VICTOR, Iowa-Jack's Tire Service may be the only ``self-serve'' tire dealership in the world run on the honor system.
Its very location is unusual-on owner Mervin Jack's 200-acre Iowa farm, about nine miles outside of Victor, a town of fewer than 1,000 between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Also, Mr. Jack has another job, delivering and installing Amana appliances, so he can't be on the premises during the day. But if a farmer needs a new tractor tire or a repair on an old one, he usually needs it immediately, said Mr. Jack, himself a farmer for 25 years who began working the land while a senior in high school.
Mr. Jack got into the tire business almost by accident. As he remembers it, a number of factors converged: he found himself with a lot of tires on his property; his younger brother bought tire mounting machinery; and Linda, Mr. Jack's wife of 33 years, got tired of making trips into town and waiting long hours to get her tires worked on.
``It got to the point where my wife said, `Here, you deal with this,''' he said. ``We just decided to buy a tire machine and do our own tires ourselves, and one thing led to another.''
In the 1970s, Mr. Jack, his dad and younger brother farmed 1,150 acres of corn, soybeans, hay and pasture, plus fed more than 200 cattle and 1,500 hogs per year. ``With that much farm machinery, we had over 300 tires in use, and it seemed like every time we turned around, there was something flat or blown out,'' he told Tire Business, recapping how he entered his chosen profession. ``Like every farmer, we wished we had our own tire machine, and in 1981 we bought one. From that day on, it just started happening.
``We started keeping a few tires on hand, and then neighbors started stopping in and wanting tires repaired, and it just kept growing.''
Mr. Jack said his brother went to an auction and came home with an old Chevy truck that had an air compressor on it and a few more tire tools, now allowing them to fix tractor tires out in the fields ``and not have to call someone else for service. With the addition of a portable generator and an old barrel pump, we could even repair tractor tires with fluid in them.
``I remember one day I had to carry water from a creek to mix up more calcium to refill a tire for a neighbor.''
Mr. Jack quit farming in 1992-``on the advice of my banker and my wife,'' he said-and briefly tried to make Jack's Tire his full-time business. But he soon found that didn't work. That year he started working second shift at a local welding shop.
``That worked out pretty good, as I could work tires late mornings and early afternoons and go to my job at night. Only one problem: Second shift was not intended for people with families, and you have no social life at all.''
Eventually he quit that job and drove a gas truck for four years while working part time on the tire business, then again in 1998 made a brief attempt to take it full time.
``I took the job with Amana largely for the health and retirement benefits,'' he said. ``My wife owns a flower shop, so the benefits are welcome. I turn 55 next year, so I'll be eligible for retirement. That might be my opportunity then to go full-time with the tire business.''
Meanwhile, Jack's Tire has continued to cultivate its self-serve niche.
``Customers will call and ask if I have a tire, and I will tell them where it is located or where a tube is, and many times they just take care of it themselves,'' he said. ``Hardly a day goes by that I don't come home and find several tires to replace or fix before I go to other projects.''
``I don't lock my door,'' Mr. Jack noted. ``I have the machines to mount, balance, buff and patch tires, and most of my customers know how to use them. So if a farmer needs a tire, he just comes in, takes what he needs, leaves me a note telling me what he took, and I send him a bill. I've been in business 23 years, and I've never lost a thing.''
Most of his tire business centers on serving farmers, ``and they often need a tire repaired as soon as possible. I have taught many of them how to use the tire machine and which type of patch to use.
``I know that people who don't know us would think this is kind of strange,'' he said, ``but I figure that since my customers trust me to be fair, why shouldn't I trust them?
``A patch or two won't break me, and it won't make them rich. And besides, they are the ones who have to look at themselves in the mirror.''
This atmosphere of neighborly trust is the hallmark of both Mr. Jack's business and his attitude toward his neighbors. And he's happy to sell tires to his fellow farmers in person on evenings and weekends-``my busiest times,'' he said.
Jack's Tire buys most of its stock from American Tire Distributors Inc. in Des Moines and Associate Brand Distributors in Dubuque. When he goes to trade shows, Mr. Jack said sales people jokingly call him ``Mr. Dropped Off, as that is usually what the delivery drivers write on the tickets when they leave my tires.''
Running an always-open shop out of his home can have its advantages, but Mr. Jack admitted ``sometimes it can be a pain in the neck, too.'' People think that just because he's home, ``I have nothing better to do than to repair their manure spreader tire on a Sunday afternoon. Many times I have gone out on a service call early in the morning before going to work or even to church. Family plans can be changed or delayed just by a phone call.''
Still, he speaks proudly of his ``personal record''-nine rear tractor tires and six rears replaced or repaired on one Saturday night after working all day at the general store.
Sometimes even his tire customers aren't sure of his work schedule. Mr. Jack recalled one who ``called me at 6 a.m. and wanted to know when I was going to get to his tractor tire. He was kind of embarrassed when I told him that I had taken care of it at 3:30 that morning. He said that he had waited up for me until (midnight) and decided that I wasn't coming. No faith!''
Asked about liability concerns and what would happen if someone was injured at his shop while working alone on a tire, Mr. Jack said: ``I've got liability insurance, but I don't know if that situation is specifically covered or not. I figure it might be the same thing as if someone walked across my farm while hunting and got injured while doing that.''
In his ``spare'' time, Mr. Jack enjoys hunting pheasant and deer, has planted more than 30,000 trees in 12 years on his farm-which was his grandparents' homestead-and keeps 10-15 acres of food plots for wildlife. An amateur vintner, he has made some 20 different kinds of wines. ``I think some customers just come here for a sample and just happened to have a tire that needed repairing,'' he joked.
While his brother got out of the tire business more than 20 years ago, Mr. Jack's son Neal-who makes plastic injection molds as his full-time business-still comes in to help out. Neal and his wife made Mr. Jack a grandfather for the first time May 31, with the birth of their daughter Kayla. Mr. Jack's other child, Sherry, is a school psychologist.
As long as his health is good, Mr. Jack said he would like to keep doing what he does, because ``I feel that I am needed in this rural area, as more and more of my competition have gone broke or quit doing farm tires.''
And, he added, it's a job ``that I feel you just can't find help that would do it right.''
Jack's Tire continues to thrive despite its out-of-the-way location and little promotion-``after you go by our shop the gravel road turns to dirt,'' Mr. Jack said, joking: ``Does that make us a redneck tire shop?''
``The only advertising I do is to give out a good `K-brand' hat with my name on it and word of mouth.
``A satisfied customer is the best form of advertising that I can find,'' he said. ``Besides that, I have about all the work that I can get done!''