Joe Miles started his career in the automotive aftermarket as a technician. But he quickly realized that his strong suit wasn’t in the bay.
“I wasn’t fast enough to make any money as a technician,” Miles admits. “So I got into writing service. I’m a much better salesman than I am a mechanic.”
Miles went on to manage a Ken Towery’s Tire & AutoCare facility in the Louisville area. After Monro acquired Ken Towery’s in 2012, Miles went back to a local dealership where he worked previously. In early 2014, Charles Kaiser – then the owner of Kaiser Tire and Auto Service Center – asked Miles to run his business.
That would turn out to be a key milestone in his career.
“About a year later, [Kaiser] came to me and said, ‘I’m thinking I’m ready to sell the business if you want to buy it,’” Miles recalls.
It was a special opportunity for Miles, whose father always wanted to own a repair shop but never got the chance. Miles talked it over with his wife, Julie. He also called his older brother, who owns several businesses in the Louisville area. His brother encouraged him to do it.
The fact that Kaiser Tire already was a successful, established business made it an easy decision.
“My wife and I had talked about [owning a shop] for a few years,” Miles says. “Building a building and hanging a sign is a scary endeavor. Knowing how good the business was and the reputation that it had made it a no-brainer.”
Growing the Business
When Joe and Julie Miles became the owners of Kaiser Tire, one of Joe’s first moves was to make some personnel changes. He brought in two ASE Master technicians who had worked for him in the past.
From there, his focus has been on growing the business.
“It was a great business to start with,” Miles says. “But I wanted to grow the retail side of the business.”
Situated in the biggest industrial park in Kentucky – Miles estimates there are 40,000 people working there – Kaiser Tire caters to a captive audience of commercial customers. “We’re very, very heavy on fleet,” Miles adds. But carrying credit for electricians, plumbers and other commercial accounts has a downside.
“Getting paid every 30 to 90 days can be rough,” Miles says. “You need that retail side that’s paying today.”
To drum up more retail traffic, Miles employed a brilliant strategy: He met with fleet managers who do business with Kaiser Tire, and offered their employees an “in-the-park discount” for service at the shop. To make it even more convenient for those employees to take their vehicles to the shop, Kaiser Tire provides a shuttle to and from their places of business.
Miles says the strategy has helped Kaiser Tire grow its retail
base – and that’s reflected in the numbers. When Miles and his wife took over the business in 2015, Kaiser Tire was generating $1.5 million in annual revenue, according to Miles. In 2018, Kaiser Tire did $1.7 million in sales – “our best year yet” – and Miles expects 2019 to be in the same ballpark.
Customers Come First
When Miles’ former employer, Ken Towery, heard that Miles had purchased Kaiser Tire, Towery came to visit the shop. Towery – whom Miles describes as “a dear friend and a wonderful man” – offered some words of encouragement and some sage advice.
“He said, ‘If you continue to take care of the customers, they will continue to come back,’” Miles recalls. “’ … If the customers feel like they’re taken care of, and it’s a good relationship, you will have them for life.’”
Miles has taken Towery’s advice to heart, creating a culture that focuses on serving the customer “above anything else.” To put the philosophy into practice, Miles has trained most of his employees to be able to answer the phones, look up tire prices and talk to customers when they encounter them in the shop.
In his customer-service training with technicians, Miles emphasizes that they need to talk to people “in layman’s terms.”
“The customers aren’t gearheads. They have no idea what you’re talking about. So you have to be able to explain it in a manner that they understand.”
Keeping customers happy is one thing. But with skilled technicians in high demand these days, keeping the workforce happy is equally important for shop owners. Miles uses a fairly simple formula to keep his team engaged and motivated.
“I pay them very well,” he says, noting that his techs make a percentage of the parts and labor for each job they do. “And we’re busy, so there’s always work. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had a tech who was on his guarantee.”
The shop culture plays a role as well.
“I’m not breathing down their necks all the time,” Miles explains. “I trust them completely, and we try to empower them. We have three technicians and three guys who do tires and oil changes. My technicians pull the car in, they diagnose it, they build their own estimates and they source their own parts. Once they’ve built the estimate, they bring it to either myself or my counterman, and we go and sell the job for them.”
With so much of its business coming from fleets, the shop closes on the vast majority of its estimates.
“We don’t get ‘no’ a lot,” Miles says. “So when they spend time diagnosing a car, 90% of the time they’re going to fix that car as well.”
‘We Thrive on Referrals’
Other than sponsoring a local softball team here and there, and an occasional spot on a local radio station, Miles admits, “We really don’t have an advertising or marketing budget.”
Word-of-mouth is one of the shop’s most powerful marketing tools.
“We thrive on referrals,” Miles says. “We have a four-and-a-half-star Google rating. A lot of customers say, ‘I came in because of your Google rating.’”
On the tire side – which accounts for roughly 45% of the shop’s business – Miles has found that offering free flat fixes is an effective marketing strategy.
“Whether you bought your tires from us or not, if you come in and you need a tire taken care of, we take care of it for you. I’ve sold so many tires to people coming back to us after we fixed their tire two years ago.”
The shop’s affiliation with the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance has been good for business as well. As a Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Center, Kaiser Tire offers Bumper to Bumper’s 24-month/24,000-mile Confidence Plus warranty. Miles has extended the warranty to 36 months/36,000 miles for his customers, with the shop covering the difference.
For Miles, though, the benefits of being an Alliance member go beyond the Bumper to Bumper warranty and its other programs.
For the past two years, Miles has been a member of the Alliance Service Center Advisory Council, and he says the experience “has been a huge benefit to me personally as well as the business.”
“I’ve been able to meet a lot of other [shop owners] from around the country, and we share a lot of best practices while we’re in our meetings,” Miles says. “I’ve taken a lot of that back with me.”
Joe and Julie Miles took over Kaiser Tire in April 2015. Joe manages the day-to-day operations, while Julie handles the shop’s accounting from her home office. The arrangement provides her the flexibility to be available for their 7-year-old son.
“We’ve been very blessed by the fact that she can work for us and still pick him up from school and be home with him in the summer,” Joe says.
They’ve talked about growing the business by adding more locations. However, Joe struggles with the idea.
“I feel like if we get too big, I can’t keep my thumb on everything going on, and I like to be hands-on and know what’s happening at the store, and even more on a personal level with the employees, being able to know everybody’s family and know what’s going on with them,” he says. “Even if it’s just two stores, I think it’s harder to really get to know the people who work for you.”
For now, Miles plans to remodel the showroom – which he describes as a “humongous 1980s tire-store showroom – to free up more space for tire storage.
Whether the shop expands its footprint or not, Kaiser Tire is hitting on all cylinders.
“It’s a great shop,” Miles says. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of.”