“There are a lot of unfortunate people in the world today. We need to make a difference if we can.”—Ricky Benton
WHITEVILLE, N.C.—Ricky Benton, a kind-hearted businessman, has been the face of Black's Tire & Auto Service since he purchased it from founder Crowell Black in 1996—but he hasn't done it all by himself.
Standing by his side—helping take the Whiteville-based dealership from one outlet to 37 retail/commercial locations, four wholesale distribution centers and one retread plant spanning across North and South Carolina—has been his wife Dianne. And while they have been able to grow their business, it is perhaps a different kind of story
about them that typifies their success. It is a story that, up until now, they allowed—almost insisted—to remain untold because they would rather be silent partners to their community.
The Bentons and the Black's Tire family have given much more than just financially over the years to the community that in turn has supported the business. They've taken a more hands-on approach that doesn't just include donating dollars, but time as well. From working a food stand at a youth baseball tournament to hosting a Family Day for their employees, the Bentons are recognized in their community as more than just two people with good business sense.
The Bentons are the recipients of the 2015 Tire Business Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award. Dianne Benton—the first woman to receive the award—and Ricky were presented the award Nov. 2 at the Tire Industry Association's annual Tire Industry Honors event during the 2015 Specialty Equipment Market Association Show in Las Vegas.
This in the 22nd year the Humanitarian Award has been granted. The winners are judged and selected independently each year by the volunteer services committee of the United Way of Summit County, Ohio.
As part of their recognition, the Bentons also received a special medal symbolizing their efforts in giving back, and Tire Business donated $2,500 to the Lake Waccamaw, N.C.-based Boys & Girls Home of North Carolina., the Bentons' designated charity.
From its inception, the Boys & Girls Home of North Carolina has been a charitable component of Black's Tire's giving ways. Mr. Black was a member of the Whiteville Civitan Club with A.D. Peacock, the founder of the Boys & Girls Home, originally named Boys Home.
Gary Faircloth, CEO and president of Boys & Girls Home of North Carolina, told Tire Business that Mr. Peacock was a mortician who, after seeing some dire situations, knew that a home like this was needed in the community.
Mr. Black served on the founding board of trustees for the Boys Home, which was founded in 1954, and continued to serve on the board for decades.
Up until his death on Feb 7, 1985, at the age of 76, Mr. Black was a huge supporter of the home, Mr. Faircloth said, giving his time, talent and treasures to make life better for abused and neglected children. He had been on its board of directors for approximately 25 years.
To view a video detailing the Bentons' contribution to the Boys & Girls Home of North Carolina, visit www.tire-bus-iness.com/Faircloth
When Mr. Black sold the dealership to the Bentons, the passion to give to this organization seemed to come with the transaction.
“The Bentons picked up this relationship,” Mr. Faircloth said. “And it's amazing what they have done.”
Mr. Faircloth is incredibly thankful for Mr. Black, the Bentons and everything the Black's Tire family has done for the organization over the years.
Besides being the home's CEO, he has a personal tie to it. Mr. Faircloth was referred to the Boys Home in 1964. Because of the opportunity, he said he graduated from high school and went on to college, graduating with a degree in social work and juvenile corrections.
He can remember being picked up for shoplifting food out of a grocery store and shoes from a shoe store because his family did not have the means to pay for them. Kids can be cruel, he said, and he faced ridicule because of what he had and wore.
“So thank goodness to Boys & Girls Homes,” he added.
Mr. Faircloth, who wanted to be able to help children to the extent he received assistance, said the Bentons have become great supporters of the organization. “Ricky has enthusiasm and passion and excitement,” Mr. Faircloth said. “They (have) felt the need and the passion—just like they have for their business—to continue to support children, just like Mr. Black did.”
The Bentons celebrated the 15th annual Black's Tire Charity Golf Outing on Sept. 11, raising $109,110 for the Boys & Girls Home this year.
