Montezuma had nothing on this crowd.
About the only noticeable ``revenge'' the historic, legendary 16th-century ruler of Mexico's Aztec Empire may have had on some American Car Care Centers Inc. dealers was a few bad cases of sunburn from languishing too long poolside.
The rest of the water was bottled and sparkling-much like the enthusiasm they exuded while gathered Feb. 5-8 in Xcaret for the marketing group's 15th anniversary national dealers' meeting/celebration, which drew a record 900 attendees.
Back when boxer Muhammad Ali was still ``floating like a butterfly,'' fight fans had their ``Thrilla in Manila.'' A-Triple-C dealers, as they call themselves, had what the company was billing as ``Xcitement at the Xcaret,'' a swanky resort on the sun-baked Gulf of Mexico coast near Cancun. If they were looking for excitement, they weren't disappointed.
ACCC executives took the occasion, first, for a feel-good, nostalgic ``Back to the Future'' retrospective of the group's roots-going way back 30-some years before ACCC was even born, to those wacky yet tame 1950s. It was a time when automotive service meant a fleet-footed crew of Texaco guys descending on your car to wash the windows, check the air, oil and fill 'er up.
Part of that getting back also required revisiting what execs called the still-true hallmark of ACCC from its 1989 founding:
* Taking care of customers, one at a time;
* Using aggressive traffic-building approaches and building awareness in ACCC's respected brand name;
* Training and education-taking care of your people so they can take care of others;
* Focusing on profitability; and
* Building the value of ACCC from within.
In the beginning, the group's founders consisted of only five wholesale distributors. Their goals and objectives were, ACCC execs noted, simple yet powerful: bring independent tire dealers together under a common identity and marketing concept, help them become more effective marketers and give them the tools to compete more profitably while maintaining their independence.
Apparently not much has changed-except if you want to count how the numbers have grown and the program has expanded.
While Memphis, Tenn.-based ACCC claims to have excelled in trying to level the playing field between itself and competitors, the group has swelled to 19 member distributors and 1,102 dealer locations in 44 states representing 800 to 850 dealers. That sound you hear is the ACCC cash register ringing up a total of $1.9 billion worth of business in 2003.
During the meeting, which drew participants from throughout the U.S., dealers heard of new efforts to hitch their stores further to the ACCC bandwagon. Most discussions began and ended with the word ``consistency.''
Being consistent, in some cases, means re-identifying a member dealership to the group's standards. Dealers were urged to take a hard look at bringing their building exteriors and showrooms into compliance with the overall ACCC design scheme, as well as remove all inconsistent identifications. They also were told to make sure they display identifications for the group's major brands of Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal and its own American Radial private label line.
Performing complete undercar service, participating in ACCC's uniform program and using the ACCC logo on all invoices, statements and stationary also are part of the group's consistency goal.
Wholesale Tire Distributors' Larry Nichols, one of the ACCC's ``founding fathers''-though he jokingly took exception to that, noting, ``I'm not that old''-emphasized what he called ``commitment through involvement.'' He asked dealers to solidify their commitment to the group by adhering to what American Car Care President and COO Len Lewin and other executives refer to as its ``pillar programs.'' Those focus on ACCC's own credit card, ``Freedom Plan'' tire warranties, coast-to-coast service warranty and the group's exclusive American brand, which will add three lines later this year.
The passenger/LT brand will grow by a sport-utility vehicle tire line, a broader ``power'' line and an entry-level tire.
Besides carrying the American line, that commitment also requires ensuring all automotive technicians are ASE certified, changing dealership business listings to reflect the ACCC name and spending 3 percent of gross sales on ACCC advertising.
Commitment, they were told, can be as simple as answering the phone ``American Car Care Centers,'' to attending all quarterly dealer meetings, purchasing 70 percent of their stock from the group's wholesalers and conducting business ``the American (as in ACCC) way.''
On hand to pump up the troops and vouch for his success with the program was Gary Grako, owner of Grako's American Car Care Center in Price, Utah. He was the very first ACCC member, something he proudly has emblazoned on his personalized Utah license plates-``1ST ACCC.''
His original Grako's Tire store, literally a rustic-looking converted garage next to his house, has given way to a brand-new boutique-ish outlet designed in 2000 by his wife Bobbi.
``I can't play golf anymore because my wife tells me, `You have to work, you're the first dealer-you've got an image to keep up,''' Mr. Grako deadpanned, to cheers and laughter from the audience.
Open 14 years, the dealership has realized double-digit increases in sales every year, he said, again to cheers.
