NORTH HUNTINGDON, Pa.Nicholas Lenhart is a co-owner in his family's tire dealership that boasts four generations of experience, yet he still likes to seek out advice and new ideas from other tire dealers.
Mr. Lenhart, 30, became co-owner last January of Lenhart's Service Center & Tire Pros in North Huntingdon with his father Kenneth.
He admitted he always had a desire to join the one-outlet family business founded by his great-grandfather in 1930.
We have generations of clients that have been coming to us forevertheir parents, their kids, their grandkids.
And I saw an opportunity for me to carry on that legacy that my family's built. I truly enjoy it, Mr. Lenhart told Tire Business.
There are some things I don't like about it. Frustrating days working with family is always challenging. I was brought up in the business with my dad from the time I was a little kid.... I was in the industry my whole life.
Unlike his father and grandfather, he didn't start working under the hood but delved into the operations side of the business because his father acknowledged that this is where you need to be going forward because this industry is changing. You can work really hard and not be profitable. You have to be a smart businessman, the younger Mr. Lenhart recalled.
He recounted how his dad said when he was young all he had to do was work really hard and he made a lot of money.
Now you can work really hard and not make any money. So you really have to be smart about how you do things. It's completely different. A lot of it is focused around finances and making smart business decisions. It's so much more than it used to be, Mr. Lenhart said.
So he has attended numerous training programs offered by suppliers, participates in the Tire Pros national and regional councils, and belongs to a Dealer Strategic Planning Group Inc. 20 Group, where he and several other tire dealers meet periodically and share ideas and strategies.
He said one of the major challenges for him is the lack of tire dealers his age.
There's not a lot of support for younger people to get together.... Most of the guys I know who have repair shops or tire stores, they've talked their kids into going into college and doing something else. So there are not a lot of younger people in our industry.
It can be challenging sometimes to build relationships and strategic alliances with other people like there used to be when there were a number of shop owners. A lot of the younger people aren't getting into this industry, at least as owners, Mr. Lenhart said.
That can be difficult because sometimes you feel like a lone fish out there.... I use my 20 Group all the time. That really allowed me to meet other younger shop owners across the country.... It's almost like a miniature support group that I can call any of these guys that are close to my age anytime and talk to them about issues.
A lot of us are going through the same thing right now. We're dealing with parents who are getting ready to retire. How are we going to buy the businesses and different succession planning.... That makes a big difference when you have the ability to reach out to those people.
He said involvement in organizations like the 20 Group can make a big difference in operating a business and meeting other young people in the industry.
I used to think I was the only person who deals with these challenges and when I started talking to these other young men and women that are in the industry, they deal with the same things I deal with. I don't know if it makes me feel any better but it makes me feel I can call them.
Mr. Lenhart and tire dealers his age also are the exception rather than the rule for his generation due to their strong work ethic, he said.
Your typical millennial wants to tell you when they're going to work and wants the flexible schedule and everything like that. I am not like that, I never was like that..., he said.
It can be a challenge dealing with millennials, especially in our industry because I can't have flex time, I can't have them start when they want. My clients don't want to hear, 'Well, they're not starting until 9 o'clock today and they're going to leave at 3'.... We're not in an office situation where I can let them work late at night or work from the house. They can't sell tires from their house, so they have to be there.
And that is challenging because I'm a millennial myself. I have to deal with them and it's hard for me sometimes. Even though I am one, I was brought up with a certain work ethic that a lot of millennialsI don't want to say they don't have a work ethic, but it's different from what I was raised on, Mr. Lenhart admitted.
He said growing up in a family business, he had to adopt the baby boomer work ethicDidn't have a choice, he admitted. You have to. In our industry, I don't see any way of not doing that and being successful.
So Mr. Lenhart has been pondering ways to manage employees with the millennial work ethic, including whether the dealership should continue paying millennials a flat rate. I don't have an answer for you because I think about that all the time, he said.
They're not motivated the same way. I'm still figuring out a way to keep millennials productive and efficient. It's a completely different set of challenges that we're going to have to address going forward in our industry, because it's not the same as in other industries, he said.
In our industry, the harder you work the more money you make. Well, millennials don't think that way. 'If you give me more time off, I'll work harder this way.' It's a different set of core values in how they produce or how they become efficient. I don't have an answer for you yet. It's something we're going to have to adjust moving forward and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I'm going to motivate.
Mr. Lenhart also is learning how to work with the older generation, including sharing ownership with his father.
My dad and I are both very passionate about what we do and sometimes we don't see eye to eye. But the passion is still there,...at the end of the day we both have the best interests of the company in our hearts, he said.
As a younger person, I'm dealing with a lot of older guys. My techs are older than I am so I have to approach them differently than someone who's my age, he said, but noted that he hasn't had any issues being the young boss of seven employees.
I treat my guys with respect and I expect the same thing in return.... A lot of these guys have known me for a long time.
For his part, Mr. Lenhart brought ideas for new technology and fresh updates to the dealership.
This summer, the dealership remodeled its outdated showroom at Mr. Lenhart's urging.
It was something I wanted to do for a long time. We put out a high quality product. Our technicians are top-notch. We use top-notch parts.... But our showroom, the last time it was redone was in the '60s. So for me, I look at that as we do all this quality work but our showroom doesn't reflect the type of quality that we put out. For me, you have to project the image of the work that you do, he said.
My dad would spend $10,000 on a new scan tool because you can immediately start making money on that. With a showroom, even though it is important, you can't see a direct correlation to the income from that. So we finally did that and we've gotten a ton of compliments on it. (My dad) knew in the back of his mind it needed to be done.... I wanted the atmosphere in our shop of the quality of work that we do.
He also helped the dealership develop a website and social media presence, which he manages in-house.
Mr. Lenhart also encouraged the business to get more involved with the community.
One of the things that's important to millennials isat least it is to me and this reaches through to all millennialsis being charitable and giving back to your community. That's something that I focus on a lot at our shop.
We do a lot of things to raise money for different local charities. No. 1, it's great for the community, it's great for all the local organizations that we help raise money for. But also indirectly it brings us business. That's not why we do it but it definitely brings us business.
I bring that community awareness, being involved in the community, to our business that maybe wasn't there with the older generations, he said.
Mr. Lenhart also is preparing to someday take over ownership of the dealership as his father eyes retirement after more than 40 years in the business. He and his father have been considering different succession plans and how their roles will change.
It's better to have those difficult conversations, the younger Mr. Lenhart said, and believe me they are difficult when you and your dad and your attorney and an accountant are sitting in a room. Things can get pretty interesting.
One of his plans in the future would be to do more modifications to the store building, which has six service bays, including an outdoor lift. It doubled as a Mobile gas station and grocery when the shop first opened and then was a Gulf gas station until 1989. Several bays were added over the years.
My great-grandfather opened the shop in 1930, and it was not designed to be an automotive repair facility at all. It is not like your typical efficient shop that you would normally see, he said, adding: We've had to modify our shop on so many levels to make it what it is because it's not laid out optimally. It's forced us to be very efficient in what we do....
There's a few other things I'd like to dochange the layout, put more lifts in, add more space and one more technician to make things more efficient, he said. It would be a few years down the road.
Ultimately I'd like to open up another location. We're still very heavy on the repair side but I think, as the industry moves forward, the real focus I'd like to do is have another location focused more on tires, wheels and maintenance instead of heavy diagnostic and repair because that is becoming more and more challenging and expensive.
To reach this reporter: kmccarron@ crain.com; 330-865-6127; Twitter: @kmccarr