“What they are doing for kids,...it's just amazing,” Mr. Faircloth continued.
He explained that the first golf outing raised about $500, the next one brought in a little more and, as time went on, its success continued to grow.
“After a while, they began to set a goal of how much they would raise each year to help support the children,” Mr. Faircloth said. “Last year, we thought was just a phenomenal year when they raised $85,000 to help support the children throughout their charity golf tournament for kids.”
The Bentons and the Black's Tire family have become the number one supporter of the organization, he added. “About half of what we receive to help support our children comes through gifts from individuals, corporations and foundations.
“And the Black's Tire Service family, through the passion of Ricky and Dianne Benton, has really moved them into being the best friends we have. They are making a tremendous difference in the lives of children.”
To show how grateful the organization is for everything the Bentons have done for it, the Boys & Girls Home dedicated a building on its property to the couple.
“We actually restored this building and it is recognized on our farm as the Ricky and Dianne Benton Community Hitching Post,” Mr. Faircloth said.
“We have lots of community events that people will come out and use it.”
The building, once used for pottery, has a huge porch that can be used as a stage for musical events. Inside is plenty of space for meetings and events.
“That's something we were proud to do to for them, to surprise them with. They didn't have a clue,” Mr. Faircloth said of naming the building.
Mrs. Benton noted that she went to school with some of the kids who lived at the home and saw the need for support. “We've just seen the good things they do for kids that don't have any other opportunity.”
There is an old saying, Mrs. Benton added, that those who are blessed are supposed to bless others. “We just feel like we are supposed to give back, especially in the community in which we live.”
Mr. Benton said the most rewarding thing about aiding the home is that “you see that it really goes directly to helping someone.”
Children who come to the Boys & Girls Home are about two to three years behind in school. Three years ago, the organization opened Flemington Academy, a North Carolina Public Charter School.
“With our own campus school, we have a very specialized program that works with the kids individually and to help them catch up,” Mr. Faircloth said.
Flemington is run by Tom Simmons, vice president of education, Boys & Girls Home, who, like Mr. Faircloth, is an alumnus of the home.
Mr. Simmons said he ran away from home in fifth grade because his father beat him and he decided he was done living that way. He was the seventh boy to come to the Boys Home when it opened.
“This place changed my life.... It not only changed my life, it saved my life,” he told Tire Business.
He claimed he owes everything to the solid foundation provided him by the Boys Home because otherwise he probably would not have even graduated from high school. There didn't really seem to be any reason to do that.
After his Boys Home experience, Mr. Simmons went on to graduate and work in education as a teacher and principal for more than three decades. So when discussion of a charter school at the Boys & Girls Home came up, he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“This is where I belong, right here,” he said. “You have to care about your fellow man because we all need help.”
He is in the position to do that now that he is “back home” and has the ability to give the children at least the opportunity he had, including offering honors courses at the school.
“If you give kids the way out, they're going to take it,” he said.
Getting the school off the ground was a huge financial commitment: $1 million-plus—and what Black's Tire does is a huge component of being able to fund the school, Mr. Simmons said.
“If (Ricky) says he's going to make it happen, it'll happen,” he added.
While the school is on the Boys & Girls Home campus, it is a public school and open to anyone in the community.
“Ricky has been a true friend of Boys & Girls Home,” Mr. Sim-mons said. “We are so thankful for people like Ricky.”
Flemington Academy broke ground on a middle school in September, Mr. Simmons said, funding for which all came from private donations with no tax payer money involved.
The Bentons raised their family in Cerro Gordo, N.C.—a rural community of roughly 200 residents on the NorthCarolina/South Carolina border—and have given much back to it. That includes being significant proponents in building the town's baseball fields and practice facility.
“They helped with this ball field, not only monetarily, but physically—they'll get out here and work,” said Kiley Hinson, division, forest and land manager, in Cerro Gordo.
Mr. Hinson has known the Bentons his whole life, being best friends with the couple's middle son Ryan all through school.
