LOS ANGELES-Carol Uribe is hoping to do a little urban renewal.
The single mom's plight may serve as a lesson for today's small independent tire dealer. Ms. Uribe took over her dad's Llantera Soto (Spanish for ``Soto Tires'') dealership in Los Angeles' primarily Hispanic Boyle Heights district and wants to spruce up the store to attract more car, truck and tractor-trailer customers.
Her father drummed home the message that a business owner has to know how to do it all, and Ms. Uribe has stuck to that lesson plan. She can ``diagnose tire failures, suspensions, ball joints and bushings. I do the books, payroll, jack up the cars, mount tires and can do a speed balance,'' she said.
Open six days a week, the store has only two employees besides Ms. Uribe, and one of them is a cousin who volunteers. Even her mother, Annie, helps mind the store because Ms. Uribe is often away, holding down another job as a teacher's aide at a nearby public school just so she qualifies for health insurance for herself and her two children.
Most of Soto Tires' customers live or work in East Los Angeles. But selling tires, the dealership has found, can be an up-and-down endeavor. Even with business from a nearby Verizon wireless phone store and clothing manufacturer Alfred Paquette, last May, for example, Soto Tires sold just 79 new and used tires. But from her corner lot, Ms. Uribe has a great view of downtown Los Angeles' famous skyline and the customers she hopes to attract with the right advertising flyers-if she can find a way to get them done affordably.
Her most popular tire brands are Remington and Yokohama. ``Remington Maxxums are good sellers because they're inexpensive and the warranty is good,'' Ms. Uribe said. ``There's no hassle. Everyone is happy. We want the customer to be happy. Tires have to be inexpensive to sell around here because people won't pay high prices.''
Still, money isn't everything, she's learned. But making a deal is the name of the game.
``Whatever the customer asks for, I try my hardest to get it for them. I always want the customer to be satisfied. We also sell rims and wire wheels. The 20 x 9.5 spoked wheels sell real well. They're knock-offs. We are starting to get a lot of African-American customers who hear we sell a set for $1,200. That's a substantial savings.''
She tries to persuade wheel customers to buy tires but laments: ``They usually go to Costco (warehouse club) because they're cheaper. I try to show them that by the time they have to pay for all the extras, it isn't worth it since they can do everything here-but they still buy elsewhere.''
Nonetheless, Ms. Uribe always appreciates business tips.
She credits a letter to the editor published earlier this year in Tire Business with putting her in touch with Dallas Claunch. He's an Aberdeen, Idaho, dealer who with his father started Claunchs' Tire Service in 1979 and sold the business to the Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc. organization in 2000. Mr. Claunch advised Ms. Uribe to make sure she displayed a lot of tires out front and also analyzed her pricing. ``Nothing says tires like tires,'' he pointed out.
The Idaho dealer also advised Ms. Uribe not to be discouraged about being a woman in a so-called ``man's business.''
``I had a girl with me for four or five years and she was one of my best salespersons,'' Mr. Claunch said. ``She spent sufficient time out in the shop to have a clue. If you had a flat on your car, she could fix it.''
Mr. Claunch told Ms. Uribe she should focus on one thing she does best. ``After talking with Dallas, I decided to concentrate on the `fast and friendly' approach,'' she recounts. ``I told my guys we had to improve on that and it's worked.''
In today's business environment, individual tire store operators like Ms. Uribe face an uphill battle and daunting costs. She's contemplating a business loan because she said she needs a new sign-one that is resistant to gunfire, which is a problem in the area-and new asphalt paving for her property. The tab could run about $13,000.
Not so fast, advises at least one tire business veteran. ``Rule No. 1: You have to own the real estate,'' stressed Jerry Saunders, president of Los Angeles-based Fairmount Tire and Rubber Inc., Ms. Uribe's distributor.
``If she builds up a good business and pays rent, the landlord will triple (her) rent and (she'll) have nothing. Real estate is your security blanket.''
Ms. Uribe, who does own the property, also has to make sure she's manning the store, he noted.
``She has to be there at least 10 hours a day, six days a week or have competent employees who can run it,'' said Mr. Saunders, a longtime Los Angeles dealer and 1999 recipient of Tire Business' ``Tire Dealer Humanitarian of the Year'' award.
Sergio Rivera, president of the California Tire Dealers Association South, urges dealers like Ms. Uribe to join the organization, which is about 55 percent Hispanic. Membership costs $160 a year.
``We can give her tips on how to go about marketing, insurance, credit cards and uniforms,'' explained Mr. Rivera. ``If she can attend one of our meetings, she can mingle with the members. They will give her more tips because they're on the firing line at the retail end.''