Having worked for his father from age 14 through high school and into college, Lewis Sr. said he “wanted to try something else” after graduating from Washington University and finishing his Reserve Officer Training Corps duties.
That “something else” turned out to be entering a management training program with Goodyear, where he spent three-and-a-half years managing the Akron-based tire maker's company stores throughout Tennessee.
That somewhat nomadic existence — ”all four of our children were born in different cities,” he noted — left Lewis Sr. and wife Martha craving some stability, “so I called Dad to see if he'd consider taking me on.”
“Turns out he'd been following my progress at Goodyear,” Lewis Sr. added, “so he thought I was worth the risk.”
Along the way Lewis Sr. continued his education, completing a Professional Management Development program offered by Harvard University. So he brought with him a package of skills and talents that would prove useful as he moved up the management pecking order at Free Service Tire—to supervisor of stores, director, vice president and then president in 1971.
It was déjà vu all over again a dozen years later when Lewis Jr. went off to study business and finance at the University of Tennessee (U.T.) after working summers unloading trucks and working in the dealership's retread plant, starting at age 12.
After graduation in 1982, Lewis Jr. was set for a career in banking when his dad arranged an interview with Goodyear, which offered him a regional sales position in the company's store network in the Southeast.
That led to a series of promotions that eventually landed him in Knoxville, Tenn., where he decided to jump ship and join the family company in 1986.
Starting out as a store sales associate, Lewis Jr. focused on the growing performance tire sector, which led him to realize that Free Service Tire's volume was too small to qualify for the volume bonuses it needed to compete with the regional and national chains.
That led to the creation of a wholesale business unit, which since has grown to four warehouses in three states and a customer roster numbering into the hundreds—and to Lewis Jr.'s promotion to president in 2006.
Lewis' brother Harrison joined the company after graduating from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., and while studying for an MBA at U.T.
Today he's in charge of the dealership's commercial tire assets, including a retread plant in Johnson City.
Altogether Free Service Tire operates 18 locations — 11 retail stores, two commercial stores, a retread plant and four wholesale centers — with 200 employees spread among four states.
Lewis Sr. told Tire Business there's never been a point where he's considered selling the business, but there were a couple of key developments to be dealt with along the way.
The first was securing full control of the company. At some point during his five decades at the helm of Free Service Tire, Dan Wexler had rewarded some key employees with stock in the company, according to Lewis Sr., who made it a policy to buy back those employees' shares as they retired.
The other was in the early 1990s when companies like Free Service Tire faced the realization they couldn't continue to finance their customers' debt on their own and had to turn that business over to the banks and credit card customers. It was a fundamental change in the business-customer relationship.
Lewis Sr. also has served the tire community along the way — as president of the former Tenne-ssee/ Kentucky Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association from 1989-90 as well as roles at the Tire Industry Association and the Tire Retread & Repair Information Bureau.
Will there be a fourth generation running the show at Free Service Tire? It's too early to tell. Lewis Jr.'s daughter is studying engineering at U.T. and his son is in high school.
Lewis Jr. — recently honored as a Hall of Fame Laureate by the Junior Achievement of Tri-Cities Tennessee/Virginia Inc. — said he's been approached a number of times about selling the business, but thus far has rebuffed them all, saying even considering an offer could jeopardize the family and business dynamic that's served it so well for nearly a century.
In the meantime, Lewis Sr. assures that the business's succession plan is all laid out, even if there's still some flux in the details.