A former Tire Kingdom Inc. and Tires Plus executive is venturing into the crowded, highly competitive southern Florida market with a chain of Tuffy automotive outlets.
Aubrey Felton, formerly an executive with TBC Corp.'s retail business, is the president and CEO of Felton Tire & Auto Inc., which has opened three Tuffy Tire & Auto franchise stores since April, has two more under construction and is in negotiations for an additional two stores in Palm Beach County. He hopes to have at least six stores completed by year-end, he said.
All the stores operate as Tuffy outlets. Mr. Felton, 36, of West Palm Beach, worked as the regional vice president and division vice president of Tires Plus/Morgan Tire & Auto Inc. from 1994 to 2001, and then as senior vice president of TBC Corp.'s Tire Kingdom retail chain until March. He said he left Tire Kingdom because it required a constant travel commitment that kept him away from his family.
Mr. Felton said he began seriously thinking about purchasing his own stores in 2005. Working as the vice president for one of the nation's largest retail tire and automotive chains helped him learn a tremendous amount about the back end of the business. He learned how to negotiate deals with suppliers and vendors and also about rebate and buying programs.
Working his way up through two companies that both grew from small to large was a good training ground, he said.
``You get to learn a lot and meet a lot of contacts and see how other successful people have started their own companies, and (I) just felt it was time to try it on my own,'' Mr. Felton said.
He purchased his first store, Tuffy Automotive in Port St. Lucie, Fla., from Tuffy Associates Corp. in April. Mr. Felton chose Tuffy because it already has national brand recognition-and he doesn't have to spend time building his own brand-and 50 stores operating in Florida. Tuffy also lets him ``get involved with better buying programs,'' he said.
His first store, which had operated under Tuffy for two-and-a-half years, was closed when the previous franchisee went out of business.
The 4,750-sq.-ft. outlet reached record sales in its first month of ownership under Felton Tire & Auto, Mr. Felton said. He purchased his second store, in Melbourne, Fla., from another Tuffy franchisee. That 4,800-sq.-ft. store, which opened June 1, saw its revenue rise 35 percent from the sales it had achieved under the previous owner, Mr. Felton said.
Felton Tire retained the Melbourne outlet's original manager and six employees and hired two more employees.
Mr. Felton's third acquisition in West Palm Beach opened July 1. He purchased the 6,000-sq.-ft. six-bay facility from Pan American Tire because its owner was retiring. Mr. Felton said he completely remodeled the store, installing a new point-of-sale system, new paint, furniture and fixtures and all new John Bean Co. shop equipment. The West Palm Beach store, a former Cooper dealership, also will house Felton Tire's corporate headquarters.
Mr. Felton has two other locations under construction. The store in Clermont, Fla., will be a 5,300-sq.-ft. service facility that features eight bays-four in front and four in the back, while the Leesburg, Fla., location will have 5,200 square feet and eight service bays. Both are being leased directly from Tuffy Associates Corp. The Clermont location is slated to be open Nov. 1, and the Leesburg location around December, Mr. Felton said. Both facilities are in new retail areas and will have 10 employees.
In addition to tire sales, all Felton Tire locations offer full service repairs, brake alignments, tune-ups, diagnostics and nitrogen tire inflation. They also service clutches and transmissions. Felton Tire locations carry all major brands including Cooper, Michelin and Yokohama along with TBC's Sigma line.
Mr. Felton said the way his customers are treated will keep them coming back. Felton Tire customers receive calls to see how service was handled. All customers receive thank you notes inside their cars, and women patrons also receive carnations.
``Price at that point doesn't become such an issue, so we don't have to go out and compete with low-ball oil changes and other enticements to bring customers in-basically to bribe them to come back,'' he said. ``We're gonna bring them back on our name.''
Mr. Felton said he does not feel his stores directly compete with Tire Kingdom.
``We're 80 percent service, 20 percent tires, where Tire Kingdom is more 30 percent service and 70 percent tires, so I only compete with them on a small section of the business model,'' he explained.
``Actually I'm a customer of Tire Kingdom now. I buy my tires from them,'' he added. ``I compete somewhat with them. The stores I have now are not in direct competition, they're in the same market but they're not directly across the street.''
It's too early to tell if owning his own chain of stores is more stressful than working at Tire Kingdom, he said. It has made him a ``one-person corporate office,'' he added.
``Everything down to bathroom air fresheners-everything had to be handled by me.''
He projected that first-year sales would be about $5.5 million.
Opening the stores was easy, Mr. Felton said. Setting up the backup with accountants and point-of-sale accounts was the difficult part.
``I wasn't really prepared for the shear velocity of how much had to be done so quickly to get it up and running,'' he said.
``This is the most exciting thing I've ever done in my career and it's also the most frustrating and stressful at the same time.'' he said.
Having performance numbers to hit at a major corporation is stressful, but having your own money on the line is much worse, he said.
``As a good friend of mine said to me, `You don't need an alarm clock when it's your own money,''' he said. ``You don't have to worry about missing appointments or being late for anything because you're always an hour early because you're personally attached to everything that's going to happen.''
Mr. Felton said he plans to keep his expansions limited to southern Florida. ``I don't intend to go beyond the state of Florida at this time, unless an opportunity arises,'' because the state's annual 10- to 15-percent population growth makes Florida a desirable market.
While Mr. Felton said he has no target number in mind, he would like to keep it to a ``manageable number of stores''-probably between 25 and 30 within the next five years.
Starting Aug. 1, Mr. Felton will open a consulting, management and marketing company that will focus on helping small tire service center owners. Automotive Center Solutions Inc. will teach owners how to compete against major retailers, improve cash flow, streamline marketing efforts to reduce cost, reduce turnover and liability and develop structured growth plans.