things on a car. Maybe equally with brakes. If you don't stop, you're in trouble."
Now, Fetterly's Tires' future lies in the hands of his sons. And he's confident the same customer service efforts on which he built the business—and kept many long-time customers—will continue.
"I have people who...have dealt with me since I came to Port Huron," he said. "And I have their sons, their grandsons etc. The most important thing I've learned is that without customers, you ain't nothing. Every person that walks in here is my boss."
Mr. Fetterly said his contribution to the tire industry has simply been making an average living. "I didn't go into the tire business to become a wealthy person," he said. "I just wanted to make a living. That's the easiest way that I can say it."