Retail is Detail

Starting small in 1922, Belle Tire grew throughout metro Detroit before moving into Toledo and Indianapolis. Now in its second century, the company is expanding into Chicago, all while applying the original formula of low prices and friendly service. // Photos by Josh Scott
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Don Barnes III, Jack Lawless
Don Barnes III, president of Belle Tire Distributors Inc. in Allen Park, and Jack Lawless, CEO, are leading a rapid expansion of the century-old business.

Belle Tire Distributors Inc.
Headquarters: Allen Park
Founded: 1922
CEO: Jack Lawless
President and Owner: Donald Barnes III
Stores: 130+
Employees: 2,300
Revenue: $700M (projected 2023)

Sermonizing by Belle Tire Corp. was unusual. Its typical newspaper ad referred to value days or used tires — a big commodity. Sometimes fresh new rubber, like the Mason Maxi-Mile or Fisk Extra Heavy Balloon, was featured.

But a curious thing happened when inspiration and soul showed up in a 1926 Detroit Free Press composition — a tight 100 words, plus titles, in one column.

“We owe it all to you — Mr. Motorist,” the ad began. Good value, honesty, and sincerity led to Belle Tire Corp. being “Michigan’s largest automobile tire retailer.” The claim arrived after just four years of business. “You know good value when you see it,” the ad continued. “You can bet on the veracity of what a Belle Tire man tells you.”

Belle Tire started in 1922 when founder Sam Waze named the enterprise after his wife, Belle. In those hardscrabble days, what young woman didn’t aspire to be the namesake of a tire shop?

Today, as Belle Tire Distributors Inc., it’s clear convenience and courtesy never go out of style. The décor has changed, but for the better; the open shop has given way to discreet customer service stations amid sculpture-like displays of glossy aluminum wheels ready to be fitted for new tires. If this arrangement suggests anything, it’s a new dimension of customer service.

Meanwhile, the consistent low-price message endures, although every day’s a new challenge.

“It’s a tough business,” CEO Jack Lawless says. He joined the company at its Allen Park headquarters in 2015 after serving as president and CEO of Champion Enterprises, a large modular home-builder in Troy.

Belle Tires HQ lobby
The lobby of Belle Tires headquarters features displays of the company’s goals and values.

With dramatic flair, he explains what he means by tough. “It’s like an emergency room. Our guys have no idea what’s coming in the door. A lot of times, people don’t know what’s the matter. Something’s squeaking, it doesn’t feel right, something’s pulling. They’re coming into the emergency room, not happy to be there, and our job is to make them happy and work our ass off to make sure they’re comfortable — and get them on the road quickly and affordably.”

Echoing Lawless is Belle Tire president Don Barnes III. His grandfather, Don Barnes Sr., bought into the company in the 1960s, partnering with Herb Waze, son of the founder. In 1984, Barnes assumed full ownership. Don Barnes II succeeded him and pressed hard to expand.

“It goes back to the thousand little things,” Barnes III says. “We have a saying, ‘Retail is detail.’ So, everything we do has to be important, everything we do matters. We have to be better at everything.”

Belle Tire’s impressive growth attests to the fact that it’s living up to the mantra. After spreading to locations across Michigan, and then opening three locations in Toledo by 2003, the company supersized with 37 new stores in northern and central Indiana.

By 2021, the company started building on greenfield sites in the Chicago area. Because of more expensive real estate and labor costs, it’s a high barrier-of-entry market, but that may be an advantage against future competition. The first store, at Villa Park, Ill., was joined by 14 more by the end of 2022. In an example of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a total of 70 outposts are anticipated by the end of 2025.

In 1984 the Barnes family acquired Waze Shares and expanded throughout Michigan.

“We expect to be over 180 (regional) stores and $700 million in revenue at the end of 2023,” Lawless says.

Chiming in, Barnes III forecasts beyond the horizon. “I’d say we have a good next decade planned out. We think that within that time period-ish, we could get to about 1,100 (or) 1,200 stores doing, hmm, $4 billion-plus in revenue.”

The prospect would have come as a shock to the founders. While not much is known about Sam and Belle Waze, son Herb joined the business and eventually took over. Lawless, who first worked in banking, met Herb in the early 1980s when there were five or six stores (the Barnes family had just bought in). “He was a remarkably gracious, kind man,” he says.
The early days were about distinguishing Belle Tire in an industry of mom-and-pop stores.

