John Rainey readily admits working in a tire store isn't the most romantic job, but in the past 50 years of doing business at City Tire Inc., he has found ways to make it anything but dull.
Anyone who has lived in Henderson since the 1960s probably remembers some of the gimmicks Mr. Rainey, 79, has used to promote his dealership, including a live chicken hunt. In 1966 Mr. Rainey bought about 100 chickens and attached horse capsules containing numbers onto their legs.
The chickens' legs and capsules were spray-painted red before they were set loose in Henderson to roam around town. The person who caught the chicken with the lucky number won a cash prize from City Tire. And of course, anyone who caught a chicken got to keep it and eat it.
``That was called `catch the chick with the red drumstick,''' Mr. Rainey recalled. ``That went over great. We had guys bring dead chickens that got run over in the road. I had people that called me up to tell me there was a chicken in the tree behind the yard and ask, `was it OK to shoot it?' I said as far as I'm concerned it is.''
About the same time period, Mr. Rainey also had a live turkey giveaway at City Tire. Many people brought their children to see and feed live 25-pound turkeys in pens in front of the dealership and enter a drawing to win a bird.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Rainey and his wife Betty dressed up as George and Martha Washington, borrowed a horse-drawn buggy from a City Tire employee and rode into downtown. The Raineys had arranged for the town police to stop and ticket their buggy for using improper tires. The stunt landed the Raineys and their dealership on the front page of the town's paper the next day.
Nowadays Mr. Rainey's advertising schemes are simpler. He recently placed a newspaper ad in which the warning, ``Don't buy your tires in the dark,'' and the City Tire logo appear against a black background. Mr. Rainey told Tire Business that tire buyers today aren't as interested in winning money in contests anymore, so City Tire doesn't put on contests and promotions as it did in its earlier days. He added that the chicken contest would never be allowed by today's environmental regulations.
``People change a lot over the years too. I don't think that type of promotion appeals to people as much as it did,'' he said. ``I think people now appeal more to safety.... They're more concerned about hydroplaning of a tire, tire wear, safety. Pricing is not a real big factor. You've got to explain why they should buy your tire.''
Mr. Rainey said City Tire started as City Tire Recappers in November 1956. It had first operated as an oil company but became a retreading operation that year, and Mr. Rainey at the time was named vice president and general manager and became a partner in the company.
In the mid-1980s, the dealership discontinued its retreading operations to focus on new passenger tires and auto service and was renamed City Tire Inc. At that time, Mr. Rainey bought out his partners to become sole owner.
``We got out because the market was not there for us,'' he said of retreading, adding that the dealership offered retreading for all types of tires.
Today, City Tire offers Pirelli, Cooper, Delta and some offshore brands and does brake work, shocks, alignments and balancing. It also sells truck, agricultural and off-the-road tires, operates two commercial service trucks and is planning to buy another one soon, he said.
``We do a lot for the city of Henderson on graders and front-end loaders and power equipment companies like that,'' Mr. Rainey noted.
He declined to disclose City Tire's sales but said the dealership's average growth rate is about 8 to 10 percent per year. Its sales breakdown is split 50:50 between tire and service sales.
The dealership employs 12 and at one point operated five stores, but Mr. Rainey chose to sell them and consolidate into one 10,000-sq.-ft. building a quarter-mile off Interstate 85. Techs perform tire repairs, rotations, oil changes and other quick jobs in five bays located in the front of the store while commercial tire work and mechanical work is done in a large area in the back of the store.
``We are doing more business now out of one store than we did in all five stores that we had before,'' Mr. Rainey said. ``It was a small market. Things didn't move as fast in the '50s as they do now.... People will drive farther now to shop than they used to.''
Over his years in the industry Mr. Rainey was a past president of the North Carolina Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association and American Retreaders' Association (ARA) and director of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association (NTDRA), the latter two of which are forerunner associations to the present day Tire Industry Association (TIA).
One of his achievements was winning a national advertising contest for tire dealers sponsored by the NTDRA and Life magazine in 1963.
The award, presented at the NTDRA convention that year, recognized dealers who did the best job at advertising their tire brands, according to Mr. Rainey. His winnings included a reception at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington D.C. in his honor and a $2,000 scholarship to a student of his choice.
He chose to allow Henderson's Rotary club to award the scholarship to an eligible high school student, and they gave it to a young woman who ``lived out in the country in a shack of a house,'' Mr. Rainey said. She went on to graduate from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
Mike Rainey, Mr. Rainey's son, now is president of City Tire, but Mr. Rainey said he still comes in to work 20 hours a week as a consultant. ``I do it mostly as volunteer work because I just love it now,'' he said. ``What else you gonna do when you get my age?''
Although City Tire reached its 50th anniversary in the tire industry in November, there were no contests, special sales or radio and TV ads trumpeting the milestone, just a lunch with the town's mayor and the chamber of commerce.
``We decided that for the 50th we weren't going to commercialize it, just make it a thank you kind of thing,'' Mr. Rainey said.
For the past four years, the town of Henderson has voted City Tire the No. 1 tire dealer in the local newspaper. Mr. Rainey said the secret to his success in gaining second- and third-generation customers is simply being nice to people and treating them all as friends.
``I've always told my people that I feel it's more important to make friends out of your customers than it is to make customers out of your friends,'' he said. ``If they're your friends, they're going to trade with you anyway unless you don't treat them right.''