FORT MYERS, Fla.At Custom Tire & Auto Inc., customer is a dirty word.
Company owner Rich Jarvis makes no bones about his disdain for the word, but it's not for any lack of love between himself and the clientele. On the contrary, it's because he sees his customers as something more than customersthey're his friends and family.
And at Mr. Jarvis' shop, everyone is treated like family.
If you come in here, you can walk right in my shop, right into the back of the shop and you can talk to any one of my guys there because they know everybody, he told Tire Business. We are literally a family.
Every customer who comes in knows all my guys' names, my guys know their names. You don't have to talk to a sales adviseryou can talk directly to the tech.... We have an absolute open-door policy at this shop.
In 1981 at age 21, Mr. Jarvis founded his vehicle repair company as a one-man operation with a toolbox and $215 in his pocket. Today the retail/commercial tire and service business operates out of a 5,000-sq.-ft., six-bay service center with six employees and brings in upward of $1 million a year.
Even more impressive is that Mr. Jarvis has never once taken out a paid ad for his business. All of his company's growth has come from word-of-mouth referrals and the attention that comes from sponsoring youth sports teams, charity work and community involvement.
That's how we advertise is being directly involved with the people, not just putting an ad out somewhere, he said. I'm really proud of that. In our showroom we've got our sponsor plaques from soccer, baseball, football. Everybody in the community knows us, and they feel really, really comfortable coming here.
It's just so easy, he continued. Thirty-something years later I still loveto this day, I lovecoming to work every day because it truly is not a job. When I come here, I see people that I care about.
While the appearance of his company has changed over time, Mr. Jarvis' old-fashioned way of doing business has remained the same. Mr. Jarvis said he was raised to have high morals and values to show care and compassion for everyone, regardless of their means.
A rich man is judged not by the dollar that he has, it's by the faith that he has and the trust that people have in him, he said. That's a wealthy man. It's not about what your bank account says.
All customers, regardless of means, are treated the samewith care and warmth, he added.
In turn, Custom Tire's customers have become trusting of the company. Most of the firm's fleet accounts don't even receive work orders to sign prior to a repair, he said.
The managers of the companies and the owners of the companies have no clue what we've done to the vehicle until the first of the month when they get their statement along with all their copies of invoices, he said. They keep telling me, 'Rich, we trust you.' It's never an issue. My secretary sends a statement at the beginning of the month, and they send me a check.
...It's very, very humbling that people have that much faith and trust in you, and you don't do anything to disrupt that in any way, shape or form, he said.
Mr. Jarvis literally started his business from the ground up. He had been working at a local automotive parts store in Fort Myers 33 years ago, repairing vehicles in the evenings to make extra money before he decided to go into business for himself full time.
He didn't have enough money to buy a location, but he found a radiator repair businessa few miles away from his company's current locationthat was advertising a space for lease.
I went over there and the space for lease was outside, he said. I started my shop there, and it was just a one-bay, outside, on-gravel, no-concrete space. I was working underneath the vehicles with the rocks on my back, and of coursejust starting out and having very few funds and so forth and so onI didn't have any clientele except for the customers I was doing nighttime work for after my previous job.
In order to grow his business at the start, Mr. Jarvis went around to several other area repair shops and made a deal with them to send him the business they were reluctant to do.
I told them, 'As many jobs as you guys don't want to dothe rotted brake lines, the gas tanks, all the exhaust manifoldsall of the jobs you guys don't like to do that take twice as long and don't make as much money, give the jobs to me and pay me half the labor. You keep half the labor and the parts.' Of course every shop in the area jumped on that.
Business in Fort Myers at the time, he said, was very seasonal, with work being scarce in the summer. In order to survive, Mr. Jarvis decided to branch into commercial vehicle repair.
His first big break in that segment came about 10 months into his first year, when he met with the warehouse manager at a new distribution facility owned by former furniture retailer Robb & Stucky Inc. One of Mr. Jarvis' friends suggested he speak to the manager about taking on the company's truck maintenance.