The story is told through fractional and classified newspaper ads. For example, readers learned in 1925, “Belle Tire Corp. is still selling Firestone, U.S. Royal Cords, Goodrich, Fisk, Kelly Springfield, and Michelin at cut rate prices.” The shop at 7506 Woodward Ave. (north of West Grand Boulevard) was open every evening, and Sunday until 1 p.m.

A 1929 ad for Belle Tire’s sixth-annual half-price sale listed the Woodward Avenue store as well as 9415 Grand River Ave. and 525 S. Washington Ave. in Royal Oak. “Buy one tire at the regular low price and get another at exactly one-half! Overstocks force us to this unheard of cleanout of one of the largest stocks in Detroit. … At these prices you can afford to throw away your bothersome old tires and get an entire new set for winter.”

Prices ran from $4.90 to $12.90 per tire, and inner tubes were 95 cents.

The Belle Tire support center is undergoing rapid growth in a bid to be a bigger player in the national auto service retail sector.

Somehow, Belle Tire got through the Great Depression. Now advertising under the name Belle Tire Co., and operating at 3400 Grand River Ave., its 1931 classified ad spotlighted “1,000 tested tires guaranteed 210 days at $1.50 up.”

World War II presented its own challenges for tire retailers, as manufacturers shifted to synthetic rubber. The traveling men who engaged in essential wartime construction activities at far-flung locales drove on recapped treads. During their journeys they scoured the countryside for viable tire carcasses to carry home to their local retreading service. Safety was secondary; the treads sometimes flew off, leading to vehicles careening out of control.

“No more. No less!” was a postwar slogan when happy days came again and white-sidewall tires were one-half off, while a string of holly bordered a 1950 ad: “Tires for Xmas.” Top brands were Goodyear, Firestone, Goodrich, U.S. Royal, Dunlop, and Mansfield, and the inducement to customers was the allowance of up to $5 for old tires.

Before long, an addition to the standard pitch included the notice, “Terms if desired.”
The 1950s unfolded as a period of technical change as new cars came standard with tubeless tires. Belle Tire, located at 12190 Grand River Ave. in 1959, announced its appointment as Midwest distributor of Pirelli Tires, which were “manufactured in Milan, Italy, and used principally in sports cars.” Al Simpson, general sales manager, described the Pirelli as a super-tire with properties exceeding anything previously seen on these shores.
“The newest tire the Italian manufacturer is producing can be interchanged for use on ice, snow, and for normal summer driving,” Simpson told the Detroit Free Press.

Belle Tire’s distribution center is close to the company head office, and it hums with constant activity.

The public remained unconvinced. People preferred the floaty ride and deliberate surrender of traction delivered by cross-ply tires. Michelin’s steel-belted tires of radial construction may have been popular in Europe, but delivered less-than-supple responses on the way to the vacation cottage up north.

As an interim step, synthetic belts were wrapped around the tire’s circumference beneath the tread to stabilize the squirmy fabric plies. This construction came to market under such names as Goodyear Polyglas and Uniroyal Fastrak. Ford Motor Co. was the first U.S. automaker to introduce steel-belted radials with the 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark III.
Well before then, Don Barnes Sr. was a Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. representative prior to investing in Belle Tire in the 1960s. After Barnes became the sole owner in 1984, the company grew through the acquisition of Delta Tire, Great Lakes Tire, and other Michigan independents. Metro 25 and Tireman followed in the 1990s, and soon there were 45 locations with 650 employees.

Tireman was the key addition, not only for its three stores but also for its mascot, which Belle Tire embraced. Wearing a tire for a body and a cap spelling out his name, Tireman was the answer to Michelin’s Bibendum, the roly-poly figure made of tire stacks.

Doing Bibendum one better, the red-white-and-blue Tireman got a speaking part. His gruff, gravelly signoff to radio and television commercials — “Belle Tire!” — is voiced by actor Ed Kelly, who has also spent a quarter-century portraying Johnny T in skits on WJR Radio’s “The Mitch Albom Show.”

