Not Treading Lightly
City Tire Wants to Build on an 85-year LegacyIt was the Thursday after New Year’s Day.
A Nor’easter was slowly moving its way through the region, blending light but persistent snow with temperatures well below freezing, a combination that made the roads exceedingly slick and difficult to traverse.
Personally, Peter Greenberg, like the rest of us, doesn’t much like this kind of weather. But as a businessman, well, let’s just say he’s pragmatic.
“We haven’t had a good winter in a couple of years,” he said, using the language and tone typically reserved for frustrated ski-area operators and snowblower dealers, as he looked out the window. “You have people who have bought cars over the past few years who don’t even realize they may need snow tires. You get weather like this, and they understand that they need to do something.”
Elaborating, he said that while the extreme conditions that day kept the bays at City Tire’s flagship Avocado Street location in Springfield relatively quiet, they also provided that effective education for drivers. And this knowledge would certainly help Greenberg reduce an inventory of snow tires that hadn’t been substantially dented until very recently.
Coping effectively with what Mother Nature has dished out — good, bad (however those terms are deployed), or “good snow-tire-selling weather,” as he called it — has been one of many reasons why City Tire has survived to be a three-generation company and recently celebrate 85 years in business.
Peter, the company’s president, and his brother, Daniel, vice president of sales, comprise that third generation. Today, they preside over an operation far different than the one started in 1927 by their paternal grandfather, Irving, a Russian immigrant, with a small shop on the corner of Dwight and Harrison streets in Springfield. There are now 11 wholly owned locations, stretching from Vermont to Connecticut and from Pittsfield to Worcester, and they offer complete car care, not simply tire replacement and repairs.
And while their grandfather probably had to stock a handful of different sizes and competitors were few, Peter and Daniel have to stock (or provide) hundreds of different sizes and brands and face many types of competitors.
But some things about this business haven’t changed since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, said Peter. Chief among them is the fact that this is, first and foremost, a service business, one where the successful players are the ones who can perhaps take some of the sting out of something he places firmly in the grudge-purchase category.
“This isn’t like selling diamonds; no one really likes buying tires — it’s just not fun,” he explained, adding that the simple mission of the company has always been to make that experience, and others involving automobiles that are equally disagreeable, a little more tolerable.
Greenberg said there have been many keys to the company’s success over the years, particularly an ability to keep up with both the times and the competition.
When it comes to the latter, there is an ever-increasing amount of it, and it’s coming from many different directions, including national and regional tire chains (Town Fair is the most prominent one in this area); company stores, such as those operated by Goodyear and Firestone; wholesale clubs (Costco and BJ’s); Internet suppliers; and, increasingly, auto dealers.
Indeed, while once that constituency had a reputation for being too expensive or offering inferior service when it came to tires and other services, it has closed those gaps in recent years, said Greenberg. City Tire has responded by renovating and upgrading a number of its locations to make them better able to compete with the spacious and well-appointed dealerships that now dominate the landscape (more on this later).
Meanwhile, after more or less standing pat for the past few years, the company is looking to add more locations, he said, adding that one of his informal New Year’s resolutions is to be more aggressive in scouting new locations and taking the City Tire name to more cities and towns in New England and perhaps beyond.
“My goal would be to at least double the size of the company over the next five years, to 25 locations,” he said, adding that this is an aggressive goal, but one he believes is also realistic.
For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at a regional business with considerable miles on it, but one with plenty of tread left and an entrepreneurial outlook about what could happen down the road.
In a Groove
The screen saver on Peter Greenberg’s PC is a picture definitely worth more than a thousand words — at least to Springfield history buffs.
It’s a shot looking north on Dwight Street in Springfield, circa late ’40s or early ’50s (he’s not sure). Prominent in the left-center of the photograph is the store his grandfather got things started with, located on the property later taken by the city to build the Civic Center parking garage. The City Tire sign is actually dwarfed by others hyping the products sold there — namely U.S. Royal (United States Rubber Co.) tires, later known as Uniroyals, manufactured just a few miles away at a plant (closed decades ago) in the center of Chicopee.
Greenberg, who said he often finds himself explaining the geography, as well as the signage, noted that his daughter put it on his computer recently in recognition of just how much this company values its past.
Indeed, on one wall in the main lobby is a large collage of photos spanning several decades. Meanwhile, in Peter’s office there are a number of pictures, including one featuring all three generations (the only one he’s been able to find), and another depicting his grandfather at work. And on the wall behind his desk is the original site plan for the current Avocado Street facility; the business was relocated to the former landfill situated across from the old Pynchon Park by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority as it was reshaping downtown Springfield in the early ’70s.
He set up shop on Dwight Street at a time when car ownership was exploding across the country — and when tires needed to be replaced far more often than they do now.
“This has always been a good business — people always need tires and service — but it was a lot simpler back then,” he said. “There weren’t that many kinds of vehicles or brands of tires. It’s much more complicated now.”
