In the mid-1980s, Ed Stocker saw the big boys heading into his neighborhood. He wanted to make sure they didn't squeeze the not-so-big boys out.
During that time span, Sears, Roebuck and Co. subsidiary Tire America and Costco Wholesalers Inc. rolled into northern Nevada. In those days tire dealers weren't exactly proliferating in that part of the country. In fact, Mr. Stocker, president of wholesale distributor Silver State Tire Co. Inc., said he knew of only 47 independent dealers.
It's no wonder these dealers were concerned when, as he put it, the ``big hitters came into Reno at the same time.''
``Some said, `I won't let those guys take my business,' '' Mr. Stocker said in reference to the mass merchandisers. ``I believed at the time that would be the end of them, the independent tire dealers. You really couldn't take on the big boys.''
But instead of rolling over, he decided to get big as well. Using a strength-in-numbers philosophy, Mr. Stocker created Tires Plus, a marketing group for dealers in the Northwest. Now known as Tires & More (the name changed in 2001 and is a registered trademark of Silver State's), the group immediately signed 15 members (31 of the 47 northern Nevada dealers attended the initial meeting) and now has 65 single-store independent dealers in the fold.
``It took off like wild fire,'' Mr. Stocker said. ``The purpose was to show they (the dealers) had some strength in the marketplace. We identified them with signs and started using television ads in northern Nevada to promote their business.'' The group expanded to California in 1988, and Mr. Stocker said, ``the rest is pretty much history.''
The Tires Plus concept-not to be confused with the retail franchise offered by Clearwater, Fla.-based Morgan Tire & Auto Inc.-enabled members to band together to form a non-affiliated alliance. Warranties and service agreements were recognized at other members' stores throughout the region offering tire customers additional service locations should they experience problems.
That fact has not been lost on charter member Steve Cornmesser, co-owner of C Bar R Feed & Fuel in Falon, Nev. He said the benefits of membership were realized immediately.
``Customers like warranties,'' he said. ``They like to be taken care of, not only here but elsewhere. There's quite a few stores that my customers can go to besides ours....As customers of just a locally owned place, they need that.''
The dealers need it too. Membership gets them advertising support, which includes a monthly flyer and newspaper inserts, a road hazard plan (which includes free road hazard protection at no extra charge on Mastercraft, Toyo, Kelly and Falken brand tires) and Tires & More signage.
The group's membership reaches six states in the Northwest; members pay no membership fees.
``We're out actively soliciting new members,'' said Chris Roberg of Pacific Tire Distributors Inc., the group's spokesman.
Mr. Stocker said that the group's target is 100 dealers, but added, ``If we get to 100 we'll probably say 200 is a good number. But 65 is a good group.''
Many members were among the 200 attendees at the group's 17th annual meeting, held in early May in Reno. That gathering, which Mr. Roberg said included a ``mini trade show,'' featured representatives from Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp., Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., Falken Tire Corp. and Bridgestone/Firestone.
And the big boys? Well, Sears eventually left. At least Tire America did. Costco hung around and got what Mr. Stocker described as a percentage of the market on major brands, but he said that percentage never grew.
After circling their wagons, the little guys survived. Mr. Stocker is firmly convinced many of them have Tires & More to thank for that.
``I think some of the independent dealers we were doing business with would have failed,'' he said. ``And that isn't from an ego standpoint. They didn't have the strength and money.''