When Joseph Rinderle founded his tire dealership in downtown Milwaukee in 1932, it was the birth of a family legacy that has survived three generations.
His son Robert learned the trade working in the store and eventually took over ownership. Then Robert's son Mark joined the business, gaining hands-on experience before taking the helm.
That transition, from the second to the third generation, was a major change for the one-outlet dealership, as it became computerized and added automotive service, a second store and more employees.
Now Mark Rinderle is employing his teenage son and anticipates the continuation of the modernized family business under a fourth generation.
Like his father, Mr. Rinderle began working at the tire shop, now known as Mark J. Rinderle Tire Inc., when he was just a teenager, at 15. He learned the business by working in it and often ran the shop when his dad was away. But in his youth he divided his time between the shop and a career in off-road racing.
After about 10 years of racing and realizing he couldn't do both pursuits, he opted for the career that made more money, he told Tire Business.
As he focused his energies into the family business, Mr. Rinderle urged his father to modernize the dealership-mainly by adding computers.
Other than relocating the shop to the south side of town, the elder Mr. Rinderle ran the dealership pretty much the way his father did-he sold only tires and did the accounting by hand.
Computerization was too technical for the elder Mr. Rinderle, who ``started seeing the handwriting on the wall,'' according to his son. He turned the business over to his only son and essentially made a clean break from the business about 15 years ago.
The first thing Mark did when he took over was to install computers to track accounting, customer records and inventory.
He then added automotive service, because in today's business climate, he said, ``you can't just do tires.''
Sales of tires, ranging from passenger up to grader size, still account for about 80 percent of the business. The mechanical end, he said, mainly takes care of the tire customers and gets their vehicles aligned.
With all the changes, Mr. Rinderle's proudest accomplishment was designing and building a second store in the farm community of Neosha outside Milwaukee five years ago.
Despite the concerns of his father and business associates about the viability of a second location, Mr. Rinderle pursued his dream. He researched the area, bought farmland along a major highway and built a seven-bay location that not only services the vehicles of Milwaukee commuters but also the farmers and truckers.
The long-established dealership name and reputation helped the second store get off the ground.
``When the `Rinderle' sign went up, people stopped and asked if that was the same as the one in Milwaukee. The business took off from people just knowing us,'' he said.
With the expansion and other changes to the business, the workforce increased from three or four people under his father to 21 today.
Mr. Rinderle, who operates out of the larger Neosha store, has no more plans for expansion, acknowledging ``now I've done what I want to do.'' But the question remains as to whether the family business will continue under a fourth generation.
So far, Mr. Rinderle's son Joseph, 18, is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by learning the trade while working part-time at the dealership.
At age 46, Mr. Rinderle said he is not planning to retire for a while. So, like his own father, he is not pushing his son about taking over the business. ``I want him to be happy and do what he wants.''
The younger Rinderle, who is planning to attend a technical college, learned mechanics at school and from working in the shop. Mr. Rinderle said he can send his son out on service calls, but as far as running the business, he said he wants to see his son become more mature.
However, he said, ``I don't want to take the kid out of him.''
Even if his son joins the business full time, Mr. Rinderle wants to ensure there is still father-and-son time.
``With my dad and grandpa and me, business came first, and they never got to do anything outside of work,'' he said. ``I'm trying not to have that.'' He still wants to take time off to take vacations with his son.
Besides his son and wife Debra who also helps out part time, Mr. Rinderle's only other relative in the business is his brother-in-law, Dick Doome, who manages the Milwaukee store.
His advice to other dealers who want to maintain a family-owned business is: ``If you want family in the business, you have to treat them all equal, like they are not any better than anyone else in the company.
``The business does not rely on you yourself. I tell my son, `If I die tomorrow, the phones will still ring. The customers will still come in,''' he said. ``I treat my son like other employees. I don't treat him any different. And the other employees see that.''
If the Rinderle tire business passes to the fourth generation, it may face some of the same stiff competition that exists now, Mr. Rinderle surmised.
He bemoaned what he views as tire manufacturers catering more to the large merchandisers and warehouse clubs at the expense of the independent tire dealers.
During dealer meetings the manufacturers ``always said the small-business guy was their backbone. What happened to us?'' he said. ``Now they won't talk to us. We have to go through their warehouses.
``We're forced now to watch out for ourselves. It's disheartening. You see the clubs' (low) prices and then you look at your own,'' he said, adding, ``the profit margins are the same as years ago but we just have to sell more.''
That's why Mr. Rinderle opened his second store away from the city-and the price competition. He reasons that local customers will choose to come to his Neosha store rather than drive 45 minutes to the Wal-Mart store or Sam's Club.
The dealership's sales have been growing in recent years-climbing from $1.5 million a year ago to $2 million this past fiscal year, ended July 1. But the profits haven't corresponded with the sales increase, he said.
Despite the changes in the marketplace and within the company, Mr. Rinderle retains the customer service tradition of his father and grandfather.
Mr. Rinderle recalled that when his father ran the dealership he didn't have airguns, but used four-way wrenches-and all the work was done outside in all types of weather. ``(The business) is updated and modern but it still comes down to taking care of the customer,'' he said.
``People are still people. Service is still service. Tires are still tires. You got to be as honest and straight as you can.''