MONROE, Ind. (Sept. 29, 2008) — When Paul Zurcher started a gas and service station 60 years ago, he was 23 and had little experience beyond pumping gas and working on a farm.
World War II had interrupted his schooling, and when he came home from his Army service after the war ended, his future weighed heavily on his mind. His father wanted him to continue working on the family farm, while his mother laid out three potential career paths for him: a banker, a mail carrier or a businessman.
With a dream of owning a business, Mr. Zurcher borrowed $300 from a local bank in 1948, bought a closed single-bay station in Monroe and opened a Mobil gas station.
“When I decided to go into business, I saw that first, there was a need for someone to provide people driving automobiles with gas (and) to provide them with service,” Mr. Zurcher said. “In other words, there was a need. And I felt that if I could supply that need better than anyone else, I believed that I could be successful.”
Today, Mr. Zurcher, 84, has the success he envisioned and more. That original single outlet has grown into Best-One Tire & Service, one of North America's largest tire dealer marketing groups with 250 locations in 14 states and $730 million in annual sales.
Not every person who starts a tire dealership achieves the growth and profitability Mr. Zurcher has had during his career. In fact, many entrepreneurs through the years have knocked on Mr. Zurcher's door seeking counsel on opening tire stores and in some cases, financial assistance for startup costs.
Tire Business spoke with Mr. Zurcher at his store, Zurcher Tire Inc. in Monroe, on what philosophy and principles have guided him and his company to become one of the dominant players in the tire industry.
Feeding the mind
Mr. Zurcher summed up Best-One's philosophy simply as “to serve others with honor, love, dignity and respect, and to live with integrity and lead by example.”
Caring serves as the foundation of everything Best-One does, he emphasized.
On that foundation stand four principles that Mr. Zurcher has worked hard to convey to employees and customers:
* Eagerness for the future;
* Excitement about leadership; and
* Friendship with God.
In explaining why these principles are important in business, Mr. Zurcher began with enthusiasm, which he said is “dynamic.”
“I think if one is going to be enthusiastic about life, it is because they love what they're doing,” he said. “They love people, they love themselves, they love their family, they love their work. I learned back early in life that hard work makes dreams come true.”
Enthusiasm, according to Mr. Zurcher, is more than a feeling of excitement. He said enthusiasm involves not only loving your work but also persistently pursuing your goals. An enthusiastic person will never stop learning because growth comes from learning, he told Tire Business.
“When I decided I wanted to pursue my dream to go into business, I made a commitment to myself. And that commitment was to spend an hour and a half a day feeding my mind. I kept that commitment to this day.”
In a conference room in Mr. Zurcher's headquarters are rows of business books, many of them best-sellers, standing end to end along a desk, like a bookshelf. Mr. Zurcher noted that even more business books are stacked in his house.
“I've learned from the books I read and the people I meet,” he said. “In reading and in meeting with people, my automobile, when I'm driving alone, is kind of like a university.”
Time in the car is when Mr. Zurcher said he enjoys listening to audio books or riding with someone he deems smarter than himself “to get inside his mind.” He said such a commitment to learning has helped him become who he is today.
“I think that our minds act on what we feed them,” he said. “Therefore, I have a five-step thing that has been very valuable, helpful to me, and it goes like this: Programming creates beliefs. Beliefs create attitudes. Attitudes create feelings. Feelings determine actions and behavior. Actions and behaviors create the results.”
Mr. Zurcher said he believes that learning and thus, growing, are essential for a business owner because a company will not grow if its owner does not grow.
“I think a lot of times we look at the future not seeing the potential that exists in the future.… I realized the importance of being eager about the future and the importance of growing and learning. Learning how to better take care of the customer. Learning how to work with people.”
He added that some of the practices he did when he started Zurcher Tire were basic, but he chose to change with the times and provide customers what they wanted.
“I think (American philosopher Eric Hoffer) has put it so well, that in times of change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned are beautifully equipped to deal with the world that no longer exists,” Mr. Zurcher said.
