Bill Pace has got ``starz'' in his eyes.
Not unlike that old TV show with Ed McMahon, he's on something of a ``starzearch''-for dealers who can make Bridgestone/Firestone's TireStarz USA associate dealer program really sing.
As of late it's been singing, and there's no fat lady in sight.
Mr. Pace, TireStarz manager, started the year off with about 480 participating dealers. Then in June and July alone he signed up 78, bringing to more than 660 the number participating in the retail ``sell-out'' program that BFS said is designed not to sell more tires through dealers, but rather to help independent tire retailers sell more tires and increase profits.
Judging by the numbers, it's looking like TireStarz may be accomplishing both. In September, according to Mr. Pace, BFS's Bridgestone brand unit sales through TireStarz dealers were up 47 percent vs. September 2001 and, though not seeing as dramatic an increase, he said sales of Firestone units were up, as well. Year-to-date, unit sales overall were up 48 percent.
Without getting more specific, John Gamauf, BFS vice president of U.S. consumer tire dealer sales, said the Nashville-based tire maker easily will sell ``several million total units'' through its TireStarz dealers this year.
Although Mr. Pace wouldn't quantify TireStarz's dollar effect on BFS's business, he said: ``Our average sales per TireStarz location are way up. We've been up 20 or 30 percent every month for TireStarz dealers; but of course, we've also added locations.''
In order to continue to be successful, he said, TireStarz ``has to be an added value'' for dealers.
Ability to compete
It won't take much to convince Chuck Wait that he made the right move when he joined the program last May. The co-owner and president of Chuck Wait Tire in Hillsboro, Ohio, recently used his TireStarz affiliation to pull in a huge number of customers to his two retail outlets.
George Illig, a BFS rep, helped set up a promotion at the dealership that featured ``Big Foot,'' a stylized ``monster'' pickup truck with giant tires. The best-case scenario he was hoping for was to ``expose a lot of people'' to the dealership during the Oct. 11th and 12th event who previously didn't even know Chuck Wait Tire existed. His goal: ``Do some good sales'' while helping Mr. Wait combat a new Wal-Mart Stores Inc. outlet opening up down the street.
A good sales day for the Hillsboro store was typically $2,000 and about $1,500 for Mr. Wait's store in tiny Mowrystown, about eight miles away.
``In two days we sold more than $20,000 worth of tires,'' Mr. Wait excitedly told Tire Business. Even more surprising, he added, is the fact Mowrystown has a population of only 500 but the store does ``an incredible, phenomenal'' $1.9 million in annual sales. ``Since signing with TireStarz, it seems like every month we set a record.''
The event included a live radio remote during which a DJ gave Mr. Illig the microphone three times, for 10 minutes at a time, just to talk about Bridgestone technology. Mr. Wait gave away sets of tires during the radio broadcast.
And on the first night of the promotion, the dealership hired a local bluegrass band to play for a couple hours in its parking lot. In his report on the event, Mr. Illig said: ``I swear it was like a little Woodstock-you could not get near his location.''
The dealership is already making plans for a similar event next year.
TireStarz ``has given us the ability to compete with mass merchandisers,'' Mr. Wait said. ``The promotions they provide are unreal.''
``What Chuck Wait did is what TireStarz is all about,'' Mr. Pace said. ``These are the kinds of activities we want our people to pursue.''
Since its inception, TireStarz has grown from one distributor to its current 35 wholesalers, with at least two or three more currently in various stages of discussion about joining.
Like other tire companies' dealer programs, BFS requires its TireStarz dealers to meet certain criteria. For example, they must purchase a 51-percent share, or at least 150 units per month, of the tire maker's Bridgestone, Firestone and associate brands. Dealerships also must meet ``image'' standards that demand a showroom and facilities be clean and inviting.
``People are required to make their numbers'' in order to remain with TireStarz, Mr. Pace said.
He acknowledged that, from time to time, the program has what he refers to as ``subtractions''-members who leave or are asked to leave-for various reasons. ``But I don't think we lose them to the competition.''
In one recent week, he added, ``we got three dealers in Michigan who joined TireStarz from a competitor's program.''
As a member of Bridgestone/Firestone's so-called ``family channel,'' TireStarz dealers have access to the tire maker's range of product offerings as well as various support programs for all family channel members, the company said.
Dealers sign onto TireStarz through a participating distributor that cannot have ownership in the retail locations. Jerry Cash, BFS's national director of business development, told Tire Business that although BFS supports a distributor's retail dealers, ``we're not writing down the ticket for a distributor, because if they had 20 stores, you'd be giving them a discount to be in the retail business.
``Our goal, whether a customer buys through a distributor or direct from the company,'' he continued, ``is that we want to make sure he feels he's a part of the Bridgestone/Firestone family.''
He and Mr. Pace noted that, unlike some competitors' programs, TireStarz has no monthly or annual fees.
A TireStarz press release noted that a recent convert to TireStarz, Victor Quick, used his affiliation with the program as an impetus to remodel his Quick Tire store in Cullman, Ala., and relaunch the 15-year-old business.
According to BFS, Mr. Quick, the dealership's president, said ``the new tire wall display modules, which we have from the TireStarz program, make it easy to change the look and feel of the store. Many customers have commented on how good the store looks. Now, we certainly have a more attractive and professional appearance.''
