NORWELL, Mass.Family-owned Sullivan Tire & Auto Service has strived to maintain the atmosphere of a family-run business over the past 60 years despite having burgeoned into a large New England corporation.
Since Bob Sullivan opened a single retail shop on a dead-end street in Rockland, Mass., in 1955, the dealership has grown to 65 retail tire and auto repair stores, 15 commercial truck tire centers, 13 warehouses and three Bandag retreading plants in five New England states.
Nearly a dozen members of the second and third generations of the Sullivan family now work for the company.
The dealership ranks among the largest independent retail and commercial tire dealerships in North America, one of just a handful that are major players in both segments.
Sullivan Tire is the 12th largest independent retail tire dealership in North America, based on 2013 retail sales of an estimated $106 million, and 23rd largest based on total retail outlets, according to Tire Business' annual rankings.
On the commercial tire side, Sullivan is ranked the 24th largest independent commercial dealership in North America based on $71.5 million in commercial sales in 2014. Sullivan Tire plans to mark its diamond jubilee with celebrations throughout the year at its various locations, particularly in Rockland, which gave use the opportunity to start the company, said Mark Sullivan, 41, Bob Sullivan's grandson, who is events/promotions manager for the dealership.
We really have to praise the town of Rockland for giving us our start and we will certainly recognize them this year in many different facets, he said. The year-long festivities also will include internal and external contests, tire sales and recognition of long-term employees.
2015 is also expected to be a good year for sales for the dealership.
I'd say 2015 is starting out much better than it did in 2014 due largely in part to the historical winter we've had. We've had sustained snow tire sales right up until recently, Mr. Sullivan said, noting that New England, and in particular the Boston area, had record-breaking snow accumulation earlier this year.
This year if you didn't have a good set of tires on or a new set of snow tires, you weren't going anywhere.... This winter has been a really unique winter compared with any winter we've had probably since 1978.
Much like dealing with an unexpected onslaught of snow, the dealership has had to adapt to dramatic changes in the tire business.
The biggest challenges the dealership has dealt with, Mr. Sullivan said, is staying up with the competition; the technology changes as the industry changes; and as the economy changes, for the better or for the worst, being able to grow the business despite an economic downturn. The competition continues to get increasingly bigger and more difficult to compete with.
Sullivan Tire's major competitors in New England are Town Fair Tire, VIP Tire & Service, Sears Auto Centers, Wal-Mart/Sam's Club and some of the tire company-owned stores, he said. Online retailer Tire Rack used to be a serious competitor when it first arrived on the scene, he said. It really cut into our business. But I think since we've made adjustments and learned to adapt, I would say now Tire Rack probably is not really an issue in the respect that we encourage people to 'try out Tire Rack and then get back to us.'
We have adjusted our pricing accordingly so when people price-shop tires, our pricing is right in line with Tire Rack, because people often forget when they price out the tires from Tire Rack, you also need to consider the shipping charges and having them installed.
In many cases, even if people decide to still go with Tire Rack, it's still a win-win for us because they'll have the tires shipped to one of our locations or they'll bring the tires to one of our locations and we would charge our customer to install it and in some cases we're getting the customer to do an alignment with us.
He noted that when there is a warranty problem with a tire, that's where we have an advantage over Tire Rack because having 60-some locations across New England, that's definitely a convenience for the customer and we can also install the tires and align them. Whereas Tire Rack can just sell the customer the tire and its their responsibility to get them installed elsewhere.
External changes, in the industry and in technology, will continue to be a challenge for the dealership going forward, Mr. Sullivan added.
Another challenge for the dealership is its own growth.
It's a family-owned and -operated company. And as much as we've tried to keep it a family atmosphere, I think when you get to the size that we've grown to, we had to maintain that family business atmosphere because basically we are more or less a corporation now, not a small family business, he said. I think it's hard to continue to do that where we're at, in some ways we had to change some of our systems and procedures because of the growth that we've gone through and to keep up with the industry.
The past few years we've kind of tapered off the growth because there was probably a period where we were moving too quickly and again, to reiterate, our systems and procedures couldn't keep up with our growth, Mr. Sullivan continued. So I think we had to slow growth a bit to revamp some of our systems, control our expenses. And now I think we have that somewhat in check where we will certainly continue to grow, regardless of the economical circumstances. But we will continue to grow each year. It's just a matter of how much we will continue to grow but we certainly have growth plans for moving forward....
We hope to grow a couple of locations, at least, per year. We feel there is still a lot of growth in the New England area, possibly until we feel we've saturated the New England market. Possibly down the road we will look to branch outside of New England, he said.
He attributed the dealership's success to its employees and adherence to the company motto.
I think one major factor was my grandfather, Bob Sullivan. When he started the company in 1955, his motto was 'Treat every customer as you would a member of your own family.' And I think that has really been a staple with our success. It's that customer service, the way we treat the customer, the way we welcome them into our facilities. And I think we very much work with our employees the same way.
Sullivan also has adapted with the times by getting heavily involved in social media and having an active presence on Facebook and Twitter.
Social media has become a very big part of our marketing and our way of getting new and existing customers in the door. We're also reaching a larger audience in a much more rapid pace, Mr. Sullivan said.
Mr. Sullivan has been involved in the dealership for more than 20 years. He said it is too soon to determine if a fourth generation of Sullivans will become involved in the business.