Irving Greenberg was eventually joined by his son, Larry, who would begin an expansion process, continued by the third generation, which would take the enterprise to Chicopee, Pittsfield, Greenfield, Wilbraham, Amherst, and Worcester, as well as Waterford, Conn., Williston, Vt., and Keene and West Lebanon, N.H.
Peter told BusinessWest that, while he did consider, and actually start down, some other career paths — he spent two years doing pre-med work before shelving his plan to be a doctor, then ventured out west to be a “ski bum,” and later worked for Uniroyal selling tires wholesale — there was a certain manifest destiny attached to his birth announcement. It told of the “latest U.S. Royal Master” — a top-of-the-line model in the late ’50s — “bouncing out of the maternity ward,” or words to that effect.
Greenberg, who returned to the family venture in 1983, said he grew up in the business, handling tasks ranging from sweeping floors to changing tires to retreading work, and believes he benefited from those experiences because they exposed him to all aspects of the industry.
Today, he and Daniel split most of the administrative duties, with Daniel focused primarily on sales, and Peter on purchasing, advertising, inventory control (an important assignment in this and any other business), and further expansion opportunities.
But in the bigger-picture scheme of things, they share the assignment of constantly sharpening the company’s competitive edge and responding to change, which has come in many different forms.
“There are fewer and fewer independent tire dealers because it just costs a lot more to operate a business,” he said, noting that players must keep large inventories and be able to quickly provide virtually any size and make of tire through regional wholesalers. “You have to buy more tires, you have to stock more tires, and you need to have people who know what they’re doing, so you have to pay people better. It’s a much more complicated business than it was in the ’20s or the ’60s or the ’70s.”
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Summing up the accomplishments of the second and third generations of the company’s ownership and management, Greenberg said they’ve expanded geographically, but also in terms of service.
He used the phrase “one-stop shopping” early and quite often as he talked with BusinessWest to drive home the point that customers can stop at the company’s locations for much more than new rubber or to get a slow leak plugged.
And this is an important consideration from a competitive standpoint, he went on, adding that consumers value convenience as well as quality service, and operations that can package both — and he believes this chain does — will fare well.
“We provide full auto care, and that’s what makes us different from a lot of our competitors,” he said, specifically referencing independent tire sellers such as Town Fair. “And our managers are local — when someone walks in the door, they know the people — and most of our staff have been here for a long time.
“We come across as local people who are here to stay,” he went on. “We’re easy to do business with.”
Looking ahead — something the brothers do more than looking back, despite their company’s rich history — Greenberg said City Tire must continually respond to new trends and challenges within the industry.
At or near the top of that list is escalating competition and the emergence of auto dealers as a viable threat when it comes to market share.
“Our fiercest competitor on the horizon is the car dealers,” he explained. “For years, they were known as the most expensive place, and we were able to essentially pick their pockets.
“But they finally realized that they need to keep their customers,” he went on. “So they’ve changed their cost basis so now they can afford to compete with us. Because of the number of tires they buy as original equipment, they’ve gone ahead and cut deals with the tire manufacturers. And even though they don’t have the space for the tires, they’ve worked things out with the wholesalers to get product.”
And the dealers have been able to couple this new math with large, comfortable showrooms, he went on, adding that, in response, City Tire has renovated the showrooms in six of its 11 locations over the past few years to make them more inviting and more comfortable, and others will be redone in the near future.
“We have to be more presentable to the public when they walk in the door — they need to feel comfortable,” he said, adding that such renovations are an example of how the company has historically been quick to respond to changes within the industry to stay ahead of the curve.
And then, there’s that New Year’s resolution to scout for new locations.
Greenberg said the company would like to undertake additional expansion, and will target markets where the City Tire name doesn’t exist, and also existing businesses for acquisition rather than start-up ventures.
“When you buy an ongoing business, the day you open, you have customers,” he explained. “When you start your business from scratch, you have to drive people in the door. So my first choice is to buy an existing business.”
Another component of the strategic plan is to continue to aggressively market the City Tire brand, he said, adding that the goal of such activity — including the well-known jingle “the best place by far for your car” — is to simply drive traffic to those 11 locations.
If those efforts are successful, he believes the company’s track record for quality service and providing a pleasant experience — or at least as pleasant as possible given the grudge-purchase nature of this work — will create repeat customers.
Getting a Grip
“But with weather like this, I don’t need any marketing,” he said with a laugh as he again gestured out the window to the accumulating snow.
Turning serious, he said that, through more than 85 years in business, the three generations of this family have learned that the formula for success involves much more than a well-timed nor’easter or two.
It comes down to staying ahead of marketing trends and treating customers like Irving Greenberg did, even when he worked with the third generation of ownership a half-century after getting started.
“I don’t know how many times customers would come in and he would say, ‘you don’t need new tires — they’re fine,’” Peter recalled. “He would say, ‘come back in six months when you really need them.’
“That’s how you build up trust with customers,” he went on, adding that this has essentially been the business plan for the first nine decades, and it will continue to be that way in the years to come.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]