A big marketing win for Belle Tire was the campaign featuring Leila Sbitani in about 100 TV spots from 1996 to 2002, and reprised in 2012 and 2013. Sbitani was a theater major at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., when she auditioned. Launched in scattershot fashion, the campaign had a different actor for each of the six original spots for broadcast.
“My spots really resonated with the audience,” recalls Sbitani, who lives in New York City. After she was selected for the commercials, she stepped out with a round of six 30-second presentations for TV, and six for radio.

The result? “It just took off.”

The campaign paid surprising dividends. For one thing, Sbitani says it emboldened women to buy tires themselves instead of relying on men. And given her warm and authoritative delivery, Sbitani emerged as a popular Detroit figure. “The Belle Tire Girl” signed photos at Red Wings’ games and Detroit Autorama, did radio and TV interviews, and spoke to print reporters. “It was just so cool that I got this sort of celebrity status in Detroit,” she marvels.

At the same time, Belle Tire pursued sports marketing audiences, first with the Detroit Pistons during the club’s late-1980s heyday.

In 1996 Leila Sbitani became “The Belle Tire Girl” in a series of 100 commercials.

For the company, logo displays and promotions like ticket giveaways help to develop affinities with other strong brands, Barnes III points out, saying, “We want to make sure that we partner with strong, strategic, winning teams.” In 1997, the Belle Tire AAA Hockey club was formed and today continues to support competition for boys and girls.

In the competitive arena of retail sales, the company that had eventually become Belle Tire Distributors Inc. deflected a late-1990s purchase offer by National Tire & Battery, which was operated by the fading giant, Sears, Roebuck and Co. NTB purchased four Tire America locations and built nine new stores from scratch.

“Their business plan was, they’re going to own the Motor City,” Barnes III says.
Industry journal Tire Business summoned a poetic spirit to describe subsequent events in April of 2000: “When the bell rang last fall signaling the end of another round in the turbulent ‘Motor City’ tire market bouts, the winner was Belle Tire Distributors Inc., while the vanquished National Tire & Battery limped out of town.”

NTB’s entry and exit occurred within an approximately 18-month period. In a twist of fate, Barnes III had since “bought all of their empty buildings, put all of our people in, all of our processes, and all of our customer-service tactics — and now those are some of our best stores in the chain.”

From there, the strategy of growth-through-acquisition took a backseat to that of building new stores on undeveloped, or greenfield, sites. The first requirement in this type of expansion in new markets is a pipeline to capital.

“In the case of Belle Tire, they would take on — I would just call it growth capital — in order to open new stores and expand into new regions,” says Jonathan Carey, managing director at Jefferies, a global investment bank. A specialist in the automotive aftermarket for the past 20 years, Carey says, “They do have ambitious growth plans. We and others would be in a position to help them get the capital in order to facilitate that growth.”

Belle Tire has a group of “four or five preferred builders that we work with,” Barnes III explains. The company is “really tight” with Dave Chopp, broker at DRC of Michigan Realty in Pinckney. “We have a small team internally to work with him.” The architect of record is Christopher Enright Architects in Royal Oak, which has developed four modifiable plans that, no matter the property’s shape, will result in a 10,000-square-foot store with 10 service bays and two alignment racks.

“And that group of people have probably built the last 70 stores,” Lawless says.
“Oh, shoot, I’d say the last 100,” Barnes III adds.

As the company’s pace of growth quickens, the soundness of the method isn’t lost on Carey. “They’ve just done a really nice job green-fielding new locations,” he says. “In the last four years they’ve grown their footprint by about 40 percent, practically almost all through a greenfield strategy.”

Modern Tire Dealer ranked Belle Tire as the 11th-largest dealer in 2020, but it could rank higher by now, and Tireman himself symbolizes the trend of consolidation. From Carey’s perch in the 125 High Street Tower in Boston’s Financial District, he counts more than 100,000 auto service locations nationwide.

“It’s grown up over the last 100 years where there’s been a majority of family-owned, locally operated tire-and-service centers,” Carey says. “Over the course of the last 20 years or so, a certain number of those regional players continue to expand rapidly, and there’s consolidation in the market. A handful of players are north of 100 locations each. Certain players are national in scale. We expect there to be continued consolidation over the course of the next several years.”

It’s like a franchising operation without the franchisees. And the question arises whether the tire service specialty is recession-proof.

