WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Automobiles have been a part of Ron Katz's life almost as long as he has been in the workforce. Considering he was a one-time car salesman and later had two stints overseeing one of West Palm Beach's largest auto dealerships, vehicles have been a integral part of his career.
Automotive service and tires, however, are a completely different matter.
So when Mr. Katz and his partner Jerry Kaye decided to purchase a Midas franchise in 2015 and operate a business that fixes cars rather than sells them, he suddenly was thrust into a vocation he knew very little about.
He admits he is continuing to learn.
"I know cars. I'm not a mechanic. I like to say I play one on TV, but I'm not a mechanic," he said with a smile.
When he first took over the Midas shop, he was determined to learn how to operate a tire-changing machine. He figured it out, but not without some elbow grease.
"I had more grease on me than anywhere else," he said, "but it's all good."
It is that kind of attitude and determination that has helped drive Mr. Katz to success, both in business and as a humanitarian. The 59-year-old entrepreneur has been named the 2021 winner of the Tire Business Tire Dealer Humanitarian Medal, given to an independent tire dealer or retreader in North America who, during the past year, has made significant contributions to the betterment of his or her community through charitable and/or public service work.
It was six years ago when Mr. Kaye began a conversation with Mr. Katz about partnering together. Mr. Kaye, the boyfriend of Mr. Katz's mother, said he had some money in the bank and wanted to invest it. His mom had been in the hospital at the time, unaware of the conversation.
"He told me, 'Maybe we can do something together,'" Mr. Katz remembered.
Mr. Kaye called three weeks later to ask Mr. Katz if he had thought more about his proposal.
They went to lunch and began talking it through. They discussed several business ventures, including opening a Chinese restaurant or operating a T-shirt business.
Mr. Katz had spent close to a 15 years around cars while working as an executive at Schumacher Automotive Group, a South Florida dealership selling 13 vehicle brands, including Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler Dodge, Infiniti, Jeep, Subaru, Volkswagen and Volvo.
While there, he didn't dabble with the cars as much as refine the business practices to make it more profitable and efficient.
Still, when a Midas franchise located about 12 minutes from his residence became available — it was a car business, so to speak, Mr. Katz saw it as a sign.
"We went to look at it," he said, "and we decided to do it."
The next step was to share the news with Mr. Katz's mother, who remained unaware of the partnership.
The three of them went out for dinner, and Mr. Katz ordered a bottle of champagne. Once they shared their secret with her, well, he was fortunate that his mother didn't pour the bubbly over his head.
"She was pissed that she was kept in the dark about it," Mr. Katz said. "She kept saying you don't mix business with family.
"But she got over it. She always remembers that part, that we did it behind her back."
The partners began business with two stores, the flagship store in West Palm Beach and another outlet in Lake Worth, Fla., about seven miles south.
Soon after, they bought another shop in Margate, Fla., then sold it this past January after determining the rent was too high.
In 2019, they bought two other shops they continue to operate: One in Cocoa Beach, Fla., about two hours north of West Palm Beach, and one in Cutler Bay, Fla., 20 miles southwest of Miami. Currently, they have around 15 employees.
The partners have yet to make their money back — "not even close," Mr. Katz said — but they remain committed for the long-term.
While the two newer stores are profitable, the West Palm Beach location often struggles to break even, with sales between $80,000 and $100,000 each month. When he took over the store, it was generating only $50,000 in sales.
"We are not where it needs to be, but it's getting there," Mr. Katz said, explaining that high expenses in West Palm Beach mean he needs to reach $100,000 a month in sales "just to open my eyes in the morning.
"That's something to keep you up at night."
Still, Mr. Katz wants to acquire more shops, particularly near Cocoa Beach, not far from the Kennedy Space Center. It's an area, he said, that continues to grow, especially given the renewed emphasis of late on space travel.
Finding and retaining talent remains a struggle for the tire dealer, as it is in almost every tire and automotive service shop in North America.
Technicians, he said, come and go, always believing the grass is greener elsewhere.
One such employee decided to take a job elsewhere for a minimal increase in pay. He initially gave two weeks' notice, but then left for good the next day.
Now, that tech is begging to get his old job back, but since he broke the company's rule of working out a two-weeks' notice, Mr. Katz refuses to relent.
"When I have the staff, I can kill it," he said. "The problem is, they come and go. It's the nature of the beast, particularly in this area."
But Mr. Katz said the partnership with Mr. Kaye continues to flourish, calling his friend "an ideal partner."
"He lets me handle everything that goes on," Mr. Katz said. "He knows that everything I do, right or wrong, it is for the better of the store. It hasn't been easy, but we're getting through it."
Mr. Katz said that Mr. Kaye, who operated nursery schools before he retired, is very "laid back" and brings compassion to the partnership, without the stress.
"Me, I get stressed out at different things," Mr. Katz said. "He tells me, 'You handle 99% of the business, you can do that.' I admire he has that trust in me."
Six years later, Mr. Katz's mom remains uncomfortable about the arrangement.
At family functions, she makes sure the partners sit away from each other to prevent them from talking shop.
Said Mr. Katz: "We can talk about our business all night long."