While success in the tire industry often is measured by store count and profits, two tire dealers have chosen a much narrower path and base the success of their companies on a higher purpose.
Bob Dabrowski, president of Tire Warehouse Central Inc. (TWC) in Keene, N.H., and Steve Craven, president of Fairfax, Va.-based Craven Tire & Auto, both turn to the Bible instead of best-selling business and self-help books to find the guiding principles and practices by which they operate their dealerships-and their lives.
At TWC, this means employees dress neatly and don't smoke or swear on the dealership's premises. Delivery truck drivers operate company vehicles with Scripture verses on the license plates. Blue jeans, boots, short shorts and earrings on men or any type of body piercing are unacceptable for employees.
Honesty and integrity also are the hallmarks expected from all employees at Craven Tire, where techs and salespeople are trained to empathize with customers' concerns.
``The average tire repair shop lacks empathy,'' Mr. Craven said. ``They don't care about the customer....We really care and we really listen. We're not just out to take the customer's money. We go way beyond that.''
When asked why they would base their livelihoods on religious-based philosophies, both men responded with clarity.
``The answer to every moral or business or life question is there,'' said Mr. Craven, calling the Good Book his moral standard and business handbook.
``I knew it was right. I knew God would help me to make this (business) grow,'' Mr. Dabrowski said.
Each of Craven Tire's eight stores have posted on its walls a four-point mission statement pledging ``to love our customer'' by practicing the following:
* Giving accurate, honest estimates and recommendations;
* Doing the job right the first time;
* Having the vehicle ready when promised; and
* Communicating clearly what work was performed and why.
On that last point, Mr. Craven said he spends quite some time training employees to emphasize facts to a customer.
``We don't talk about brakes being shot or tires worn out,'' Mr. Craven explained. ``I want measurements on brake lining thickness, on rotor thickness. I want specific details of why something needs to be replaced.''
Employees follow Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) guidelines of explaining to customers why it's in their best interest to have a repair done. A checklist also is given on each car.
The dealership also is committed to charging fair and consistent prices-a direct result of Mr. Craven's interpretation of Bible verses in Proverbs warning merchants not to carry different weights and measures ``in their bag.'' He explained that in biblical times merchants would cheat the poor and uneducated with a lighter set of weights because they couldn't afford to verify the accuracy of those weights like wealthier customers could.
``One of the things about the car business that I've deplored over the years is how one consumer will come in and negotiate a price almost to nothing, and (the shop) will try to make it up on an unsuspecting elderly person who walks in the door by charging full sticker,'' Mr. Craven said. ``That's having different weights in your bag.''
Mr. Craven, who's owned his dealership for 20 years, said it was only in the last 10 that he decided to run the business according to his beliefs, realizing business and life are all the same. He said it took time after he first posted the company's mission statement on the walls before the business began following his vision.
``I put up the signs, and I just expected everything to just change, and it didn't,'' he said. ``It's been a gradual process of how to make it work. It just doesn't happen by itself.''
Since he bought out his partner in 1998, Mr. Dabrowski has taken great care to run TWC according to his beliefs, particularly in practicing honesty. ``When I started in the tire business 31 years ago, I was told that everybody in the tire business lies,'' Mr. Dabrowski told Tire Business. ``I said, `Well, I know how to handle that. I just tell the truth all the time because people who lie have to wonder what they said so they have to lie again to stop wondering.'''
The company's dress and no-smoking policies go back to 1976 when Mr. Dabrowski decided it was time for a change. He didn't want service techs to keep long hair anymore because they could easily be caught in a spin balancer. He also didn't want any customers to be offended by poor grooming on the part of employees.
Since then he's read many articles affirming his belief that people who dress up take more pride in the quality of their work, and he emphasizes to his employees that their jobs are worthwhile.
``What I'm trying to do is build good people, to let them be proud of themselves and their jobs,'' he explained.
Besides changing employee dress and conduct policies, Mr. Dabrowski reserves a full page in the company's bi-monthly newsletter for a biblical lesson or a story that somehow ``incorporates Christ.'' He has given full charge of that page's content to one of his vice presidents.
Under Mr. Dabrowski's leadership, TWC operates 27 company-owned stores and 25 franchised outlets throughout New England, with two new franchises expected to come on board by year-end. In 2002 the company posted $54.5 million in retail sales. Ninety percent of the company's sales are retail, and 10 percent come from a wholesale operation.
Both Mr. Dabrowski and Mr. Craven say their openness about their beliefs at work has not created too many problems either with employees or customers. Mr. Dabrowski recalled that when he took over full ownership of the company and stated the business would be more Bible-based, only one of 250 employees was offended-a driver who remarked that he would never put a Bible verse on his company vehicle. Mr. Dabrowski's response was that the policy would be in effect for all.