ACCC, which ran its first national consumer promotion in 1996-offering a $50 savings bond in USA Today ads and via a direct-mail campaign-has a full calendar of events in 2004. Included are an April 1 through May 15 spring promo that features a consumer rebate program and purchases good for six months without interes, and a dealer workshop May 1-3. The company will participate in a stand-alone BFGoodrich event (not yet finalized) in June as well as a Michelin national promo in August.
In the fall, a Sept. 15-Oct. 30 promotion will include offering customers gas cards with Uniroyal and American Radial tire purchases and six months without interest on ACCC's credit card. The group also is promoting its Americash debit card which, according to Dave Crawford, ACCC's marketing director, provides spiffs on Conti and MAST products every month.
Dealers also were presented with the opportunity to freshen up their stores through a custom store decor layout guide. Take a ``before'' picture of your dealership-be it showroom, front counter, waiting room-and sketch the room's dimensions on graph paper, they were instructed. MCA Industries, a Massillon, Ohio, design firm, will then develop a computer rendering of a redesigned dealership and send it back for evaluation, Mr. Crawford explained.
Among training efforts endorsed to help dealers succeed, he also mentioned ACCC's recently announced partnership with the Tire Industry Association (TIA), allowing American Car Care members to take advantage of TIA's many programs-including its Automotive Training Service (ATS) instruction module.
ACCC dealers also can participate in an upcoming ``cash profits boot camp,'' and Mr. Crawford said a number of educational opportunities are available through alliances with ACCC's suppliers.
Strength in partnerships
Both he and Mr. Lewin reiterated the strength of ACCC was due, in part, to its tire maker partnerships. Since 1993, ACCC has worked with Michelin North America Inc. as a member of its Michelin Americas Small Tires (MAST) Alliance dealer program and, since 1996, with Continental Tire North America (CTNA) Inc.
CTNA's growing role with ACCC was evident throughout the dealer meeting. For example, Conti's Andreas Gerstenberger, vice president of sales and marketing, was on hand to present winning dealers with prizes donated by the tire maker that included electronic equipment and the grand prizes-two Chrysler PT Cruisers.
Among other prizes, two lucky dealers won trips to Hockenheim, Germany, for Formula 1 race packages donated by MAST.
CTNA and MAST ``are an integral part of our business today,'' Mr. Crawford told attendees, ``and they will continue to be in the future.''
Still, dealers were warned by one of their own not to get too complacent with their businesses.
Bill Jarvis, owner of Midwest Tire and Auto Repair and Valparaiso Tire, both in Indiana, said: ``I was, for 18 years, a direct dealer with MAST and I was in the comfort zone. And I want to tell you dealers: Don't just stay in the comfort zone.''
`From the heart'
Mr. Lewin spoke last on the business meeting agenda about where ACCC has been and where it's headed. Talk about being in a tough spot, he was in the unenviable position of being the last man between dealers and the swimming pools.
Using ``From the Heart'' as his theme, the ACCC chief underlined the ``big positives'' accomplished in 2003, including deepening relationships with MAST and CTNA.
With the recent appointment of Bill Williams, president of Jack Williams Tire, as ACCC's new chairman, Mr. Lewin said the group has ``renewed its direction and focus.'' He also reaffirmed the need for every dealer member to continue to meet the group's standards because ``every time we come up with consistency, we have a strength.''
Based on dealer feedback about the American Car Care program's strengths, Mr. Lewin compiled a list:
* Exclusive lines of products;
* National warranties;
* Size of organization;
* Overall package;
* Sharing of ideas;
* Red-white-and-blue identification theme;
* Tight-knit group;
* Training; and
* Image within the industry.
But to those positives, he said he also heard about some weaknesses:
* Fill rates;
* Dealer involvement;
* Inequity of commitment;
* National or group advertising;
* Brand awareness; and
* Lack of a wheel program.
After considering all those for a moment, he said he had to disagree. ``Our greatest strength...and weakness is our people. It's all about people. ACCC is not a program, it's about you. It's totally up to you.''
Mr. Lewin said contrary to some misconceptions, the group doesn't ``go out to markets looking for failing businesses to save. We look for the best and strongest that will help us succeed.''
Then in a challenge to dealers, he reaffirmed that ACCC ``is not just a concept-it's real, it's big, it's as strong as it was when the original group was putting the program together through tremendous obstacles.''
Yet, without constant dealer involvement-and, again, that key word: consistency-ACCC will not flourish, he cautioned, adding: ``You cannot sit back and wait until everything is perfect.''
Then, hearkening back to the group's original vision and goals, Mr. Lewin said it's time ``to take care of our customers, to build traffic, to train our employees, to build profitability, to build the brand'' and continue building the dream.