“What we’re finding is that, in a recession, people put off the purchase of tires longer,” says Dick Gust, CEO of the Tire Industry Association in Bowie, Md. On the other hand, Gust observes that a viral pandemic can be good for sales. “We saw during COVID-19 that people were driving their cars rather than getting on airplanes. More tires were sold and replaced during COVID-19.” Another effect was that as people shopped online, more deliveries meant more commercial vehicles needed new footwear.

To adapt to hard or flush times, Lawless and Barnes III run a lean operation. There are two vice presidents, 14 regional managers, 140-plus store managers (with “almost nonexistent turnover,” Barnes III says), and 110 people at the support center at 1000 Enterprise Dr. (in Allen Park).

“We don’t like to say corporate office or head office,” Barnes III says. “That’s too ivory tower-ish. We call it our support center. And the reason why we say that is because that’s what we do. Words matter to us. So, everyone who works there knows that’s what the job is, to support the team in the field.”

Their most cherished metric, according to Lawless, is the Net Promoter Score measuring customer experience in the low- to mid-70s — a score of 80 is a stunning accomplishment — alongside Apple, Zoom Video Communications, and, once upon a time, Southwest Airlines.

“Don and I, we’ve been working together now going on eight years,” Lawless says. “Our collective job is to improve the management that we already have. Every day, how do we make it a little bit better?

“It’s hard because we have to keep exposing problems and fixing them, but it’s a great thing to have, to fix the manuscript that’s been written by the Barnes and the Waze families to this date. It’s been a lot of fun making these little incremental improvements as we go. This is why we can grow like we have been.”

As part of their own and every other employee’s basic kit, they carry the company’s five principles, formalized in 2017, on the Belle Tire Culture Card. It expresses what they believe in 19 words:

Customer satisfaction is the bottom line.
Do the right thing.
Set the tone.
We are they.
Walk the walk.

Beyond these simple and sensible directives, the card also lists The Goal: “To become America’s most trusted partner for complete tire service, vehicle maintenance, and repair.”
All of this must be of particular inspiration to the tire techs and everyone else on the team. The effect of this culture is seen by the promotions made from within, and the development of new leaders.

“It isn’t an ego thing,” Barnes III says. “It’s really more of, let’s just do the best thing for Belle Tire because that will give the best employee experience, the best customer experience. That’s what we want to do.”


RADIAL RIDE

“The pneumatic tire is probably the most efficient shock-absorber possible to design,” Charles Duryea wrote in 1916. He and his brother, Frank, had demonstrated the first American gas-powered automobile 23 years earlier, and then Frank won the first auto race on these shores, sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald in late 1895.

“Many users, however, believe that solid steel tires are ample and sufficient for motor vehicle work,” Duryea continued, “and their use is all but universal on business vehicles in foreign cities, like Paris.”

Indeed, the first “tire” was a band of leather, and later of iron, that was heated, wrapped around a wooden wheel, and quenched with water. The now-shrunken band added strength and durability to the whole assembly. (The wheel was thus said to be “attired,” and this term was shortened to “tire.”) The solid rubber tire was somewhat practical, but John Dunlop perfected the pneumatic tire in 1888. The subsequent “clincher” rim held the tire in place. Grooved treads were a step forward in 1909.

By then, bicycle-tire makers Morgan & Wright had set up a huge auto tire factory at the foot of Detroit’s Belle Isle Bridge. It first produced 350 tires per day, hand-formed around iron cores. Streetcar riders passing by held their noses against acrid fumes that were the result of the vulcanization process to cure rubber using sulphur and an “accelerator” like lead or zinc oxide. Morgan & Wright’s knobby treads would “Stop Your Skidding,” an ad promised in 1910. U.S. Rubber acquired Morgan & Wright in 1914.

Firestone introduced balloon tires with elliptical sidewalls in 1923, a year when 43 million tires were manufactured in the United States. “The balloon tire is designed to carry low air pressure” of 24 to 40 pounds per square inch, as the Lewiston Evening Journal reported. “It contains fewer layers of fabric and is considerably larger in cross-sectional size than the standard tire.”

The abundance of tires was taken for granted until World War II, when rubber supplies were diverted to tires for military vehicles. It was reckoned that the supply of rubber “would have to double at the very least, when its sources were thousands of miles away in South America and the East Indies,” writes Arthur Herman in “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.”

