CANTON, Ohio — Walking through the Sears Automotive Center in Canton, the first thing Joe Finney shows you is the mission statement that's posted on the wall of every Sears Automotive Group location.
It states: “We protect our customers' automotive investments with guaranteed fast, professional car care solutions that earn their trust and build lifetime relationships.”
It is from this mission statement, and other similar posters spun off of it, that Mr. Finney, the former Michelin North America Inc. and Tire Centers L.L.C. (TCi) executive, is shaping and prepping the 802-store Sears Automotive tire and automotive service chain for the future.
Mr. Finney, who joined Sears in August 2010 after nearly six years at the helm of TCi, is the senior vice president of Sears Holdings Management Corp. and president of the company's automotive group.
In this position, he is responsible for a tire and automotive organization with nearly 14,000 employees. Tire Business ranks Sears Automotive as the nation's fifth largest retailer of tires and automotive services with estimated sales of $1.25 billion; Mr. Finney called the number “conservative.”
Getting all of these employees marching in the same direction and thinking in terms of the mission is the foundation upon which he is building the group.
In joining the company, Mr. Finney said he found significant underleveraged assets and felt there was an opportunity to clarify the direction in terms of what Sears Automotive stood for within the company.
One of his first steps was to develop a mission statement for the automotive outlets that started with doing what's best for the customer. “There's a key part right on the front end of the (mission statement),” Mr. Finney said. “We say we protect our customers' automotive investments. The premise behind that is that we're going to do what's right for the customer.”
This point is stressed through something called the Automotive Team Promise, which is posted in the waiting rooms of every auto center.
The basis of the promise is the word “right,” Mr. Finney said, with RIGHT being an acronym for Respect, Involvement, Guarantee, Honesty and Trust.
“We have done a very good job of taking what is a Sears Automotive mission and breaking it down so that it reaches the front lines of the business,” Mr. Finney said.
All employees sign Automotive Team Promise certificates, for example, which are displayed in the customer waiting rooms of every auto center.
“If I were to go to the front lines of the business and say, ‘What's the mission statement?' most of our management would understand this,” Mr. Finney said, “but a lot of our front line people would say, ‘Well, we're supposed to do what's right every time.'”
In joining Sears, Mr. Finney said he was surprised by how long many employees had been with the company.
“That was one of the things I was very impressed with when I came into the organization is the longevity,” he said. “So to me it's been more about focusing, prioritizing and building a strategy to really capitalize off of the opportunities.”
One of those opportunities is the relationship with Sears' retail operations and its mall locations.
“I've heard different people talk about the malls — ‘Are malls dying? Are they part of the future?' — actually right now there are probably 75 million people who visit malls once a month that also buy automotive services,” he said. “So there's huge upside in just attracting those customers and providing value through the Sears network.”
In describing the auto centers, Mr. Finney said he would not say they had lost their identity over the years but did note that “Sears used to be much stronger in the automotive space. And we have now gone back and regrouped and positioned ourselves for the future.”
While Sears as a corporation has struggled financially in recent years, including losing $3.1 billion in 2011 and announcing the closing of up to 120 Sears and Kmart stores, including about 27 Sears Auto center locations late last year, Mr. Finney downplayed those concerns and the impact that might have on the auto centers.
“There isn't (another) national competitor quite like we are,” he said. “We are differentiated and the power behind the Sears brand, even though you've heard the negative press, the organization is a very strong organization.
“We've had great support from our suppliers, and I appreciate being a part of Sears because it's an opportunity to participate in what will become one of the greatest turnarounds in American history.”
From what he sees internally, Mr. Finney said, “The company is taking the right steps to really revitalize and create something that I think will surprise a lot of people.”
The relationship with Sears offers the automotive centers a number of advantages, he said.
One is leveraging the strong Sears brand, of which trust and quality are the foundation.
Another is the opportunity to take advantage of an integrated retail approach with Sears' retail outlets.
The Sears Shop Your Way Rewards loyalty program, for example, offers the auto centers a way to cross sell with the full-line retail stores. Most of the auto centers are located in the parking lots of malls where Sears has retail stores.
