Selecting a prime location, knowing when to consolidate or expand, and promoting community involvement and a family atmosphere are all key ingredients for the longevity of Torello Tire Co. Inc., which recently celebrated its 50th year as a family-owned business.
This year East Haven-based Torello Tire is continuing to expand its operations even as other businesses are shifting into neutral during the recession. The dealership has been adding services and renovating its single location complex that houses two separate businessesan automotive repair shop and a commercial truck service operation. The company even plans to add two more employees to its staff of 16.
The dealership recently built a 1,600-sq.-ft. addition for a new office and a commercial truck oil change bay and is considering adding another bay to enhance its truck-alignment business. Commercial sales account for 65 percent of revenues and retail 35 percent.
``We've been in a growth mode over the last year or two,'' said Nick Torello Jr., owner and the third generation involved in the business, which generates about $4 million in annual sales. ``We've had three straight years of nothing but growth for us,'' he added.
With a fiscal year ending June 30, the dealership's first half already was even with last year. ``It may not seem like an increase over last year, but it feels like a good year to us,'' he said. ``Our truck business has slowed the last several months but the customer base is solid. The repair shop has become busier in this type of economy.''
Overall, he said, ``the last three months we've had steady growth. I feel good about our growth level we've had the last few years.'' The location, sandwiched between two major highways, has helped the truck service business with quick access to the cities of Hartford and Bridgeport, Conn. The company has service contracts with 18 municipalities to maintain government and police vehicles. The dealership operates six road service trucks and an OTR service truck.
As for the retail business, the dealership mainly caters to middle-income families who own a variety of vehicles. Mr. Torello said he has not seen customers shift to cheaper tires despite the sluggish economy. ``We do see people asking more questions, asking for more details (on a product or service). They are taking longer to make decisions.... We've seen people ask a lot more about longevity. We see people do more work (on their vehicles) because they are keeping their cars.''
The dealership has offered full auto service for years, but Mr. Torello's wife Sherry said there was a misconception among consumers that Torello Tire, due to its name, just handled tires.
So last year, the company renamed its retail service operation Complete Lube and Auto Repair and posted the name on the building that handles automotive and light truck tires, repair, express lube and alignments. The name change has drawn in more customers, she said.
The company's philosophy for success sounds almost cliched``Treat the customer the way you want to be treated,'' Mr. Torello said. The dealership tries to maintain a clean environment inside, he explained. ``We spend a lot of money on store appearance. We have the customer greeted and treated really well.''
The company also is active in its community, in particular sponsoring the annual Special Olympics torch run through the state each year. ``We live in this neighborhood. We coach. We sponsor. So you want to do things right,'' Mr. Torello said.
Last June the torch run stopped at the dealership during its open house to celebrate its golden anniversary, but otherwise the business kept the celebration low key, Mr. Torello said, adding, ``I can't take credit for the 50 years.''
Much of that credit goes to his father Nick, who was still a teenager when he started the business in 1958 at a small boarded-up two-bay garage with gas pumps. He made a deal with an oil company to give him a supply of gasoline and he would buy the next order. Then he went to the former Armstrong Rubber Co., which had its headquarters in nearby New Haven, Conn., and asked for a load of tires with the promise he would pay for the next load.
The business grew from there. ``I can't imagine doing that today,'' the younger Mr. Torello marveled.
In 1963 the dealership added truck tires to its stable. Over the years the company has moved two times until settling in 1972 at its current East Haven location between U.S. Route 1 and Interstate 95.
The ``three generations'' of the family-run business wasn't exactly an orderly successiona couple of years after the elder Mr. Torello started the business, his father joined the operation. Then his son Nick Jr. officially entered the business in 1981, after sweeping floors and washing vehicles as a kid at the shop,
At that point, the dealership had three stores but as the main location grew larger, ``it became difficult to run multiple locations,'' the younger Mr. Torello said. So the company sold one location in 1995 and the other in 2002 to focus on expanding the East Haven complex.
Although it sold Armstrong tires for years until the tire maker's purchase by Pirelli S.p.A. in 1988, the dealership affiliated itself with Goodyear in 1983, after purchasing a Goodyear store location.
That was the year that ``changed us dramatically,'' Mr. Torello said. ``Here was this nice little business that suddenly could reach out nationally with road service (through its Goodyear affiliation).'' For the next 10 years ``we learned a lot about doing business,'' he said, and the dealership began offering full automotive service. The dealership now also sells Michelin brands.
He said the dealership's success is due to ``the strength of the business. We've had good suppliers.'' In addition to its affiliations with Goodyear, Michelin and NAPA Auto Parts, the company operates a Mobile1 Lube Express oil change center at the complex.
``Over the last couple of years we saw a consolidation of our big suppliers so we added other things to the mix,'' Mr. Torello said, noting that it is important to find ways to keep the supply lines open.
The family business structure is also a benefit. In addition to his parents``I don't think they know how to retire,'' he saidMr. Torello's wife, cousin and several longtime employees, some of whom have been with the company more than 20 years, work at the dealership.
``We're a family business. When customers come in the store, if they don't see Nick Torello, they'll see someone else they know,'' he said.
As for the dealership's future in the hands of a fourth generation of Torellos, he was cautiously optimistic.
Of his three young children, only one has shown interest in the business so far. If they don't choose to go into the family business, Mr. Torello said the company already has ownership transition plans in place and is eyeing an employee who ``may take on ownership characteristics.''
But the change of ownership won't happen for a while, as the 48-year-old owner is not yet ready to retire. ``My joke is I have three kids in private school. I originally planned to retire early. That age is now at 98,'' Mr. Torello said.
While many family-run businesses struggle with transition issues, Mr. Torello said the secret for the successful management of his dealership was the fortuitous situation of having several locations for years``so Dad and I didn't see a lot of each other. Some family businesses work too close to each other at a location,'' he said.
However, there was, he admitted, ``a little period of time''after the business consolidated to one location``when it was like, `Who's in charge?'''