During the three-day grand re-opening, Quick Tire reported it sold more than 200 tires and signed up more than 200 customers for the TireStarz credit card program.
There's also a somewhat new wrinkle to the TireStarz program that's still in the experimental stages. Called ``TireStarz Lite,'' it is, like its famous beer counterpart, less filling-and likely contains less calories.
BFS has been testing Lite for about nine months through several distributors, including University Wholesale, based in New Hampshire, Pomp's Tire Service in Green Bay, Wis., and Jacksonville, N.C.-based Target Tire.
The scaled-down version offers approximately 75 percent of the benefits of the full-blown TireStarz, but is geared towards smaller retailers who must sell at least 100 units per month. According to Mr. Gamauf, ``most dealers sell at least 75 units, and we're finding that there are a whole slew of guys who sell between 75 and 150 units.'' The hope is that many of those participating in Lite will, Mr. Pace said, eventually graduate to the full program.
In it `to win'
Asked to describe himself, Mr. Pace, a 38-year BFS veteran, paused momentarily, a bit surprised at the request. Then he began with ``aggressive, a very success-motivated realist,'' insisting he's ``always optimistic-never at all a pessimist.'' If anything-call him honest-he readily admits: ``I love to win.''
He's one of those glass-is-half-full kinds of guys, except he'll always see it as more than just half-full.
With the blizzard of bad publicity BFS endured during its voluntary tire recall in 2000, TireStarz was one of several bright spots in what was a bleak time for the tire maker. Tire dealers didn't abandon the ship, Mr. Pace said, but rather, they continued to sign on to the TireStarz program, which BFS rolled out through wholesale distributors in late 1998.
Mr. Gamauf explained that the tire maker set up its popular Affiliated Dealer program ``for a lot of the mom-and-pop-type smaller dealerships. Then all of a sudden, we started going after my customers' customers. So that's why we developed TireStarz.... (It) saves us from going out and spending $1 million-plus every time to build a company-owned store. We can save those assets and put them into, say, building a factory.
``We'd rather work hand-in-hand with distributors to go into markets we're not getting into,'' instead of building more stores.
And if the current unprecedented growth of BFS's tire sales were to continue, Mr. Gamauf said the company would need to ``build a new plant every 18 to 24 months.'' Ninety percent of those sales are coming from BFS's family channel, he said.
``I've got to turn my inventory every three or four weeks-that's unbelievable,'' he added.
Why focus on dealers? ``Ever since I've been with the company-and that's 33 years-independent dealers have always been and will be the focus of where the public goes for tires. They give the value, the service. Their focus is tires, and we want quality people selling our tires.''
It's in the manual
Each of the loyal cadre of TireStarz participants recently received a hot-off-the-presses ``Owner's Manual.'' Perhaps unlike hefty computer software guidebooks most people fail to crack open, this one is meant to become dog-eared through use.
It's basically a resource book that, in about 40 slim pages, encapsulates everything a TireStarz dealer needs to know to be successful and who to call to do it, Mr. Pace said.
And that covers a lot of ground, such as road hazard warranties available through some 20,000 dealers nationwide, co-op advertising/marketing programs, signage, integrated retail promotions, a tire resource guide and an outline of the company's series of ``retail education workshops.''
Other components include programs for Cintas uniforms and Kendall Oil and a credit card program owned and operated by BFS's credit department, rather than a bank.
The company also offers TireStarz dealers a ``turn-key'' flyer program with pieces produced in-house by BFS-such as dealer discount cards tailored to a specific market.
An auto parts program available through a deal with NAPA has continued to grow, Mr. Pace said. Last year dealers purchased $5 million worth of parts. Through the end of this year's third quarter, he said parts sales are up 60 percent to $6.2 million.
Education also has become an integral part of TireStarz. For instance, ``Driving Force'' is a ``pro-certified'' program in which dealers learn about and are tested on their knowledge of tires, BFS products and technology.
After passing a test administered over the phone or Internet, dealers are then qualified to receive spiffs for selling BFS products on a credit card, at no cost to the distributor or dealer.
``Every manufacturer has an incentive program, a spiff to sell its products,'' Mr. Cash noted. ``Why just give someone money to sell your tires? You need to accomplish something at the same time.''
Through Sept. 30, some 279 TireStarz dealers participated in at least one of the all-day educational programs the company holds three to four times a year in Nashville.
Workshops cover subjects including essential, advanced and professional selling and telephone skills; time management; retail sell out; tire product knowledge encompassing engineering and product knowledge.
TireStarz also holds meetings-``lots of them,'' Mr. Pace said-throughout the year for its wholesaler members. It's during those gatherings that, for instance, new products and marketing information are rolled out.
But they're not all about just business.
Earlier this year, during a TireStarz meeting and trade show held by Lexington, Ky.-based wholesaler S&S Tire, Michael Carey of Carey's Tire in Ironton, Ohio, got on stage and proposed to his long-time girlfriend, Bridgit Dickens.
Here was a guy who knew his priorities.
``He said he had a commitment to TireStarz,'' Mr. Pace said, ``but he had another commitment that was more important to him.''