When Mr. Hinson first played baseball as an adolescent, it was behind the elementary school. However, the parents of the little leaguers banded together to buy a piece of land in the late 1980s, where the ball field is now.
Accomplishing that goal happened thanks to the Bentons, who were both heavily involved in raising funds for the fields and still help out with its upkeep.
In the 30 years since, the area has grown to include two fields and an indoor practice facility.
“They constantly are helping with the community,” Mr. Kinson said.
This year, Cerro Gordo hosted the North Carolina Dixie Youth State Tournaments for the second time (previously hosted in 2010) and, he said, the Bentons stepped up with some financial support “to make sure the kids have nice equipment and a place to play.”
At the tournament, the Bentons seemed to be everywhere, working the gate, admissions, at the concession stands, etc.
“When they get involved with the community,...they really get hands on and kind of lead by example with that,” Mr. Hinson said. “They take a lot of pride in where they come from.”
Besides the baseball fields, Ricky and Dianne Benton also help out at various functions for the school children at West Columbus High School and the area's elementary school.
“They really focus on helping the kids and giving back,” Mr. Hinson said, adding that they're “super when it comes to stuff like that. They're very giving and very thankful.”
O.C. Jenkins, Ricky Benton's former teacher, explained to Tire Business that Mr. Benton was always raising money for children and sporting endeavors—even when he was a child himself.
“Ricky was a born leader in the eighth grade,” he said. “I was amazed at his talents.”
In addition to being a science teacher, Mr. Jenkins was also in charge of organized play at recess, but the school didn't have much in the way of supplies or equipment.
“He's quite the salesman,” he said about Mr. Benton's outspoken nature.
Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Benton, along with another student, decided that after school one day they would ask prominent members of the community for funding for school recreation. They raised $400 that evening and then an additional $600 the next day in the next town.
“He was quite talented in helping to raise that money,” he said.
In total, they raised about $1,800 to $1,900. He has come a long way from raising money for his own school. He also referenced how the Bentons, along with their three sons Rick Jr., Ryan and Jeremy—who all work in the family business—sponsor many little league baseball teams.
Beyond their efforts with the Boys & Girls Home and local ball fields, the Bentons are also known in the community for cooking up a storm in support of various outings and fundraisers.
“You know we do a lot when we spend $40,000 a year at this grocery store. Just us,” said Michael Bass, longtime employee of Black's Tire and the main chef at these events.
“We are a tire store and one of their biggest accounts.”
In total, Mr. Bass estimated Black's Tire feeds about 20,000 people a year between school fundraisers, feeding employees at the local Goodyear plant twice a year, serving two schools steak suppers and cooking for football games, golf tournaments, customer appreciation days, races, the North Carolina Dixie Youth Baseball State Tournament and more.
“We cook at least twice a month,” Mr. Bass said.
All the cooking is done to raise money for an organization that needs it or to simply give back to the community.
“It's all for giveaway; it's not anything for us,” Mr. Bass said.
The philosophy is, if a person is down, you stop and help them back up, Mr. Benton explained.
“We're put on the Earth for a reason. We're supposed to help,” he added.
One of the biggest events they cook for is the local annual Relay for Life event.
“They just don't tell all the generous things that they do. Dianne is a great advocate for the American Cancer Society,” said Kay Bullard, who has worked in accounts pay-able at Black's Tire for 20 years.
“She's very generous when it comes to that because she had a problem.”
She was referring to the fact Dianne Benton is a cancer survivor, so Relay for Life has special meaning to the Black's Tire family.
“That's a little soft spot for us,” Mrs. Benton acknowledged.
She also has a soft spot for her employees who are going through their own troubles.
For example, Wanda Bryson, a member of the corporate office team at Black's for the past eight years, had a meningioma brain tumor and had to have brain surgery. Because of the large incision needed on her head for the surgery, she had to shave part of her hair off.
