WATERTOWN, N.Y.—At the age of 3, Thomas Cheney sat on a stump with his grandfather, watching from across the street as construction began on Cheney Gulf Service Station, his father's new gas station business.
That was in 1954. Six decades and a name change later, the business that his father Dennis Cheney built—now a retail/commercial tire and automotive service dealership—is still going strong.
Cheney Tire Inc., as the company is known today, held its 60th anniversary celebration in March, but the event was not Mr. Cheney's doing. Instead, one of his customers and a few employees orchestrated the entire thing.
“(The customer) got two of my girls involved here, and they totally shocked me,” he told Tire Business. “...It was quite special—it really was.”
Mr. Cheney said his dealership has quite a loyal following in the community, which he believes has been built through “common sense and honesty.”
“People depend on us—they really do—because we're honest,” he said. “They come here and drop the car off. You'll call somebody up and say, 'You dropped the car off because you needed brakes, but we also found a tie rod and strut (issue).' 'Just fix it,' they'll say. They don't ask how much. 'Just fix it.'”
Generally, Mr. Cheney said, vehicles don't require the level of maintenance they used to. He added that many dealerships “do such an injustice to the customer” by pushing what he believes to be unnecessary services.
“I mean a tune-up—tune-up is a phrase that's almost not part of the vocabulary anymore,” he said. “You see these places where all they try to do is get people in the door and sell a bail of goods. I'm sorry. Change power steering fluid, change brake fluid—all that stuff? Come on.
“I've got trucks with 300,000 miles on them,” he continued. “I never changed the power steering fluid. I never changed the brake fluid. They're just looking for avenues to make money. They're just searching for things.”
Mr. Cheney said his father's work ethic and sense of duty toward his customers served as an example to him over the years.
Dennis Cheney, a U.S. Army veteran, founded the gas station business soon after moving to the Watertown area from Newton Falls in order to attend Atlantic Oil Co.'s training school for service station managers. Both Thomas Cheney and his brother David Cheney spent time helping their father at the business, cleaning and pumping gas for customers.
Mr. Cheney began working at the gas station when he was 12 years old and continued to work there all through high school and college. However, his father never pushed him to make a career out of it.
Mr. Cheney graduated from St. John Fisher College in Rochester in 1972 with a degree in business science, but his first major was pre-med. His love for taking care of people motivated him to pursue a career as a doctor.
“I got out of college and it wasn't me,” he said. “I didn't care for it. I switched over to business and I loved it.”
After finishing school, Mr. Cheney briefly worked as a branch manager for a local bank, but during evenings he handled book work for his father's business to make extra money.
At the same time, Cheney Gulf Service Station was going through changes. The business had been selling a lot of Gulf Oil's private brand tires, but when Gulf stopped offering tires, batteries and accessories, it left a void.
“My father said, 'I got to find another tire supplier,'” Mr. Cheney said. “So dad had a four-bay gas station—and it was very, very busy—so he called B.F. Goodrich because the Goodrich dealer had closed up here in Watertown.”
Jim Rollings, who was a district manager for B.F. Goodrich Co., met with Dennis Cheney to discuss a potential supplier arrangement. At the request of his father, Mr. Cheney came along for the meeting.
“I just got out of college and was working at the bank, and I didn't think I wanted to come back here,” he said. “So it was funny because after Jim came over and met my father he left here and said, 'I gotta find somebody else to sell my tires.' Jim left and he came back a month later. He couldn't find anybody else, so he signed my dad up.”
Mr. Cheney's father owned a large horse barn behind his house, which he modified using two-by-fours to build tire racks.
“And that was our first tire warehouse,” he said. “It just took off from there.”
Dennis Cheney and Mr. Rollings soon became very good friends, Mr. Cheney said. Cheney Tire still carries the BFGoodrich line today, he added.
In 1977, David Cheney was working in Syracuse, N.Y., as an accountant for Ernst & Ernst Accounting. One evening he called Thomas Cheney and asked him to partner and go back to working full time at the dealership.
“'Yeah, sure, why not,'” Mr. Cheney told his brother. “He says, 'I'm so sick of driving through the Syracuse traffic.'”
Mr. Cheney recalled his father being angry about their decision, adding that “he didn't think this place was gonna be big enough for both of us.” But in the end it was the path they chose.
“When you start with something, a family business—and I was very close to my father—you develop a passion for it,” Mr. Cheney said.
Both Cheney brothers returned to Watertown in 1978 to work alongside their father. David Cheney handled bookkeeping duties and made sales calls, while Thomas Cheney worked as the shop's service manager.
In 1982, the company officially changed its name to Cheney Tire, and continued to expand, adding service bays, a sales office and an on-site warehouse. The dealership's identity has evolved over the years.
Briefly in the 1980s, Cheney Tire even operated its own Bandag retreading shop across the street from the facility. In the 1990s, the dealership closed that segment of the business, but Mr. Cheney said the company still sells more retreads today than it does new commercial tires.
Today the business, which employs 36, has 12 service bays and does about $10 million per year in sales. It carries a wide range of tires, including everything from passenger and light truck to OTR and ag products. The business also includes a small engine shop and stays on top of customization trends.
“We went through the days of The Fast and the Furious with the import tuner cars,” Mr. Cheney said. “We were real big with that. And believe it or not, the trend right now is those young guys that had tuner cars back then have all got lifted trucks now. We do tremendous business with suspension lifts and leveling kits, too.”
Mr. Cheney said most new cars today can't be heavily modified, but “there's no end to what you can do to a truck,” including upgrades to suspension, performance accessories, bedrails, roll bars and bumpers.
“You can really personalize your vehicle through accessories, and I've always said that a vehicle is an extension of a person's life. The vehicle you drive is sort of like you.”
That applies to Mr. Cheney, too.
“I've got a 1998 Dodge that I bought brand new with a stick shift, no air, no cruise and it's a sweet-looking truck,” he said. “It's not overdone—it's just a very good-looking truck.”
What does that say about him? “That I'm a good old boy,” he said.
The thing that has changed most over the years, Mr. Cheney said, are the cars that come into his shop.
“Other than that everything's the same,” he said. “Same service, same mentality, same conscientious people. What's changed most are the vehicles.”
Mr. Cheney continues to run day-to-day operations at the dealership, working alongside his sister-in-law, Maureen Cheney, who handles office operations.
His brother David worked with him at the dealership until he passed away from melanoma in 2004 at age 49. His father worked into his late 80s at a 10,000-sq.-ft. hardware store they owned separately. He died in 2009 at age 91.
Mr. Cheney said his father never really wanted to retire.
“At that point when he was in his 80s he said to me, 'I'm so sorry I ever got out of the tire business. If I stayed with it I could be there helping you right now,'” he said.
Mr. Cheney has two children, but neither of them is involved in the business. At 64, Mr. Cheney said he still loves coming to work everyday and has never even considered retirement.
Part of the drive to continue comes from dedication to his employees.
“I got a lot of employees that are in their 50s or so, and they have another 10 years or so before they'd be retiring,” he said. “I won't leave them—I won't leave my people. I'll go down with the ship.”
Ideally, he said, another tire company eventually will come along to buy him out, but he hopes the new owners will allow him to continue to run the shop.
Until then, he'll continue to enjoy the ride.
“It's an interesting business,” he said. “Where it's going to go from here, God knows.”
Previous | Published March 18, 2019
Where can you expect to see the most growth in 2019?
45% (34 votes)
|General automotive service||
15% (11 votes)
|Brakes, shocks and other undercar services||
7% (5 votes)
15% (11 votes)
|Anywhere we can get it.||
19% (14 votes)
|Total votes: 75|