FAIRFAX, Va. — Tire dealer Julie Holmes has been carrying on a legacy started by her parents, Myron and Carole Boncarosky, who founded Virginia Tire & Auto in Fairfax in 1976 — and she's added a few of her own touches.
Mr. Boncarosky started the tire dealership as a Shell gas station and added other gas stations and auto repair shops around northern Virginia. Many of those shops operated under different names.
Ms. Holmes joined the business in 2010 after practicing law for five years. She and her husband Mike, now co-CEOs, took over the business in 2014.
One of the first things Ms. Holmes did was create a cohesive look for the dealership by converting all the stores' signage to "Virginia Tire," remodeling the interiors with a common color scheme and creating a brand identity and logo.
"It's easy to take a fantastic business and make tweaks to it. We weren't inheriting or getting anything broken. My big project, my passion, has always been on the marketing side of things. I led the rebranding of our stores. That was my big project when I first started," Ms. Holmes said.
The renovations and rebranding, which took about two years, were "table steaks" to improving sales and making sure the business stayed current in the marketplace.
"We had a really strong customer base, a very loyal customer base. Our stores were already immaculate and had high standards of customer care. But I think the evolution and continuing to invest in your stores is really important to continuing to stay relevant," she said.
During the rebranding process, the dealership hired an agency that "helped us go back and identify our brand pillars and not who we want to be, but who we are," Ms. Holmes said, noting the "pillars" identified represent the cornerstone of Virginia Tire's brand: professional, genuine, attentive and forward-thinking.
The dealership has been growing ever since, opening its 18th location in Virginia last June.
Ms. Holmes admits she's operating a business in a very male-dominated industry.
"Our office staff has quite a few women, and we have several women in leadership roles in our organization. We don't have a lot of female staff in our stores, which is something that we would like to change. … Stereotypically I think women have more empathy and compassion and a higher ability to multi-task, which I think can really benefit on the sales side," she said.
She said she believes gender diversity is good for a business "because everyone comes at problems from different viewpoints. ... I think that's why my husband and I work well together because we can look at the same problem, and we can get to the same result but our paths are very different."
She said she doesn't see differences between being a male or female leader.
"I've never seen, as a woman, as having an advantage. I don't know if it's my personality, or if it's being a woman, or just having grown up with a great role model, but we've always looked at this as a people business and put great emphasis on taking care of our own employees and through that taking excellent care of the customer.
"I don't know if it's being a woman or the sensibilities I grew up with, but we've always really cared deeply about our people.
"We've been very protective of our brand and making sure, as part of the customer experience, that we have clean and inviting stores. I think these are values I learned from my dad," she said.
Ms. Holmes said being a mother of five children also has influenced her leadership style as being very approachable.
"I'm trying to be a good leader, provide solid direction for the company and be approachable," she said.
At the same time she admitted that being a working mother is tough and time-consuming.
"I think it's very important for (my kids) to see, it's hard to do it all. I think I'm a better mom by having this great focus in my life, and I think it's a great lesson for them to have as a role model. It's not easy all the time.
"They see me working a lot. But it doesn't feel like work if you enjoy doing it."
Ms. Holmes grew up in the tire business as the only child of the dealership's founders. She said was attracted to the challenges of the business, but the pandemic has created abnormally big challenges.
"The one constant is change. If we keep having the same problems year in, year out, then we've got bigger problems. But we keep getting new problems.
"That is what COVID is doing. We don't have those problems anymore — we have a whole new set of problems that we have to figure out how to solve. This commitment to our people is evidenced by having a 'chief people officer' overseeing our operation, and it has really shown we're different."
She said having a team of people who care as much as the owner does is key. "We have our core leadership team and our core operations team, and they care so deeply and I'm really grateful for them."
Ms. Holmes' biggest challenge currently is finding enough employees to fill open positions at her 18 stores. Before the pandemic, the dealership employed 300.
The last 18 months have been the most difficult time for the dealership, she said, due to the challenges and choices that she never had to deal with previously.
"We lost 70% of our sales because our area was really locked down, and we started to build back our sales come July-August of last year, and yet we haven't been able to staff to the level that we need," she said, noting that the stores had to shorten operating hours due to low staffing levels.
"We have high standards, and we want to meet them. I want to meet all of our goals, and I want to do all these things that we were doing pre-COVID, but it's challenging when you have 60-70 open positions."
Ms. Holmes said demand for tire and automotive services is high in her markets.
Unfortunately, the staffing levels are hindering the business. For example, the newest store, in Leesburg, Va., is a large 10-bay shop, but she is only able to staff it with four people now.
To address the staffing problem, the dealership plans to launch a recruiting campaign in November that will feature Ms. Holmes and the fact that Virginia Tire is a woman-owned business.
The campaign will include promotional materials in the stores and online.
"Historically, we've talked about being a family-owned business but I don't think that's a real differentiator. I think being woman-owned is.
"So ultimately, we'd like to hire more women ... or hire more men who share our values. Also, it would resonate well with customers, just breaking down that stereotype, I think will be very successful," Ms. Holmes said.
In the meantime, the dealership has conducted hiring events, posted online ads and sought referrals.
But the dealership has faced problems similar to other businesses in the pandemic era when it comes to attracting and retaining job applicants.
"They ghost you. They take a job, they work with you for one hour, and then they go out to their car and they never come back," Ms. Holmes lamented.
"We're a good employer, we take care of our people, we have standards. It's a good place. And this is happening across our industry and everywhere. It's been disheartening.
"I feel like, if anything, we need to focus on back to the basics of decency and doing what you say you're going to do. Those basic values that they teach you in kindergarten seem to have gone away," she said. "We've thrown all the resources we can at hiring."
Advice to dealers
"It's not easy. It's challenging," Ms. Holmes advised dealers and women who are considering a career in the industry.
"But the one constant is change, so being willing to accept change and handle it with grace and on those really tough days, knowing that things will change. It won't always be this hard. … There has to be a willingness to be flexible, and you don't always get what you want.
"This year has really spoken to a lot of the challenges. This has been the hardest year ever in the business, and it's frustrating and challenging to not be able to meet all the high expectations that you have, in part because we were so limited on our workforce and all the challenges of COVID," she said.
"Something that's helped me is that 'This too shall pass.' My dad would say that.
"The one constant is change and being willing to adapt to the changes that happen, I think, is probably going to be one of the traits that will help any reader or any person that's trying to lead an organization," Ms. Holmes said.