STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (Aug. 25, 2003)—Jeans and a T-shirt. Not bad for a “business suit,” and Rob Gullery wears it well.
When you've had your tricked-up vehicle featured in at least five MTV videos, all your preconceived notions about dressing for success come to a screeching halt alongside some big 22-inch tires wearing enough chrome to choke a cheetah.
For the owner and president of Tire Empire Wheel Concepts Inc., ya do what ya gotta do to get your name in lights. And if that means doing the club crawl evenings, schmoozing with the DJ's, you're there, baby. It ain't Broadway. But from its second-floor windows overlooking the Big Apple's Times Square, and only a hip-hop from the Great White Way, MTV is nonetheless a go-to lifestyles hub for the young, the hip and the wannabe hipsters. That's just the market an upscale custom wheel biz wants to coddle.
To describe Mr. Gullery as a wheeler-dealer perhaps doesn't quite do him justice. At age 36, his business casual-to-the-extreme attire belies the lesson he has learned well. It's a variation on that old adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. In this case, it's the custom wheel getting the attention of the generations who tune in to “my” MTV not only for the latest music but fashions—and, yes, vehicles—thoroughly bathed in coolness.
The exposure the dealership has received via the music and entertainment network has been golden—certainly worth its weight in increased sales.
Tire Empire has been around since 1942, when Rob's grandfather Wilbur Gullery opened a neighborhood tire shop, eventually turning over the business reins in 1970 to Rob's dad, Bobby Gullery. Rob took over in 1990, building a new store across the street from the dealership's original Staten Island location. Around that time he decided to focus on what he describes as three businesses in one:
* An automotive and tire section comprising about 55 percent of the overall picture;
* A custom wheels segment accounting for some 40 percent of sales; and
* A window tinting section (and accompanying wholesale business) that brings in 5 percent of the dealership's revenue.
If the eyes are indeed the windows to the soul, then Mr. Gullery's second-story wheel shop windows are the eyes to booming profits as they stand sentry over a NooYawk street scene awash in potential dollar signs. Tire Empire carries more than 30 brands of domestic, import and truck wheels, with fitments for sport-utility vehicles consisting of about half the company's wheel business.
Meanwhile, high performance tires—the dealership carries 11 brands, with its majors being Michelin, Uniroyal and BFGoodrich, along with Goodyear, Dunlop, Nankang and Toyo—are “a major part of our business,” Mr. Gullery told Tire Business recently on a typically hectic day. Popular sizes range from 17 up through 24 inches, he said, “and now 26 inchers. It's unbelievable.”
Originally, the company's wheel operation was actually connected to its old “downstairs” auto service and tire business until last summer when a $600,000 renovation was begun and completed in November. Rather than have two separate locations, the upstairs became the wheel center. “We wanted to keep connected to here,” he said, “because we have all the tire installers here, rather than create more overhead and have to add more employees.”
Actually, Mr. Gullery's quite satisfied operating just one location. “We'll keep it that way, too, because I'm very happy with the amount of funds—and aggravation.”
He's always been into custom wheels, but he acknowledged in the last three years that business “has exploded onto the market. Why? I think Staten Island has always been a little bit behind the times…. I've been pumping custom wheels here and, this is the truth, it created a want and a need.” That subsequently created an absolutely huge business for the dealership. He repeats the word “huge” for emphasis, noting wheels have “always been big in places like Jersey, but never on Staten Island.”
Now, Tire Empire is pulling business from “everywhere. Sometimes Bronxville, N.Y., Connecticut, New Jersey. For these kids, it's like buying a car. It's fun for them if they take a ride to Staten Island. We're only three miles from the Verazano (Narrows Bridge). So they come from Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey, which have some really good wheel shops. They enjoy it.
“They make a day of it. They come, three, four guys. Here we have a VIP lounge with PlayStations, couches all over the place. It's a fun place to come to. Even if you're just waiting for tint, it's fun to hang out here. Lotta action.”
At the mid-year point, the dealership's wheel business is up 35 percent. And that “in a year where there has not been a lot of growth in the tire business,” Mr. Gullery said. His conversation was punctuated by numerous interruptions as he fielded questions from his staff of 15 tire techs, mechanics and salespeople and occasionally shouted out instructions about a tint job.
“It helps,” he continued. “You sell a set of wheels and what do you sell? A set of tires. It's also helped with my discounts for tires. When you're buying a hundred 17- or 18-inch tires at a pop, let me tell you something—your prices come down considerably.
