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Tire Franchise Review: Bill Walker Has Seen Both Sides of Big O

Bill Walker and son Tom Walker in the warehouse of their Big O Tires store in New Albany, IN.

Bill Walker and son Tom Walker in the warehouse of their Big O Tires store in New Albany, IN.

Bill Walker was part of the corporate staff at Big O, and his insider perspective inspired him to become a franchise owner

In 2001, Bill Walker faced a choice – to keep the corporate job he had enjoyed for 13 years supporting Big O franchisees, or jump into the world of franchise ownership, trusting that Big O’s strength and his own business savvy would bring greater rewards.

Twelve years later, Bill is a franchise owner of two Big O stores, and has also helped his son and a dear friend become franchisees. This is his story.

What were you doing before Big O?
I worked for Guarantee Auto in Indianapolis when I was in college. I started in 1971. We sold everything from tires to swing sets, to TVs and toys. When I was almost 21, I was offered a store manager position. In 1978 they decided to open a division of stores in Southern Indiana and Kentucky and I was promoted to division manager, which is what brought me to the Louisville area. After Guarantee Auto’s owners died in the mid-1980s, the chain was sold, and I found Big O.

How important is automotive experience for a tire franchise owner?
We all have strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not mechanically inclined, make sure you surround yourself with experts you trust. I’m not necessarily a great mechanic, but I’ve got some damn good mechanics who work for me. I’m not necessarily a great salesman, but I have some great sales people who work for me. We’re in a mobile society — people need tires and repairs to keep their cars running, and Big O is the perfect franchise to help do that. Of course it helps to have an automotive background, but if you don’t surround yourself with good people who work hard.

Big O's showroom gives customers a chance to learn about different types of tires an their performance characteristics.

Big O’s showroom gives customers a chance to learn about different types of tires an their performance characteristics.

What do you like about the job?
Big O has been around since 1962.There’s a lot of history, great stories, and great people who helped build this company into a successful business that treats its customers right. I take a lot of pride in being part of it, and it makes me want to carry on the tradition. I’m a part of a really good company that has survived tough times. When Big O was purchased by TBC Corporation, and then TBC was bought by Sumitomo, it was good news. The franchisees are a part of the largest tire distributor in the world, which means we have as good or better prices as anybody. That’s important when you’re competing in an ultra-competitive marketplace. We have competitive prices and state-of-the-art products that we often get first. With TBC at the helm as franchisor, there are a lot of great trainers — people who have a huge depth of knowledge about tires and automotive service. There are so many things you get that are wonderful perks. Even though I’m part of a huge company, I still get to be an independent guy. It’s the best of both worlds.

What are you most proud of?
I sold my Corydon store in 2011 to Kenny Engleman. He had been with Big O for 20 years. My son, Tom, is my partner in the store I own in New Albany and his half-brother Josh (McCullough) is my partner in Jeffersonville. They’re both super-smart and hard workers. One of the things I’m most proud of is helping other people become franchisees. That’s a pretty awesome thing to pass on. I couldn’t be happier.

What sets Big O apart?
None of our competition around here are franchisees and it makes a big difference in how customers are treated. When you come in here, you have the CEO of this store waiting on you or available if there is a problem. How often do you get to go into a business and the top dog is right there? Owners have a different view of the business. I’m interested in keeping customers for a lifetime because customers are my livelihood.

While we sell every brand of tire there is, we have our own Big O branded tires, too. When I’m around town, I love seeing Big O tires on cars because I know where they were bought. And, I know those customers will be coming back. On top of that, nobody has been able to duplicate the success of our unique Express Lanes. It’s cool to be a part of Big O.

Americans spent $37.8 billion on tires in 2012 according to Modern Tire Dealer.

Americans spent $37.8 billion on tires in 2012 according to Modern Tire Dealer.

What are the hours like?
The retail hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. These are great hours for a retail business which lets me have a normal life with my family.

Tell us about your customers.
I remember blowing up balloons for kids and tying them onto their wrists when they came to my stores with their parents. Now I’m blowing up balloons and putting them on their kids’ wrists. We don’t just keep customers for years, we keep customers for generations. Customers trust us because when we see them, we check their vehicles to make sure they’re safe and everything is well-maintained, plus we only tell them what they need. We don’t inflate their bill. We give them recommendations, ask them what they want done or what they can afford to have done, and let them know about repairs and maintenance they may want to have done the next time they come in. That’s why people shop with us, and their kids shops with us, and their kids’ kids shop with us.

I’ve had so many guys who have come in and say they’ve been shopping with Big O since 1978. Customers take pride in being our customers! You don’t get that if you haven’t treated them well. If I caught my employees selling customers something they didn’t need, they’d last 15 seconds, and 10 of that would be me kicking them out the door.

Who is the right fit for Big O?
The automotive retail business isn’t for everyone. If you’re thin-skinned, you should think twice before getting into the automotive business. Customers don’t come here to look around or shop. They come in because something is wrong with their car.

As I’m evaluating someone who I might partner with, I need to think about a lot of things. Work ethic. Expertise. And most importantly, personality. Does this person have the personality to deal with customers and their needs? We had a customer call here two days ago. He had a tire fixed for free two years ago, and he called up to ask what his warranty was. I asked him to come in so we could take a look. That guy might not bring my business much money, but when he needs to buy tires he’ll remember Big O, and he’ll tell his friends and family about us.

What is the training and support like?
The training is great and includes learning at corporate, classroom learning, learning in the stores, and online courses. Big O has a national training center. If you’re a new franchisee you attend a five-week training program. There is also an online business center.

I’m on a national committee for the Big O Tire Dealers Association, which is a group of 17 guys who are elected by the local franchise groups to represent them at meetings with TBC. Out of those 17 guys, we have a seven-person Franchise Advisory Committee which takes franchisees’ ideas and concerns to corporate and also helps communicate back to franchisees. At a lot of other franchises, the advisory committees don’t have a lot of sway, but TBC is serious about listening to us. When the FAC meets with corporate, they’ll bring all the departments and specialists together, and if we have a question, it gets answered on the spot. Larry Day, the CEO of TBC, almost always sits in, and he listens to us. I feel blessed to have a franchisor that is committed to paying attention to its franchisees.

What does franchise ownership allow you to do that you couldn’t before?
One of the things it’s helped me do is travel. There are so many places I’ve never been. Being your own boss gives you certain freedoms. It’s weird, in a roundabout way, not to have a direct supervisor. I like the freedom of being my own boss and calling the shots.

If you would like to become a Big O franchise owner, download our free franchise report to learn about Big O’s business model, the franchisee-driven history of success, startup costs, and financial performance.

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