A new building replacing Dobbs Tire & Auto Center's flagship store may be open in time for the one-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed the almost 30-year-old outlet in Webster Groves, Mo.
Fire erupted in the 10-bay store April 3 after sparks or heat from a cutting tool ignited gasoline vapors still present in the bays after a gas tank repair. Fourteen employees were in the shop at the time, but no one was injured, and the fire was ruled an accident. A tire stockpile, shop equipment and 10 out of 12 vehicles were destroyed in the fire.
The outlet was the first location for Dobbs Tire, which at the time of the fire had 37 stores. David Dobbs, president and COO, his father Don and his grandfather refurbished the old store in the 1970s. Various memorabilia and customer photos were destroyed in the fire. The loss of the building was estimated at about $1 million.
``It's always sad when you lose a store and all those customers and you have all the memories,'' David Dobbs told Tire Business. ``So it was devastating.''
The damage was so extensive that the whole building was razed and is being replaced by an 8,000-sq.-ft., 10-bay redesigned store that should be open by late March or early April, Mr. Dobbs said. The new building will have five bays on the front and five in the back, where the old site had three bays in the front and back and others around the side. Mr. Dobbs added that the pain of losing the family business' first store was mitigated somewhat by the better design of the new store, which will look sleeker and provide better and faster service.
In addition, Dobbs Tire in July opened a new store in Shiloh, Ill., and more recently opened a shop in Wentzville, Mo. A store in St. Louis also is being torn down and replaced. With these moves, High Ridge-based Dobbs Tire will operate 39 locations. Mr. Dobbs said the dealership does not currently have definite plans for more stores in 2004.
As the Goodyear dealership waded through the fire investigation and insurance process before looking to physically rebuild, Mr. Dobbs said the company also launched a campaign to keep the Webster Groves customers.
He said the nearing completion of the rebuilt store has spawned a ``Grand Re-Opening'' campaign with local radio, television and newspapers.
``All along we've been sending out little reminders to our good, faithful Yorkshire customers,'' he said, referring to the shopping center in which the Webster Groves store is located.
Mr. Dobbs said customers from the damaged stores did go to other Dobbs Tire outlets, many even asking about the progress of the damaged store. He said one customer came into another store with a detailed description of construction work that day, giving a more timely update than Mr. Dobbs had yet received from the site managers.
``It's kind of neat that your old-time customers are just as excited as we are about rebuilding,'' he said.
It's unclear if Dobbs Tire lost many customers since April 1.
``If you go dark as long as we've gone dark, I'm sure we lost some, but we're doing everything we can to retain them and let them know where we're at,'' Mr. Dobbs said.
Interestingly, he said some customers' loyalty was to their respective technician, and they followed that employee to whichever of three Dobbs Tire stores the workers temporarily joined. He said the three stores that absorbed the 14 Webster Groves employees saw a sales increase of 5-8 percent. Mr. Dobbs jokes that he worries about the fate of those stores when the Webster Groves location reopens.
But he said the company has been fortunate in that the major investment of resources needed to rebuild the store did not hurt the company overall.
``Our business is very good,'' he said. ``It has been all year (2003)-we never missed a beat.''
Also, he said the firm has learned to appreciate the value of insurance.
``Everybody complains about the big cost of insurance, but thank goodness we had an excellent insurance plan,'' he said. ``...(It's) one of those things you hate to pay, but what a great investment.''