“I'm not saying I'm the biggest tire distributor, but as for custom sizes, I feel I do more than anybody. Anybody. And I mean the heavy hitters all across the U.S. I don't think anybody does more in 17s and up than me. And that's not being cocky....”
Combining its automotive, tire, wheel and tint businesses, Tire Empire's sales this year will probably hit in the neighborhood of $3.6 million. Currently in the peak of the season, Mr. Gullery reported the company's sales are averaging $300,000 per month.
Hot trends in any business are flighty, at best. But, according to Mr. Gullery, “22 is the number right now” in tire/wheel packages. “My target age group is 17 to 35, but I have men 45 to 50 years old putting 22s on their trucks. It's definitely trending to the older buyers. There are a lot of Caddy Escalades and GMC Yukons around here.”
The dealership displays more than 240 wheels on its 2,500-sq.-ft. showroom floor and stocks 70 percent of its sets in its equally sized upstairs warehouse. “That's the key—you have to be a stocking dealer,” Mr. Gullery said. “They come in and want to buy it on the spot. I put the wheel sets on the floor because it's a very good attraction. So if anyone picks anything on the show floor, I know I have it in stock. Bolt patterns are pretty easy now…. We don't have everything, but have a good number in stock.”
Mr. Gullery's goals for the wheel business are “just to keep growing. Wheel customers become your brake customers, and brake customers who are 50 years old have kids who become your wheel customers. It all meshes into each other. They all feed each other back and forth.
“It's all repeat business. You can't hammer anybody. So it has to be repeat, just like mechanical customers.”
Content to rely on word-of-mouth promotion, for the most part the dealership does “zero” advertising, though it does run an occasional ad in Plush, a car magazine Mr. Gullery enjoys. “My place is advertising for itself,” he said. “People say, 'You gotta see this place.' It's not your normal showroom.”
Does he consider wheels a niche market?
“I consider wheels,” Mr. Gullery begins to answer, then stops mid-thought and laughs, saying he doesn't want to divulge too much to competitors. “Yeah, when you find your niche, you're doing well. It's not that easy to open and say, 'OK, I'm a wheel place now.'
“I've been 10 years pounding this to get to the point I'm at. We're at all the car shows, wherever we have to be with the DJs, with the rappers. It's not that easy. There's a lotta promotion involved.”
Exposure on MTV and BET (Black Entertainment Television) have helped, he added, “because they pump wheels on every video they have.” Mr. Gullery bought a white Escalade, painted it blue and put a set of 24-inch wheels on it. “It created a lot of attention. That was the start. It was used in five MTV videos.” And he got paid handsomely.
“That drew in a lot of customers. You get that aura going, and that's it.”
The most expensive package Tire Empire has sold to date happened recently, when a customer purchased a set of Davin Wheel “spinner” custom wheels for his 2003 Mercedes SL55 to the tune of $12,600.
That's music to any dealer's ears, “but the best customer is one who spends $1,500 on wheels and tires,” Mr. Gullery said, “because they can buy them now. That's a level-headed person. Or they can buy 'em two years from now, or four years from now, instead of from the car dealer as an option for their car.
“That's the people you want. We can do four, five of those a day. That makes it worthwhile and you're sittin' nice. Your big sales are great, but not always worth the headaches.”
As for getting a pop from MTV, he acknowledged boosting the exposure of Tire Empire is “all about getting in the right circles. Believe it or not, that involves going to certain clubs, hanging out with certain people.
“It's not all business—it's about networking yourself. You gotta get in with these guys.... You have to reach out to the people who are involved with the stuff.”
Success depends a lot upon “how aggressive you are. You've got to be aggressive,” he said. “So you get out there and meet these people, and when they need you, they'll call you. You make relationships with them.”
But that requires being flexible.
It's not unlike taking clients out for a typical business lunch, Mr. Gullery said, “even though this is just a wheel business. There are a lot of different people. Young, old.
“You've got to change the way you do business. You're going out with a T-shirt and jeans on, not a suit and tie.
“That's the wheel business. It's a casual business. It sounds crazy, but that's how I did it.”
And he personally continues to do it, day in, day out. “You have to, because the guy that goes has to know it all.”
New York and the MTV scene were tough markets to crack, he admitted. It has taken two years of visiting clubs and contacts “to get into this group,” Mr. Gullery said. “But you start dealing with DJs from the local radio stations, and that's how it all starts.”