Mrs. Benton not only visited her in the hospital, but brought her some of her wigs from when she waged her own struggle.
“They did so many things for me,” Mrs. Bryson said. “Dianne is the type of person who...acts like you are her family. She's very helpful and kind. She's just a wonderful person and Ricky is also.”
There are so many stories of the Bentons going above and beyond to support their extended family: their employees.
“Through all the hard times, they've never laid off any (employees),” said Delia Bullard, human resources employee with Black's Tire for 25 years. When her husband became ill, Mr. Benton helped her out by taking him to his doctor's appointments when she was unavailable.
“They were just so supportive through his complete illness,” Mrs. Bullard said.
“Kenny (her husband) was like Ricky's best friend and he passed away in May 2014. They were there the whole way.... You couldn't ask for anything better.”
She added, “I'm very fortunate to be able to have this job.”
With Black's Tire now up to 37 locations in North Carolina and South Carolina, Mrs. Bullard has a lot to do.
“We are up to 569 employees right now. So I've got my hands full, but I love it,” she said.
Daniel Outlaw, who has worked for Black's Tire for 10 years, currently in inventory, also was helped out by the Bentons. His parents were sick and Mr. Benton took him to breakfast just to check in with him. Additionally, a few years ago, Mr. Outlaw was in a car accident and was out of work for a few months. He said the Bentons took care of him, visited him in the hospital and let him work his way back into the business.
“They really are about family,” Mr. Outlaw said. “I feel privileged to work for such great people.”
While he noted he has worked for other family businesses that seemed like they were only out for themselves, the Bentons sincerely put employees first.
“They do a lot for everybody, not only the Boys & Girls Home, but on an individual basis,” said Sherri Griffin, accounts receivable at Black's Tire. “I mean, they would give the shirt off their back to you.... I just enjoy my job (and) the people I work with.”
She described the Bentons as just good-hearted people. Employees also participate in some of the couple's charitable endeavors, such as Mrs. Griffin's helping out at the golf tournament for the Boys & Girls Home.
“To me, they are more than just my employer,” she said. “They are like part of my family; just great people.”
Jamie Godwin, CFO of Black's Tire, said it is Ricky and Dianne together who have grown the business into what it is today.
“They are a phenomenal family,” he said, “They are both big-hearted people.”
He added that Mrs. Benton is the glue that holds it all together. Mr. Benton is the face of the company, he said, but they are equal parts. He's selling it and she's keeping it together, is how Mr. Godwin put it.
They do much for the community and their employees, but never ask for recognition.
For instance, Mr. Godwin's house sold before the new one being built was finished. So the Bentons packed up what they needed and moved into their lake house so that Mr. Godwin could live in the main house until he could move into his own.
They don't like to make a fuss in what they do, he said. Even with the house, when he handed Mr. Benton back the keys to the house and thanked him, he said Mr. Benton changed the subject.
With all these employee outreach initiatives, the one story that is told time and again is that of Oliver Castrejon, manager in Black's Tire's warehouse whose family suffered a house fire and lost everything.
Mr. Benton spearheaded a campaign to help him out and, according to Mr. Castrejon, the whole company came together. Another employee in the warehouse had a rental property that the Castrejons were able to live in. Mr. Benton helped furnish the new place.
Mr. Castrejon said within three days, they had a fully furnished home.
For a few days, his daughters felt like it was Christmas because of how much he was bringing home to stock the new house.
“It was really amazing to see just everyone help out,” Mr. Castrejon said. “This isn't just a company; it is a family.”
Although he is thankful for everything the company and the Bentons did during the time of the fire, Mr. Castrejon also explained that he admires the Bentons for giving him a chance to grow with the company. He came onboard knowing nothing in the warehouse.
“They are very good people who believe in hard work and reward hard work,” he said.
“They give every employee a chance to better themselves.”
Additionally, Mr. Benton paid for Mr. Castrejon's first two years of college before he decided to come on board fulltime.