Through Shop Your Way Rewards, Sears customers earn points from the purchases they make at Sears locations. These points can be used for other purchases.
Shop Your Rewards “is a classic example of integrated retail where we can do different things but we also have the ability to know when a customer drops his car off what do they do in the rest of the Sears store,” Mr. Finney said. “We also offer coupons when a customer comes in to drop off their car; we'll give them a coupon to go over and shop in the main store, $5 off or something like that.”
This creates opportunities to know and better understand the company's customers, he explained.
In addition, Sears Automotive is investing in a new point-of-sale system that also will integrate with the Shop Your Way Rewards program. So when a customer comes in for tires and an alignment, for example, a special one-time offer will pop up showing how many points a customer has and present an opportunity to redeem them for a discount on an automotive-related purchase.
Using the Automotive Group's mission statement as a guide, Mr. Finney and his management team have been upgrading the service technology and equipment of the Sears Automotive Centers to deliver faster, more accurate and consistent service.
“We're doing more services and different types of services and at a higher quality that our customers are happy with,” Mr. Finney said.
The new equipment includes the installation of Hunter Engineering Co.'s Quick Check HawkEye Elite 3D alignment technology in about half of its stores.
The technology, which Sears has exclusive use of for one year, can perform an alignment check in less than 90 seconds, allowing the company to offer customers this as a complimentary service.
At one time, Sears used to be known as the place to go for alignment work, Mr. Finney said. “This was a way to really put us back in the game quickly.”
The company rolled out the alignment program in 90 days, including training and installation of equipment.
“It was a great success and it showed me the capabilities of this organization,” Mr. Finney said.
Sears Automotive will continue to add the HawkEye Elite 3D machines to other outlets.
For mounting and demounting, Sears also has been installing the Coats Rimclamp 70 XL tire changers and now has them in about a quarter of its locations.
“This machine reduces tech fatigue and lessens the possibility of damaging wheel assemblies,” Mr. Finney said.
To handle the growing number of vehicles requiring service to their Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS), Sears Automotive also has worked with equipment manufacturer ATEQ Corp. to develop a universal TPMS tool capable of servicing all makes and models of vehicle applications.
This hand-held tool provides technicians with all the information needed to service the TPMS system, including the battery status.
Mr. Finney called this tool such a “home run” that Sears Automotive has provided them to all of its stores.
Another new piece of equipment now available in every location is the OTC 3111 hand-held diagnostic unit with Code Connect.
This device provides the ability to diagnose the cause of most check-engine light and ABS problems, said John Soule, chief merchant, automotive, for Sears Automotive.
“For us, it's a big advantage doing all these ABS brakes.… This gives us the ability to do this in all of our locations, which we didn't have before January,” Mr. Finney said.
Sears Automotive also has invested in a new vehicle coolant-changing machine.
Designed with the company Run-Rite (C.A.T. Products Inc.), the coolant exchange machine features three towers “that allows us to change the coolant in the vehicle in one-third the time,” Mr. Finney said.
Sears already has installed the machines in about a quarter of its locations and will continue adding them in the remaining locations going forward.
Along with service, the Sears Automotive outlets also offer a full complement of most major brand tires, along with two exclusive lines: Michelin Weatherwise 2 and Response, made by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. The company also offers its own Guardsman private brand tire line, as well as Omni United Pte. Ltd.'s Radar brand, which serves as an opening price point product.
Asked whether Sears might resurrect some of its well-known trademark brand names, such as Roadhandler and Trailhandler, Mr. Finney said he is looking into potentially bringing them back. “The ability to have a differentiated offering is an important part of the future,” he said.
The stores also offer batteries, automotive interior and exterior accessories, performance parts, replacement parts, towing accessories and automotive basics.
Along with the 802 company outlets, which include a few Sears Automotive locations in Kmart stores, the company also has eight franchised Sears Automotive stores.
Asked whether he was looking to grow the automotive chain, Mr. Finney said his focus was on improving the current operation, although he did not rule out an eventual footprint expansion.
“I think we're kind of a sleeping giant that is just in a position to wake up and do some amazing things in this space,” he said.