In perennially sunny Beverly Hills, the buses bearing tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or two in their natural habitat never pause in front of Jerry Saunders' house.
They probably should.
The Los Angeles-based tire distributor, along with his son and partner, Brad, are stars to their business partners, friends and community for having raised and contributed, by Jerry Saunders' own count, $1 million to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for diabetes research; created a foundation that promoted the health and welfare of south Los Angeles youth via scholarships for more than 400 nursing students; and has helped his employees with housing assistance and other support in their times of need. For this selfless giving, Tire Business selected Mr. Saunders as its dealer/humanitarian in 1999.
An impressive track record for a scrappy 16-year-old who, in 1958, persuaded his father to let him start Fairmount Tire & Rubber Inc. with $2,500 scraped together from his bar mitzvah gifts and savings. ``My dad said the only business you could go into with no education and no money was the tire business,'' Mr. Saunders, 65, said.
Fueled by determination, passion and a gift for numbers, Mr. Saunders started fixing flats and selling used tires from a shed with no roof and a dirt floor. He plugged away, eventually selling recaps at a pretty good clip to Cal Worthington, an iconic used-car dealer in the Los Angeles area.
When Mr. Worthington called Mr. Saunders in one day and announced he wanted to start selling used cars with four new tires, Mr. Saunders flew to Ohio and somehow got a manufacturer to have faith in an unknown kid with no warehouse and no experience. Today, with son Brad as president, Fairmount Tire & Rubber Inc. serves a network of dozens of tire dealers in the western U.S., Mexico and Central America.
When Fairmount held its 50th anniversary bash Feb. 29-March 2, they decided to party like rock stars. The weekend featured a jam-packed International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton (the venue for the Golden Globe awards), planned fly-bys of the Goodyear blimp, 800 guests feasting on steak dinners and a band complete with backup singers and go-go dancers that could put some Vegas headliners to shame.
And as anyone who has ever spent a nanosecond within the Saunders' orbit would guess, this golden anniversary party was all about the golden rule, love and family.
``If history repeats itself, and it does, then together we are a force to be reckoned with,'' Brad Saunders told the audience. ``If a solid foundation is important, then there is no limit to our future potential. If family is important, then we are unmatched in the industry.''
After watching, for the first time, a superbly crafted 40-minute video that was both a tribute to Jerry and a message from Brad on where the company is headed, the senior Saunders took the stage.
He thanked those present, singling out his wife Ilene, daughter Candie, daughter-in-law Karen and his four grandchildren, as well as those who couldn't be at the gala, like the UCLA physician who treated him free for years after he was stricken by juvenile diabetes at age 10.
Warned by other doctors that ``I would never have a job, or a family and I wouldn't live past 50,'' Jerry Saunders is having the last laugh. And he promised to keep the Fairmount DNA intact. ``With my street smarts and Brad's mastery of technology, we're going to be here, for you.''
Randy Clark, president of Dunn Tire Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., held Mr. Saunders up as a shining example of a good business partner, relating how, when Mr. Clark was head of Dunlop Tire Corp. during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fairmount not only did $780 million in business with him, but in a financial emergency, Mr. Saunders got a loan for several million dollars and sent the funds to Mr. Clark so Dunlop could make its payroll.
``I've never done one thing for the money. It's about the people. It's what you can do for others,'' Mr. Saunders told Tire Business. His mantra for what he interchangeably calls the Fairmount Tire family or his ``third child'' has been to keep the business ``simple, reliable, dependable and consistent.
``My goal is to make our employees' lives better and their families' lives better. Many times, to those ends, I'll give them merchandise at cost to help them make money.''
The company and its partners reflect the diverse markets Fairmount serves.
As the Saunders have done with dozens of independent tire dealers, they personally financed Miguel Sanchez's first tire store in 1998 and a second location in 2005. Mr. Sanchez's Avalon Tire & Wheel store in Los Angeles carries a selection of ``blinged-out'' custom wheels and tires that represent about 60 percent of sales for this urban outfitter.
``There's no pressure from Jerry or Brad. It's friendly, like family. I have all the support that I want. There's no limit,'' Mr. Sanchez said.
Simon Oh, a Korean-American who customizes cars and trucks for customers, beamed when he said, ``He's like, `tough love.' One time, when I was talking to him on the phone, asking about ordering some tires, he could tell I wasn't truly focused and gave me some great advice,'' Mr. Oh said. ``Jerry's the man! That's all I have to say!''
In Orange County, Ron Bain retails and wholesales tires and wheels. The former regional sales representative for Goodyear quit in 1997 to join the Fairmount family and open his own store, Ron's Wholesale Tire Service, in Stanton, Calif.
``It's been onward and upward ever since,'' Mr. Bain said, explaining that he loves the way the Fairmount team can react and do business. In fact, he added, he doesn't even consider interactions with Jerry and Brad business in the strict sense, but ``good relations with a loose-knit family of people who care about the tire business.''
Mr. Bain has become known as a go-to source for light trucks in his area. ``I like the light truck business. We help the working guy get the best value.''
Brad Saunders said dealers like Mr. Bain are vital for today's challenging markets. ``The beauty of the network is that each member focuses on their own markets.''
Jerry Saunders also stays close to the customers, often visiting Fairmount's lone retail store, where he can be found barking orders on the public address system and assisting the cashier. Rich Arras, the store's longtime manager, said Jerry loves coming down every afternoon to the place where it all began and chatting up customers.
``This is his Tahiti, his Cancun,'' Mr. Arras said. ``This is his vacation, his far-away island.''