``It doesn't matter what you do in your company as long as you do it for everybody,'' he said. ``If you start to discriminate, it doesn't have to be religion, it could be anything.'' He pointed out that when he first instituted a dress and no-smoking policy 27 years ago, no one quit because of it.
As he's governed his company by his Christian values, Mr. Dabrowski claimed work ethics among personnel have changed for the better and turnover is low. He recalled how he enlisted the services of a headhunter only to find out that the headhunter had commissioned someone to try to hire Mr. Dabrowski's workers away from TWC.
``He said `Well, I want to know if you're a good place to work, and if I can hire all your people, that means they're ready to abandon ship anytime,''' Mr. Dabrowski said of the incident.
Mr. Dabrowski also makes a point of treating his workers to some fun by taking them out to a nearby track he rents every other week for a whirl in a NASCAR-style race car he owns. He takes 10-15 employees at a time on a work day, pays for their day, buys their lunches and lets them drive three 10-lap races.
At Craven Tire, Mr. Craven said he tries to give an orientation to each new employee and tells them personally that he believes Jesus ``died for my sins and my goal in life is to honor Him with everything I say and do and run the business on biblical principles. And that doesn't mean that's what they have to do or what they have to believe, and they'll never hear from me again about it.''
He said he's never been harassed by an employee for being upfront with his beliefs and has even employed Muslims who said nothing about it and were allowed to stop and pray during the work day.
Each store also displays racks for customers containing tracts of Christian literature, free Bibles and area church bulletins. Over the years, the racks have generated some complaints from customers demanding that Mr. Craven remove the literature or they'll never come back.
``I politely told them that I'm sorry they feel that way, but I'm not going to remove the reading material, that quite frankly, they should feel quite comfortable coming to a business that really takes morality and ethics to heart,'' he said. He noted that those he lost as customers didn't hurt his business. Craven Tire's eight locations are expected to post $14 million in sales in 2003, and all are profitable, he said.
Though the school bells are ringing again, students at Trinity Christian School in Keene will have to wait until October before hitting the books or taking physical education classes in their new gymnasium and soccer field. And they may have to wait for some computer and soccer equipment to arrive.
But the fact the 30,000-sq.-ft. building-which sits on eight acres-even exists for this school year can be attributed to Mr. Dabrowski and, according to him, some help.
For years, Mr. Dabrowski's wife had served on a search committee for their church to try to build a kindergarten to sixth grade private Christian school, but ``the doors were all closed,'' he said. Then one day Mr. Dabrowski noticed one of his friends was selling his home and eight acres of land, which happened to be zoned for a school and was situated on a bus route. A firm believer in giving back to his community, he bought the property, sold it at a discount to his church and helped pitch the feasibility of the school to the congregation.
The church was able to raise enough funds for the first phase of the project immediately, and the second phase's funds soon followed as well. Mr. Dabrowski personally bought a used bulldozer and Caterpillar loader and did 80 percent of the earthmoving necessary on the property to make way for the school. He also was responsible for obtaining the school's permits and mitigating all wetland issues.
He said the reasons for his involvement in the project were his belief that children need to be taught right from wrong and to take responsibility for their wrong actions. He also said this is one of the tangible ways he as a businessman can live out his beliefs.
``I'm 65 years old...and I get more done now,'' he said. ``I don't work as hard, but I got more assets to apply. God has given me wisdom to apply it because he knows my body is wearing out. I'm not one to stand on a street corner or stand up in front of church and preach the Bible, so I have to use mechanical ways to spread God's Word.''
When Mr. Craven isn't working on the day-to-day aspects of running his business, he also is busy helping others who can't help themselves. His dealership volunteers to perform car repair for families who can't afford it. And Mr. Craven, who owns a Cessna airplane and holds a pilot's license, volunteers his free time for a nonprofit pilot association called Angel Flight.
Angel Flight is made up of 10,000 volunteer pilots nationwide who fly patients needing specialized treatments to the appropriate hospitals, Mr. Craven said. His routes are limited to the Mid-Atlantic region, and he said he fills in for pilots who have to cancel at the last minute. He has flown more than 125 missions, carrying cancer patients and ``children who were burned unbelievably.''
Mr. Craven said often he will get a call and be able to be in the air in less than two hours. He's flown north to Boston and as far west as Dallas. He's received many cards and thank you notes over the years for his service and noted the experience has ``changed his life.''
Everything about his business and personal life is focused on becoming a ``servant leader'' like Jesus, he said.
``That's really what it's all about for me.''