Mr. Jarvis called the manager to introduce himself and he made an appointment to meet the next day. Despite being a one-man-show at the time, Mr. Jarvis ultimately was given the job because he was the only business owner to meet with the manager in person.
(The manager) told me their needs, that it doesn't matter what time the truck came in at night time, it had to be rolling the next morning, Mr. Jarvis said. I assured him that I could repair all of his vehicles and their vehicles would be back the next morning at 6 a.m. for them to be out delivering in.
...So the following day he calls me up at 4 p.m. and says, 'Okay Rich, I got three trucks here, this is a problem, this is a problem, yada, yada, and I need to have them tomorrow morning.' I said, 'No problem sir. I'll take care of it.'
Mr. Jarvis asked a few friends to help go down after work and pick up the trucks. They loaded up in his truck and went down to the warehouse and drove them back to the radiator shop, where he fixed them one-by-one.
After his friends went home to their families, he took on the task of getting them back to Robb & Stucky.
I'd take one back to the warehouse, take a cab back to the shop, take another one down, take another cab back to the shop, drive the last one down and then take my truck back, he said. That was my first start.
Today, the company augments its retail arm with a strong commercial repair business comprising 47 fleet accounts, the largest of which has 97 vehicles on the road, Mr. Jarvis said. The work is steady as most other automotive service businesses in the area won't entertain commercial work, he added.
When you get a fleet vehicle in here, sometimes the driver waits on it. They need it now, he said. You can't tell them their truck is gonna be down two or three days. Obviously if it's an engine or something it's different, but that truck's got to be on the road now.
You make a commitment to them where you get their steady business, and you make a commitment that you're gonna do whatever it takes to get that vehicle back on the road.... We're constantly under the pressure of time frames all the time, but it works.
It wasn't until about nine years after launching his repair business that Mr. Jarvis entered the tire side.
The decision, he said, came about in order to protect his existing customers from making unnecessary purchases.
While I'm repairing a vehicle, if I find something that's sticking out like a sore thumb or is dangerous, obviously, without a doubt, I let (the customer) know, he said. But what I do not doif somebody comes in with just a flat tireI do not pull all the wheels off and go over the vehicle with a fine-tooth comb...and give them a $2,000 estimate of work that has to be done and scare them into that.
What happened was I was doing all the hard labor work, and then people were going to the tire shops and getting tires done and they'd come back to me for an oil change four, five, six months later, and I'd see they've got all new struts, new bearings, new this, new that, he continued.
Believing his customers were being taken advantage of, he moved into a larger location on Pine Island Road and converted into a full-fledged tire and automotive service business.
I made a commitment that we were gonna do tires from a golf cart to a dump truck, he said.
The company's primary tire brands include Cooper, Michelin, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich and Sumitomo.
Though his entry into the tire business was purposeful, the new name of his company was made up on the fly.
His father-in-law was an independent truck driver who delivered tires from a warehouse in Tampa that everybody bought from at the time, Mr. Jarvis said.
When he had made up his mind to start selling tires, he rode along with his father-in-law to meet with the warehouse manager. The distributor asked him for the name of his business in order to set him up in its computer system.
I couldn't think of anything at all, Mr. Jarvis said. I wasn't preparedI didn't come up with a company name. And it just popped into my head: Custom Tire & Auto.
Mr. Jarvis attributes much of the loyalty and trust he's built up with customers over the years to his employee compensation strategy. Everyone who works at his shop is paid a salary as opposed to commission, in stark contrast to most tire and automotive service businesses.
Everybody pays commission because it's easy for them, the shop owners, Mr. Jarvis said. If they're making money, they're paying money. If they're not making money, they're not paying money out. All my guysever since the day I openedare all salary, and I did that for a lot of reasons.
The first reason is that Mr. Jarvis wanted his employees to know that no matter how good or bad business was they would have steady income. The money is guaranteed, and no one has ever been shorted an hour of pay in the company's history, he said.
It also takes care of the customer, because my guys have no agenda to sell anybody anything that they don't need because they don't profit from it in any way, shape or form, he said. It guarantees the customer first.