Mr. Benton does a lot more than people realize, he said, but he doesn't do it for the recognition. “They have worked hard for everything they have, but they give plenty back to the community,” Mr. Castrejon added.
Mr. Godwin shared a similar sentiment, “Everything they do, it's above and beyond.”
If there is an event, they are both out there helping out.
When it comes to the business, Mr. Benton is front and center, Mr. Godwin said, but for giving purposes, they keep quiet about everything they do.
There are plenty of hard-knocks stories—people who have made mistakes or bad choices. Mr. Benton would give them a chance and has helped a lot of people turn things around, Mr. Godwin explained.
Instead of hosting an annual holiday party in the busy month of December, the Bentons began to host a Family Day in the summer on the Boys & Girls Home property where members of the Black's Tire family, Boys & Girls Home and friends and family could come out and enjoy a state fair-esque day.
Mr. Benton said the event drew about 1,200 people last year and this summer there were about 1,700-2,000 attendees.
Some people may have never had the opportunity to go to a state fair, he said, so the Family Day included dunking booths, inflatables, snow cones, hot dogs, hamburgers and more.
“We have really been through a lot together,” said Mrs. Kay Bullard.
“...Dianne has always been real supportive of when my husband got sick and had heart surgery. They were there,...always been there when we needed them. And that's sort of the way she is about everybody in here.”
She surmised that no matter how many awards the Bentons win because of their business, the Humanitarian accolade will be their most treasured.
“They deserve that (Humanitarian award). That to Dianne and Ricky will be their greatest award,” she added. “They do a lot of things they don't tell people about.”
For instance, one male teen in the community was battling cancer and was an admirer of one of the Bentons' Ford Mustangs. They allowed him to use it—however, they didn't want anyone to know about it.
“Ricky has always been a smart person. And he has always shared,” said Mary Nance, who along with her husband Eugene have been lifelong friends of Mr. Benton.
Mr. Nance said whether it's a civic organization or a church trying to raise money, the Bentons will always help out.
“We know that personally through our church through a parking lot repaving just a few years ago,” he said.
The Bentons' church and the Nances' church are next to each other and share a parking lot, prompting Mr. Benton to ask if their side needed paving. He said that he would pay half of it but did not want credit for the project.
“That just goes to show you the type of (people) they are,” Mr. Nance added. “He wants to help, but it's not from a bragging standpoint.... He wants to be the silent partner.”
Mrs. Nance recalled the time baby grand pianos showed up in various local churches, but no one ever took credit for donating them.
“This secret giver,” she said, “everybody said it was Ricky.
“That's the way he does it.... The only one that we could imagine that would do it without credit would be Ricky and Dianne.”
Whenever anyone in the community is struggling, the Bentons are there for support.
“If they know them and there's been a death or sickness, they pop right in to help in whatever way they can. Whether it's food or whatever,” Mr. Nance said.
“And they don't just bring a little thing of potato salad. No, when they come, it's a platter of chicken and the potato salad and the whole works.”
He added, “...any organization or anybody in need. Ricky Benton's got a heart. And Miss Dianne.”
Alice Benton, Ricky Benton's mother expressed her gratitude for a wonderful, hard-working family, saying she is “just so proud of them.”
Giving back to the community and those in need was always important to Mr. Benton, according to his mother, who explained that even before Black's Tire was as successful as it is now, one family in the community was extremely poor and the father had died. Mr. Benton donated money to help them in their troubles.
He's humble, she said, and hasn't reported to her everything he has done for others.
“I am so happy he's getting this honor because he truly deserves it,” Mrs. Benton said. “I don't know what I would have done without him. The Lord has blessed me.”
It seems that as the Bentons—these “silent partners”—have built a life and a business together, they've scarcily wasted a moment of giving back their bounty to the people and organizations they care about. And working under the radar suits them just fine.
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6143; Twitter: @jenniferkarpus