CARY, N.C.People find inspiration to become entrepreneurs in a lot of things, but for Anthony Blackman, it all comes down to a can of Coke.
When the owner of Cary-based Atlantic Tire & Service was growing up, his uncle James Dood Hudson operated a two-bay gas station in Vass, N.C., where he sold tires and offered automotive repair and maintenance services.
Mr. Hudson had a paid soda machine at his shopone of the old ones that loaded from the top, Mr. Blackman saidbut being the owner of the business, he wasn't about to buy the soda twice. As a 4-year-old, the future tire dealer watched his uncle reach into the machine and grab a Coke without having to pay for it first.
That made an impression on me, Mr. Blackman told Tire Business. I said, 'That man has made it.' So you never know what's going to inspire or get into a young man's head, but after that, I said that's what I want to do.
Now 62, Mr. Blackman has run two successful tire businesses in the last three decades and continues to work full time operating his current three-outlet retail and commercial tire dealership, with plans to open a fourth outlet in 2017. The newest location, to be built in Wake Forest, N.C., will complement Atlantic Tire's existing outlets in Cary, Raleigh and Durham, N.C.
Though he's at an age when many begin thinking of retirement, Mr. Blackman said he hates to even say that wordand in fact would consider expanding again down the road.
It's still fun, he admitted. Every day it's something different.
Every day I get to see friends come through, and I help them with automotive needs. It's just a helping business and I like that. I like helping.
Mr. Blackman began his own tire industry career working at a Goodyear-owned retail dealership in nearby Raleigh, N.C. He went into business for himself in May 1988 with Atlantic Avenue Tire, which he co-founded with then-business partner Richard Leicht.
His move to Cary and the start of his new business Atlantic Tire came on Dec. 19, 1998, after a friend who was a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, told him the groupwhich at that time had many members utilizing Atlantic Avenue Tire for automotive serviceswas moving to Cary.
Atlantic Avenue Tire continued its relationship with the organization, picking up vehicles and delivering them back to customers, but it was a long trip, Mr. Blackman said.
The more I thought about it, I said we need to go to Cary, that's a great location. I was playing a charity golf tournament out here and I never came to Cary that much, but I looked and said this is a great area.
At the time Mr. Blackman chose to sell his share of Atlantic Avenue Tire to Mr. Leicht and start his own shop in Cary, there was nothing but trees across the street from the site a friend had suggested to him.
There was no development, he said. There was nothing here.
On the promise of a new shopping center scheduled to be built the following year, Mr. Blackman decided to go through with the plana risk that turned into a blessing.
Sure enough, in a year they had that thing going, he said. Everything changed overnight and this became a prime location.
Seven years later, in 2005 the firm added its second location in Durham. The Raleigh store opened in 2009.
Though the word tire comes first in his business' name, Mr. Blackman said Atlantic Tire derives most of its business from automotive service.
We would not survive if we had to survive off of tire sales, he said. It's gotten so competitive. The old days where you try to get your 33 percent gross margins, that's hard to do these days.
To compensate, the company has structured itself to go after light commercial accounts, which now make up nearly 40 percent of Atlantic Tire's business.
We've always been in it, but in the last few years, as we saw competition getting even keener we started trying to contact five new accounts a week, he said. Where else can you go and have one decision maker affect 20 vehicles?
Mr. Blackman said the business structure has contributed to his dealership's longevity, but the real secret to Atlantic Tire's success is its people.
My philosophy on running a business is basically, first of all, I want my employeesand I tell them this myself when I hire themI want you here because you want to be here, he said. I want you to be proud of the job that you do and proud of the company that you work for....
They are the most important thing that we have in that business, he continued. It's not the building, it's not the equipment. It's our people, because without our people nothing happens.
Mr. Blackman's focus on people and the culture within his business isn't lost on Atlantic Tire's customers either. His company has received numerous awards over the years, including seven consecutive local Maggy awards from Cary Magazine readers for Best Mechanic.
The company has also earned the Better Business Bureau's Eastern BBB Torch Award; the National Institute for Automotive Excellence's Blue Seal of Excellence; and multiple awards from the Cary Chamber of Commerce.
It's kind of like Cheers, said Diane Hillsgrove, executive director of the YMCA's Camp Seafarer, who is part of Mr. Blackman's Rotary Club and a longtime customer of his shop. Everybody wants to have a place where they feel respected and loved and where they matter. It doesn't matter who it is, Anthony greets them by name, and if he doesn't know their name he introduces himself.
That's the culture he's created for all these guys when anybody walks in, she continued. It's been 20-something years, and I still get called Ms. Hillsgrove.
Mr. Blackman invests heavily in his employees, covering a variety of training programs and helping them with personal problems over the years.
The business' employee turnover rate is very low, he said, and several even followed him over from his previous dealership. Two others have even become part owners in the business.
One such employee, Jason Browder, started with the company as a tire buster and has since become Mr. Blackman's partner and a minority owner in Atlantic Tire's Raleigh store, where he owns a 48-percent share.
Mr. Browder began his tire industry career at Atlantic Avenue Tire out of high school before joining the U.S. Navy for four years. While stationed in Florida, he met his wife, who wanted to go to college.
In 1999, they moved back to Raleigh so he could get a job working at Atlantic Tire to help pay for her education.
When I came back (the Raleigh) store had just opened, so I started doing commercial solicitation, trying to find the fleet customers and things like that, he said. A lot was changing from what I knew as changing oil and tires to doing more up-front cold calls, helping customers and things like that. From that end, I just tried to learn every aspect of it.
Mr. Browder also will be minority partner at the Wake Forest location when it opens next year, Mr. Blackman said. Davis Morgan, another long-term employee, is manager and a minority owner of the Durham store.
You're helping put people in business, and it is their business, Mr. Blackman said of his penchant for selling shares to key people in his business. I rarely go see these other stores. I let them run it just like it was theirs, and they own 48 percent of it.
I wish somebody had done that for me when I was coming through, and I tell you, it's been successful. I know some people don't like to give away anything, but I don't mind doing that.
Mr. Blackman said he believes giving employees some ownership in the business can change the dynamics of a business in a positive way.
They're part owner of that thing, he said. They tend to look after it a lot better than if they were just working for someone else. A lot of it for me is the pride of helping getting them established in business. When I sell out, I'll sell to them.
The Cary location, however, will go to his son Cameron, who works for Atlantic Tire as an outside sales representative for both the company's commercial and retail business.
While his role in the company doesn't include automotive service, Cameron Blackman is a car guy at heart.
He's different from Anthony, said Beth Blackman, Anthony's wife, who also helps in the business with accounting paperwork.
He loves the trucks, the big tiresall that part of it. He'll get out on a Saturday after work and have his buddies over with their trucks, their four-wheelers, and they'll be up under them.
Mr. Blackman said he has no aptitude when it comes to tinkering on vehicles and prefers to be at the service counter talking to customersfostering that Cheers-like atmosphere.