The answer was the production of synthetic rubber from a process developed by Bayer, in Germany, in the 1920s. B.F. Goodrich helped to build a plant at Port Neches, Texas, capable of manufacturing 1.4 million tons of butyl rubber by 1944.

The U.S. Rubber (later Uniroyal) plant along Detroit’s riverfront near Belle Isle achieved peak wartime production when nearly 10,000 employees turned out 60,000 tires daily. It also contributed self-sealing rubber fuel bladders for aircraft. And civilians still had to conserve.

“That’s really when the retread business developed,” says Dick Gust, president of the Tire Industry Association in Bowie, Md. He reminds us that fresh tires in those days lasted 20,000 miles. “People were desperate to have tires, and one of the ways they could get the tires was to retread the ones that existed. Today, most of the tires that are on commercial vehicles are retreads.”

After the war, Michelin perfected high-mileage radial tires with steel inner belts rather than fabric, but the exacting manufacturing process and higher cost would delay acceptance in the U.S. The biggest advance here was tubeless tires in the 1950s, until Goodyear responded to the radial tire in 1967 with the Custom Wide Polyglas tire.

“Constructed with diagonal plies but overlaid with radial-type belts, the bias-belted tire rode the middle ground in price and performance,” Steve Love and David Giffels reported in “Wheels of Fortune: The Story of Rubber in Akron.” The new solution lasted 30,000 miles, as compared to a radial’s 40,000. “Most important, the bias-belted tire could be built on existing tire-making machines.”

Finally, Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn introduced radial tires on the 1970 Lincoln Continental and Mark III. Being widely adopted, the longer-lasting radials put a crimp in the lucrative replacement-tire business, posing a threat to the big companies of Akron.

Today, besides the sustainability issue, the next chapter in the story of tires appears to be airless tires. For example, the family of Michelin X Tweel airless radials is available in a range of sizes for utility vehicles, golf carts, and light construction vehicles. The Tweel is a single unit that replaces the current tire and wheel; poly-resin spokes fan out from the hub to support the tread. Michelin claims they perform like pneumatic tires, yet they’re simple and never go flat.

What was inconceivable in 1888 may be inevitable tomorrow.

— Ronald Ahrens

 


 

SUSTAINABLE TIRES

Green Wall – The Firestone “green wall” racing tire made it on-track debut last year at the NIT IndyCar Series.

Since the start of the automotive era, scrap tires have been both a problem and an opportunity. The number of tires scrapped each year is staggering: 290 million in America in 2003, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But hope springs eternal. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, several tire makers presented concepts for sustainability. In this pursuit, “material circularity” is a term to add to the list of today’s essential jargon.

Another word to learn is guayule (pronounced “gwi-YOO-lee”), an evergreen desert shrub that yields a suitable latex and is emerging as a likely leading source of domestically produced rubber — an important resource considering the carbon footprint, supply-chain weakness, and climate-related drought vulnerabilities of Southeast Asia’s rubber production.

“A number of our member companies have made an actual commitment to increasing the use of recycled and renewable materials in the tire,” says Sarah Amick, senior vice president of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, a trade association in Washington, D.C. With 57 facilities in 17 states across the country, U.S. tire manufacturing has an annual economic footprint of $170.6 billion and is responsible for more than 291,000 U.S. jobs in manufacturing, distribution, and retailing.

Among them, Goodyear last year demonstrated a tire that has 70 percent sustainable material content and aims for 100 percent by 2030. Bridgestone and Michelin are right behind.

“I think these demonstrate the research and development that’s happening among our member companies to increase the use of recyclable, renewable, and sustainable materials in their tires,” Amick says.
Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is the Firestone Firehawk “greenwall” racing tire that made its on-track debut last year in the NTT IndyCar Series.

The guayule rubber is found in the tire’s sidewall, the part of the tire that’s made up of the greatest amount of natural rubber. (Tires include natural and synthetic rubber, steel beads and belts, rayon and nylon plies, silica, carbon black, and oil — which softens rubber.)

Bridgestone, owner of Firestone since 1988, has invested more than $100 million in commercializing guayule, including a breeding program aimed at increasing rubber content and yield from the shrubs.

— By Ronald Ahrens