While many dealers cite commission-based pay in giving technicians a competitive edge, Mr. Jarvis said the potential upswing in productivity is severely outweighed by technicians just selling more to boost their bottom line.
I'm not a 25-employee shop, so it may be different circumstances, but if you have an employee you know consistently is better or, B, consistently performs more work there's no reason you can't bump their salary pay up to what they should be paid and, again, guarantee their weekly paycheck, he said.
What I have seen in our area, because we get a lot of tourists down here, is greed. It's a bad word. It's a very bad word, but greed is the most powerful thing in commission.
Mr. Jarvis said he has retained stacks of estimates brought in by customers from other local tire and service businesses recommending services they didn't need.
It's not uncommon, he said. That's what commission doesit drives greed, though many people may not want to admit that.
Salary pay also reduces the likelihood that employees will turn and burn, Mr. Jarvis said, adding his firm has had very low employee turnover in its history. Mr. Jarvis' lead technician, Walter Arnemann, 53, has remained on board with the company for 25 years and has no plans to leave.
It all has to do with how the boss treats you, Mr. Arnemann said. I've been through many a shop, and I've been working a long time in this field, and Richy treats you like family. He really does.
If you have a personal problem, he doesn't tell you, 'Well, that has nothing to do with work.' He's there to listen, talk to you, see if he can help you and he's more than willing to help you.
After Mr. Arnemann suffered a heart attack last year that required quintuple bypass surgery, he missed eight weeks of work before coming back on a part-time basis. Mr. Jarvis paid him his full salary through it all, no questions asked, he said.
Whatever the doctor said, we went by, and he still paid me my full salary the whole time, he said. And that's just something you can't find.
Mr. Arnemann said he's seen his boss do the same for employees who had been with the company for only a week before suffering some type of injury.
At 55 years old, Mr. Jarvis still believes he has many years of work left in him, but that's not stopping him from planning ahead. Like many tire dealers, he's looking to his children to continue the business when he retires.
Within the next few years, Mr. Jarvis said he hopes to bring his eldest son, Rich Jarvis III, 29, on board and begin transferring some management responsibilities to him. His youngest son, Ryan Jarvis, 26, is looking to start his own air conditioning business.
Unlike many other tire dealers, Mr. Jarvis said his children have never been involved in his company.
When I started out, I came from a poor, less-than-middle-class family, and so I wanted to strive to make a better life for me and my family, he said.
So I dedicated a lot of hours to my company and building it literally from the ground upnot even cementso I didn't want my boys to give up some things in their lifeespecially in the younger part of their lifededicating a lot of hours to the shop.
He also wanted them to avoid the owner's son stigma.
In a lot of businesses, not necessarily this business, when you bring your children in sometimes they may not work as hard or it may cause issues with some of the other employees.... I wanted to make sure that my kids understood work ethic the way it's supposed to be, not working for dad right off the bat, he said.
Instead, Mr. Jarvis made a deal with his son, Rich Jarvis III. He told him that if he wanted to take over the family business he should go to work for a tire distributor or manufacturer for five years and learn everything he could about the tire side of the business.
Rich Jarvis III has spent the last 10 years working for Carroll Tire Co.'s Fort Myers location and now is an assistant manager with the company. He's so knowledgeable about the tire industry now, he won't be looked upon as the owner's son, Mr. Jarvis said.
In terms of business expansion, Mr. Jarvis said he is leaving that decision to the next generation.
I'm at a point now where when my son comes in the future, if he has a different vision, he has 100-percent my blessing to grow, he said. Not that I'm oldI'm 55 years oldbut I've learned a lot in life.
People get so caught up in chasing the dollar and worrying about what they have and more so what they don't have and what other people have. I'm not like that, he continued. ...My point with that is I'm happy. I'm happy with the customers we have, I'm extremely happy with the business that we have, I'm happy with my fellow workers and them doing what they do and being able to take care of their families.
Where do you draw the line when you're happydo you just keep pursing a false happiness that if you have more it's gonna be better for you? I don't believe that.... I make a good living, my guys make a good living and my customers are happy and loyal as could be. What more could anybody ask for?
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