Why did Mr. Zurcher choose the tire business? He said there was no special reason other than he already knew some things about cars and tires and could learn even more very quickly. Before starting his own business, he worked for another service station where he heard “the right voice at the right time”—encouragement from a stranger.
“Now, I was pumping gas and a man and his wife were going around schools repairing specialized equipment.… This man, while I was filling his car with gas, he came up to me and said, 'Paul, you could be successful in business.'”
Mr. Zurcher said he believed the man because his own mother had thought becoming a businessman was one suitable career path for him.
As business grew at his own Mobil gas station, Mr. Zurcher began to sell tires, which brought more profits. Expansion to a three-bay store—a rare occurrence in those days—became Mr. Zurcher's dream. He recalled that Fort Wayne, Ind., was one of the few towns around that had a three-bay service station then.
“I would drive to Fort Wayne on Sunday afternoons, and I would sit across the street and I would say, 'Some day, some day…,'” Mr. Zurcher said. “And then I would go in and I would ask the manager if I could walk around, and I was studying that three-bay service station. Now, I had money to do it, but I didn't have the location.”
The location he wanted for the outlet already had a house set on it. Rather than give up the dream, what Mr. Zurcher did next exemplified his principle of eagerness for the future. He bought the house and hired a company to move it down the street to an open lot, then built his three-bay shop.
“As I look at life, I would reach one goal, and then I would use that goal as a springboard to other goals,” he explained.
Quoting American clergyman and author Charles Swindoll, Mr. Zurcher said he believes, “Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond to what happens to us.”
Could someone start a tire dealership today in the same way Mr. Zurcher did 60 years ago?
He said he believes it's possible if that person has the following qualities: financial stability, the right core values, passion, commitment, understanding of financial ratios that drive a successful business and discipline.
An individual already well known and respected in a small community may have an easier time getting started as a tire dealer, he added. Of course, there's always the option of forming a relationship with a group like Best-One, depending on that dealer's market, volume and competition.
“I'm one who believes that we can change everything,” Mr. Zurcher said. “I focus on opportunities much more than on problems. I focus on strengths much more than weaknesses. 'I can't' isn't a word in my vocabulary.”
One lesson Mr. Zurcher said he's learned in life is that focusing on his principles, visions and dreams is the best way to have impact as the leader of his organization.
A leader is always being watched and must exemplify servant leadership daily to his or her employees, he said. Additionally, a good leader must be a person of character and integrity in order to have any credibility. Such a person commands respect, he noted.
“In my opinion, if I were to be asked what the most important lesson that I have learned in my career was, I would probably reply personal, principle-centered leadership,” he said.
“Because that, in my opinion, it all starts with that, and that is what makes things happen.”
Followers want a leader with vision, direction and goals who is trustworthy, as well as someone who gives them hope, Mr. Zurcher said.
“And when I think of hope, I think of the best is yet to be. They want to follow a leader, they want to follow an organization that is successful.
“…(I)n my opinion, people are the center of the business and the right people are a most important asset,” he continued.
Since the 1960s, Mr. Zurcher has partnered with many people. Sometimes he would form a 50-50 partnership and buy a closed tire store. At other times he and his partners would open stores from the ground up.
A common thread within the Best-One group is that Mr. Zurcher is a shareholder in each location, and the amount he owns varies with each one. Some locations have other shareholders as well.
It wasn't until 1999 that Mr. Zurcher and his family created the Best-One umbrella as a common marketing identity. With the program, each tire dealership is set up as an independent company, and some have their own distinct company names even though they will advertise as a member of Best-One.
Best-One dealers not only sell retail, but most also sell commercial and agricultural tires, and some also do retreading.
Partnering with others and helping them achieve their dreams of going into the tire business have been a great joy to Mr. Zurcher. He said serving as a mentor to new dealers has brought him much fulfillment.
“…(T)he greatest good we can do for others is not to share our wealth, but to reveal their own wealth to them,” Mr. Zurcher said. “To help them see their potential and then to believe in that potential.”