Selling big wheels to big wheels means big business.
Globe Tire & Motorsports, capitalizing on Los Angeles' car-crazed culture and driver-friendly climate, generates up to a reported $1 million in sales a month in wheels, tires and accessories. But when we caught up with Arnie Sperling, Globe Tire's owner, and asked him to confirm that eye-popping figure, he was coy. ``Can I just say, `No comment'?'' Mr. Sperling asked jocularly after a thoughtful pause.
One thing we do know: Globe Tire's growth was no fast and furious success. Mr. Sperling's father, Al, opened the business in 1943 at the same West Los Angeles location it's at today. As the City of Angels grew, so did Globe Tire, as it was known for years.
General manager Mike McFarlane said a key to Globe's being at the top of its game is its clientele-which is uniquely ``L.A.'' Customers include NBA superstars, major league baseball players, entertainment and industry heavyweights and doctors. ``NBA players all come to L.A. because they play the Lakers and the Clippers,'' he said. ``A lot of the players train around here. We've also got UCLA and the summer league. The players are in and out of L.A. several times a year. ``
The maxim, ``You are what you drive,'' is taken to new heights-or lows, if that's what the automotive fashion police deem is cool this month-in this sun-kissed city of high-octane egos. From the days when chroming Mercedes-Benz wheels and 50-series Pirelli P7s were cutting edge, Globe has continued to carve out a strategic role in high-dollar customizing, sometimes called ``conversions.''
Mr. McFarlane is only too happy to deliver a real-world-based lesson on what to do with vast amounts of discretionary income.
``A ball player will get a new Cadillac Escalade. He might buy it from a guy who caters to athletes and entertainers. Some of these guys happen to be a car broker, or maybe they run a stereo shop. Or the player will have an assistant do all the arranging,'' Mr. McFarlane explained.
``They'll take that Escalade, and because the factory only offers it in about five colors, the first thing they'll do is paint it a different color-maybe a `horizon blue,' a Mercedes color, or a dark, dark metallic color,'' he said, keying in the price of a paint job. ``They'll put two-tone leather inserts in the seat; maybe put a wood kit in the car-maybe a colored wood, like blue. They'll either change or augment the carpeting. A suede headliner may go in.
``Then there's the stereo system, which will have any number of speakers and audio/video components. Sometimes they put a supercharger on the motor. And they'll do big brakes, like Brembos. They may lower the suspension slightly, tint the windows and chrome some pieces on the outside, like tow hooks. And of course they'll do big wheels and tires.''
By the time the whir of Mr. McFarlane's adding machine stops, the tab for the Escalade's extra goodies has escalated to $47,750 (without the supercharger)-on a $60,000 SUV.
Still, $100,000 for a flashy one-of-a-kind Escalade probably isn't going to burden a professional hoops player when the average salary of an NBA player is just under $5 million.
Mr. McFarlane, who got into the tire business as a teenager in Tujunga, Calif., by pedaling his 10-speed to a tire store down the street and asking for a job, is quick to point out that Globe handles only some of the conversion work. In addition to wheels and accessories, which account for 55 percent of its sales, the nine-bay operation does suspension and brake installations, installs body kits and supercharging.
A team of eight salespeople, including Mr. McFarlane and Mr. Sperling, is backed by 30 employees who all believe in service.
``We try to treat people like you'd like to be treated,'' Mr. McFarlane said. ``A lot of people like to say that, but sometimes it costs money to treat people that way. Within reason, if there's any question about the work we did, we normally give our customers the benefit of a doubt.
``We have an advantage in that L.A. is a great car town. We don't have any off-season. People are very automotive-oriented here,'' he said. ``In New York and some of the other big cities, you can have a gazillion bucks and not care about cars. But you need a car to get around out here. It's part of the culture. Here, the guy who's successful normally has a pretty nice car. If a young guy here in L.A. has a Rolex and a Brioni suit, he's probably driving an S Class.''
But the stereotype isn't a slam-dunk. ``There's a handful of guys, like Earvin `Magic' Johnson, who are not into cars,'' Mr. McFarlane said. ``He bought a Mercedes S500 back when it first came out, and he had that thing for 10 years. He put AMGs and 18s on it and that's it. But those guys are an exception. A lot of the ball players-Shaq, Kobe-have any number of really fancy cars. They're really tricked up.''
To be a successful dealership means everything from having high-end equipment, like Globe's new $10,000 Hunter balancer, to high-quality products that are priced right, Mr. McFarlane said. Giovanna, Brabus, Lorinser and Collectizone are just a few of the wheel lines the company carries.
Ensuring the correct tires are on hand ``is a big commitment'' since the most popular wheels can be sized from 17 to 24 inches. The 9,000-sq.-ft. store has 5,000 tires on hand and 4,000 more are warehoused.
``The 20-, 21-, 22-, 23- and 24-inch tires are so expensive. You have to make a commitment to bring in stock,'' Mr. McFarlane said. ``You have to have some indication you'll sell the damn things because they're expensive. Smaller places just cannot afford to keep them in stock. You're not going to buy large quantities of all those sizes to cover all those bases. That's an advantage for us. We are a Michelin dealer, and we are part of a large group that makes us a Continental/Pirelli/Yokohama dealer. And we find that the Dunlop SP9000 line fits a ton of different stuff.''
Mr. McFarlane advises tire dealers to be vigilant. ``The tire business is funny. You have to keep your head in the game, pay attention, be careful and not to pay too much for things.''