FREDERICKSBURG, Va.—Little Tire Co. has been part of the Fredericksburg community for 54 years, so when the city's economic development board recently offered incentives for businesses to refurbish their buildings, the family-owned tire dealership jumped at the offer.
Co-owner David Little, the second generation to run the three-location dealership, said his family had occasionally spruced up the circa-1930 cinderblock building with paint, but "we've always discussed doing something different because you can only put so much paint on these old buildings. When this came up we decided to get with the economic development people and see what they would like to have. They sent an architect over and we discussed it with them and this is what we came up with."
What they proposed were a full stucco and brick facelift, repair of a retaining wall and renovation of the signs, which was completed in late September.
The Princess Anne Street location in the northern corridor of historic Fredericksburg was listed in a city facade improvement study commissioned by the Fredericksburg Economic Development Authority to improve the appearance of the city's main gateways.
The Little Tire renovation cost $42,000 but the dealership received a $10,000 Façade Improvement Grant. The store also refurbished the metal and porcelain letters of "Little Tire Co." that have been on the building since Mr. Little's father, F. Raymond Little, opened the business in 1959.
The elder Mr. Little retired 12 years ago, leaving the business in the hands of his sons David, 50, and Michael, 54. The dealership is destined to continue under a third generation—David's son Patrick, 26, and Michael's daughter, Sara Little Reed, 28, who work in the business.
David's wife Dawn and Michael's wife Mary also work for the dealership.
The dealership's three stores are located within six miles of each other, allowing for a Little family member in each store periodically.
"I think being family-owned and -operated is the big thing for us," said David Little of the dealership's longevity. "Having the stores close together allows my brother and I to spread our time out between the stores so there's a Little in each building for good part of the week. And customers like to see that even if we're not waiting on them, they like to know we're here. And being part of the community, people know us."
The main retail store also provides commercial tire service for dump trucks and tractor trailers. The shop used to have a retread shop, which was closed in 2005. The main location has 11 bays plus a commercial service bay.
The two other locations are strictly retail operations. The second store opened in 1992 after the dealership spent about six years looking for the right location, Mr. Little said. The owners finally found a piece of property and built the store with eight bays in a small strip mall. Six years ago they added four more bays to the location.
The third store opened in 1998 in a former Merchant's Tire location that had eight bays; three more have been added since then.
Mr. Little said he is not actively looking to open another location but if the opportunity arises, he and his brother would consider it. "We actively went after the second store; the third store kind of fell in our lap," he said, noting that all three stores are doing well.
But business has been fairly flat the last two years, Mr. Little said, noting that "flat is the new 'up.' That's what we've been saying for what seems like too long now." Like most everyone else, the dealership was impacted by the recession and then about three years ago sales rallied back but have leveled off the last couple of years. Annual sales were more than $6 million last year and are expected to remain flat this year, too.
About half of the dealership's revenues come from tires, but Mr. Little noted that the ratio between tires and service varies among the three stores. "It's funny, the stores are six miles apart but that is all over the place." One store is 30-percent tires and 70- percent service, another is 60/40 and the main store, due to its commercial business, is 50/50.
The dealership was strictly tire sales until the 1980s when the brothers started working at the dealership and the industry evolved.
"Back then we had a passenger retread shop and that was a huge part of our tire sales. And as passenger retreading dropped we were picking up our mechanical services," Mr. Little said. "So as one part of our business was going down, another part was growing and we were able to grow the business that way.
"We kept the precure truck retreading open until 2005. We liked to say that, 'We're so small our name is even Little.' And with retreading that was really true. We were doing about 16 to 20 tires a day and everybody was telling us if you're not doing 60 to 70 a day you're backing up. But it kept us unique in the market, so we kept it going. But they were right, once we got rid of it, we probably started making more money letting someone else retread for us than what we were doing. But you lose some control with that."
The dealership historically was a direct Michelin tire dealership before joining Tire Pros, a retail marketing division of American Tire Distributors Holdings Inc., in 2011.
Mr. Little said he has experienced the benefits of belonging to a marketing group. "There's a whole marketing team that helps us with our advertising that we were doing in-house. Now we have people to bounce things off of and they pretty much do all of it. But we're still part of it.... I like to have my thumb on the button."
In addition to newspaper, radio and Internet advertising, the dealership has started participating in social media. "I'm not a big fan. But everyone says you have to do it. I'm still skeptical," he said.
The dealership's new Facebook page has more than 100 likes, but he noticed when he posted about the renovation project, the views jumped quite a bit.
"When you do put some stuff in there that's new, I may have only 107 likes but my reach has been larger. I may have 107 people and some of their friends, but when I put the building in, it jumped to about 5,000."
Mr. Little said the dealership's longevity and having three stores so close together provides a competitive advantage with customers. "We don't have a lot of changeover with our employees, so they see the same people when they come into the stores," he said.
The low turnover is due in part to taking care of the employees, he said. "We have a retirement plan and we pay 80 percent of the hospitalization insurance. I think we treat our people real well."
During the recession the dealership didn't cut back employees' hours or lay off anyone. Only when someone left did the dealership not replace them. Companywide, the dealership has 28 employees, about six fewer than in 2007.
"The biggest challenge for us, I feel, is the way others do business," Mr. Little said, claiming, "They really are deceitful. They quote a price, make you want to think that's the out-the-door price and it's not.
"We've always had the out-the-door price, sales tax and everything. If I quote you a price over the phone, you can write the check at your house and bring the check in. That's the way it's going to be.... So the other people quote (the consumer) a price, they think that's the bottom line price, they go there and then they get a totally different price.
"And then they're thinking 'Shoot, I should have went to Little Tire Co. But I'm here now, so just go ahead and do it.' And it drives me crazy.
"When we have people that give us an indication on the phone, I tell them, 'Don't let them lie to you. If you go there and that's not (the price), come back and see me.' And I have had some people do that."
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6127.