Bruce Halle wasn’t a tire fanatic. He didn’t even like tire stores much. But he did have a passion for making opportunities for people — leading him to found a massive and successful tire-selling empire.
Halle founded Discount Tire with just “six tires, no plan,” as his biography by Michael Rosenbaum puts it. In 1960, Halle borrowed $400 to open his first store in Ann Arbor, Mich. His idea? To try paying off a debt incurred from a failed automotive supply partnership.
But Halle’s passion for “paying forward” to others revolutionized the tire-selling business, Rosenbaum wrote. Discount Tire, headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., had 1,076 retail locations and 22,977 employees as of the end of 2020. And the privately-held company reported $5.17 billion in sales, making it the leading independent tire retailer.
Halle (pronounced “holly”) passed away in 2018. But his life’s lessons resound.
Halle’s Lesson: Nice Guys Can Finish First
Halle’s stepson, Michael Zuieback, chairman and former CEO of the company, told Investor’s Business Daily the company’s success traces back to the unusual culture the founder created.
“We hire people who like people because that attitude creates a strong team that will support each other,” Zuieback said. “And they will also make customers feel that we truly care about them.”
“Bruce’s favorite thing throughout his life was to visit stores and get to know each employee, what their interests were and about their personal lives,” Zuieback said. “He woke up every day thinking about how he could help someone who was struggling or give recognition to an employee’s achievement. Caring about others was his passion and it spread throughout the company.”
Co-workers note how Halle put kindness, humility, and gratitude above all else. And those traits still set the company’s tone.
Learn Resilience Like Halle
Halle’s early life didn’t seem like a ticket to mega-success.
He was born in 1930, a year into the Great Depression. His parents saved money by moving in with his mom’s parents in Berlin, N.H. Halle’s father worked as a firefighter and at odd jobs. The family then moved to Detroit in 1943 where the older Halle guarded wartime production at Ford Motor (F).
Bruce was an average student. But he worked hard, too, doing everything from developing photos to digging graves.
In 1948, Halle enrolled at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti as a physical education major. He hoped to be a coach. His grades were mediocre, though.
Life took him in another direction.
Find New Opportunities
After marrying Gerry Konfara, Halle left college in 1950 to join the Marines. Returning home after three years, he worked on an assembly line at Ford. He also earned a degree in business administration.
Halle did well selling cars, but failed at insurance. A friend was struggling with his tire and auto supplies retailer. So Halle invested in it. The company, though, folded in December 1959. Halle in turn faced an onerous $12,000 debt to a tire maker.
He turned what could have been a burden into a new opportunity.
Halle rented his first store with an inventory of two new tires and four retreads, plus some leftover auto parts. It was three days before the first customer came in. Halle couldn’t buy more tires from manufacturers, due to his debt. So, after closing his shop, he would drop by other dealers to grab a bargain. His air tank could only fill one tube tire at a time. Halle took tires to a gas station for a refill.
But he made a profit the first year.
Build Your Foundation On Character
Then a miracle happened: a tire wholesaler decided to trust Halle.
“Halle had no credit and no capital, but Maury and Jay Isaacson of World Tires saw something in him — character,” wrote Jeffrey Rodengen and Richard Hubbard in “The Legend of Discount Tire.” “He could place an order for 40 new tires and pay for them once all were sold.”
As he slowly expanded, Halle made sure his founding philosophy and an anti-corporate culture was instilled in every employee. No matter how large the company became, it would be like an extended family. “Be fair to customers (there is no commission for pushing anything),” Halle would extol. “Worry about the customer first and the spreadsheet last.”
And that was just the start.
Instill Your Values Into The Company
Halle coached employees, too, about developing a winning mindset. This set the company apart from rivals just emotionlessly selling tires.
He would say, “Get to know customers really well and always be courteous. Find something you like in everyone and turn a transaction into a relationship.”
Above all, Halle wanted the company to keep its family feel. “What we have to do is fight bureaucracy because it’s like a disease that creeps in all by itself,” he’d say.
Halle brought in a minority partner, Ted Von Voigtlander. The two opened a second store in 1964. The company grew in part because Halle always had innovative offers. For instance, the company would put on or take off snow tires each season without charge. Many customers liked the friendly atmosphere and clean premises. And they liked the low prices for off-brand tires, which most thought were better than the big names.
It was an idea with legs.
Expand Your Idea
By the end of 1968, Discount Tire had six locations. But business was slow in winter.
Halle thought they might expand to the Southwest. The Southwest was then kicking off its growth boom and could provide steady business year-round. The next April, they landed in Phoenix. And a few days later they had picked their first location, on a busy street. That store opened in January 1970.
Changing snow tires was not a desired option in Phoenix. So the company offered to repair flat tires free, regardless of where the customer bought them. It also offered a warranty beyond what the manufacturer guaranteed. By 1988, Discount Tire was No. 1 in the industry. It had 201 stores and $311 million in sales.
Promote From Within
With few exceptions, managers at every level start out as tire technicians. They then earn raises, rewards and bonuses for speed and excellent customer service.
Store managers earn a percentage of sales over a certain amount. Promotions from within means that “nobody is left behind if they can keep up,” Halle would say.
Discount Tire has grown when the economy was good and also when it was bad. There have never been layoffs. Halle began even using his corporate jets, which allowed him to visit stores and to bring top performers on outings to places like Lake Tahoe and New Orleans.
Humorous advertising helped expansion. Early spots dressed Halle and Von Voigtlander up like Batman and Robin or aliens. In 1975, a TV ad showed a woman throwing a tire through a store window as the announcer explained dissatisfied customers were welcome to return anything. It has been recognized by “The Guinness Book of World Records” as the longest continuously-running ad of all time.
Continue to Bounce Back
For all his good fortune, Halle tried and failed at some innovations, such as introducing other products and services. He learned to stick with the “hedgehog principle” made famous in the classic study of successful companies, “Built to Last” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porra. Top companies focus on what they do best.
Tragedy struck when Halle’s wife, Gerry, died in 1989 from cancer. And in 1992, Halle himself suffered a nearly fatal accident while mountain biking. He gradually recovered, and threw himself into philanthropy. That led Halle to Diane Myers, who was fundraising for the Phoenix Art Museum. They married in 1999.
The two supported a wide range of charitable efforts, from helping homeless children get schooling to the American Heart Association. Yet despite their generosity, the Halle estate still had a net worth estimated by Forbes at $5.2 billion at the time of his death.
Dean Muglia took the CEO position of Discount Tire in January 2020. But Zuieback remained involved in his role as chairman to help because of the pandemic.
“We focus on being good at it so that we can earn the tools, our profits, to invest back into our people and their dreams,” Zuieback said. “That’s how Bruce talked about it.”
- Founder, late chairman and CEO of Discount Tire, the world’s leading independent tire and wheel retailer.
- Overcame: Nearly complete lack of cash and inventory when he started.
- Lesson: “Take care of your employees and they will serve your customers well. Negative thoughts are a waste of time.”
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