Putting the first stakes down in what could be the start of a larger move into the Midwest, Florida-based Tire Kingdom Inc. (TKI) has purchased Cleveland's 19-store Mueller Tire & Brake chain.
Terms of the sale, expected to be completed March 18, were not released by either party. The acquisition will push Tire Kingdom's store total past the 200 mark.
``I've been looking in the Midwest for some time,'' said Orland Wolford, president of TKI, a subsidiary of Memphis, Tenn.-based TBC Corp.
``We view them as a strategic market and an area we wanted to be in.''
For Mueller Tire owners Scott and Dean Mueller, apparently the time-and the price-was right.
``We had a good offer,'' Scott Mueller said. ``We've had a lot of people approach us over the years who were expanding into the Cleveland market.''
Established in 1918 by the Muellers' grandfather, Walter J. Mueller, the dealership has 15 outlets in Greater Cleveland. The remaining four, in or around Columbus, Ohio, will make an immediate transition from Mueller to Tire Kingdom stores. The Cleveland stores will continue to be called Mueller Tire, at least for the time being, Mr. Wolford said, because the Mueller name has been established in the area for 84 years.
Since the Columbus locations are only about a year old, the Mueller name is not as well known there.
``They're going to keep (the name) for a period of time,'' confirmed Scott Mueller, president of Mueller Tire. ``It is pretty important. Our name is sacred. At least it is to us. We looked carefully into finding the right partner that would protect our reputation.''
As for when the northeast Ohio stores may switch to Tire Kingdom, Mr. Wolford said: ``I'm not sure I can answer that right now. The (Mueller) name...has a good reputation in Cleveland.''
A one-store operation until the late-1980s, Mueller has added 14 Cleveland-area stores in the past dozen years. The dealership does $30 million in annual sales, according to published reports, and has grown to 230 employees. The bulk of those will be retained, according to Mr. Wolford, who declined to say if upper-management positions would remain intact.
``They are a chain that takes care of the people who work there and takes care of customers,'' he said. ``Obviously, in order to keep taking care of customers in the way they have been taking care of them, a big value is the people.''
A solid corps of employees was one benefit that attracted TKI to Mueller. Another was the new or relatively new stores-outlets in Cleveland suburbs, for the most part, are less than five years old.
Mueller's newer buildings have, as Mr. Wolford termed it, ``curb appeal'' and need few capital improvements. Changing signage from Mueller to Tire Kingdom in the Columbus stores would, he added, be the only major expenditure initially.
Mr. Wolford said his eye has been on the Ohio market for some time. Fellow TBC subsidiary Big O Tires Inc. recently ventured into Dayton in southwestern Ohio, but there are no TBC-related retail ventures north of that city. And he sees great opportunities for Tire Kingdom growth in Columbus-Ohio's biggest city and fastest growing metro area.
``We'll look to fill the Columbus market. We want to get in the mode of doing that pretty quickly,'' he said, adding that Tire Kingdom would like to eventually be in all of Ohio's major markets, including Youngstown, Toledo, Akron etc. He did not specify a time frame for doing so.
Any expansion in the Cleveland area in the near future would initially be additional Mueller stores, he said, though he doesn't anticipate much since the area is substantially covered. However, acquisitions or newly built stores elsewhere would be Tire Kingdom stores.
Mr. Wolford said any future expansion would be similar to the Mueller purchase. ``We only want to buy a quality chain like Mueller,'' or build from the ground up, he said.
Mueller Tire outlets sell Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal brand tires, among several others. Tire Kingdom will continue selling those in Ohio, along with Continental, General and TBC products. TBC's private brands will be distributed out of Memphis, Mr. Wolford said, while the company's other major suppliers would begin filling orders for the other brands destined for Ohio outlets.
As for the Muellers, Scott Mueller said they plan to remain active in their other business, Dealer Tire, which sells tires directly to car dealers. Calling itself ``the only national tire and accessory distributor dedicated exclusively to serving the automobile dealer,'' Dealer Tire supplies tires to import automobile manufacturers as well as 4,000 car dealers.
Dealer Tire's lineup includes the BFGoodrich, Bridgestone, Continental, Dunlop, Firestone, General, Goodyear, Michelin, Pirelli, Uniroyal and Yokohama brands.
Scott Mueller called the sale to TKI a ``bittersweet decision,'' but added: ``We grew the business pretty dramatically. The key to our company has been attracting and keeping great people. We took it as far as we could go. Tire Kingdom has a lot more resources to take it farther.''
He said he and brother Dean may appear in more of the pair's folksy, sometimes-humorous commercials for Mueller Tire in the near future.
``We're just going to kind of relax for a while. We've done a lot with this retail (operation),'' he said. ``We have a lot of fond memories. There are a lot of customers and employees we care a lot about. You grow or die in this (business) world. We think this is the best thing, not only for my brother and I, but for our associates as well.''