MAKING RUBBER MEET THE ROAD... WITH VANNOY’S

One way or another every motorist has contact with automobile or truck tires. As proof, note that in Escambia County, Florida alone there are more than 115,000 registered vehicles, and for all, the rubber meets the road. In Northwest Florida no tire-related business name is better known and respected than VANNOY. The family business’s story is a quarter century long, and as co-founder Gordon Vannoy testified, “...in that one industry a great deal has happened in that short time.”

Into 2009 the Vannoy firm operated from five locations, and in a time when many motorists were making dollars stretch, the replacement tire and service business was the Vannoy enterprise, which was begun by brothers Gordon and Charley in 1985, and had witnessed numerous changes in tire technology and in the value of the products. For the more than fifty men and women who served under the Vannoy banner in ‘09, the success and survival had come in part because of philosophy.

“From day one we tried to make every customer a customer for life,” Gordon said. “Tires themselves are a commodity item. The way they’re sold, and the way drivers are helped to gain maximum value...well...that’s what we tried to do from the beginning. Not long ago we had our employees wear large orange buttons with three letters, WIT. People asked: ‘What’s that mean?’ The answer was: WHATEVER IT TAKES. We’ve always believed that to be a good philosophy.”

In a sense the Vannoy brothers were exposed to automobiles and their care almost from childhood. Both were born in Texas but became Escambia County transplants when their father, a skilled metal smith, accepted a position in naval aviation repair at NAS Pensacola. The family’s home was along Klondike Road, and the boys’ father enjoyed far beyond a “seven-to-three” employment pattern. Behind the family house he created an auto body shop and a garage. Evenings he repaired cars, and Gordon became one of his pupils, learning much of the metal and wheel trades. (Brother Charley somehow did not become much involved until after his graduation from Tate High School. Then he found work and learned wheel alignment from Otha Bond at Escambia Motor Company.) Father Vannoy also was a skilled race driver, with winning ways. Early in the 1950s he had one year with over $10,000 in prize money, a huge sum for that time. Later his career was recognized by a listing in the Alabama Hall of Fame.

Following his Tate High years, Gordon joined Sears Roebuck, enjoying twelve successful years there, in the process accumulating shares of Sears stock. It was at this point that Barney Burks offered the Vannoy brothers an opportunity to become part of his successful tire operations.

Gordon remembered:

“At this point the Burks brothers had developed a very productive business. They had capitalized on improved technology and were in the recapping business. They also sold new tires. Recapping had come into being during World War II when raw rubber supplies were so scarce, and keeping cars and trucks running became a national crusade. Into the 1980s recapping remained a good service, for it provided a low cost means of extending the life of a tire. Many folks with limited budgets used recapping, and the Burks did fine work. Barney’s effort seemed like a fine opportunity.”

The offer included the chance to become a part owner of the business. By then Gordon’s Sears stock had a $60,000 value, and again he recalled:

“Perhaps it was pure chance, but that was exactly what Burks wanted as a buy-in figure. However the coincidence, I accepted, and Charley and I became part of the operation. Those were good years. The Burks brothers operated a well managed, ethical business, and Charley and I loved it! But then, when the timing was right, the business was sold. The buyer was Jim Wilson, and as planned in the sale Charley and I accompanied the transfer. Meanwhile, the Burks brothers opened a recapping shop in Mobile. A year passed into two, and by now Charley and I were becoming uncomfortable.

“I don’t say this to be critical of the new owner, but our father had taught Charley and me some core values that I cherish to this day. Some of those fundamentals may have come from his associations with naval personal, some may have been family taught, others could have come from his long association with auto racing, where a sort of code of honor exists. In any event, certain things were being stressed in the new company as “business pushers,” things we didn’t like. There was nothing dishonest. We just weren’t comfortable. That’s when we chose to go it on our own.”

The Burks business sale had netted dollars to the Vannoys, too, thus they had a small capital, but this was nothing like what might be needed to begin a business of some size. The Vannoys needed help from an understanding people who would become, in effect, their landlord (or landlords). For this Charley and Gordon sought out a long-time friend, Wendall Williams, who had become successful in the nursery business. They outlined their needs, their business plan. The pair needed a building of some size in a location that enjoyed substantial automotive traffic. Fortunately Williams had such a property on the southeast corner of Lillian Highway at New Warrington Road. The Vannoys outlined their plan for a retail tire business noting their long experience and the expanding local market. Williams agreed that this could make a desirable investment for him. A deal was struck. In May, 1985, the structure was completed, and the store opened.

Gordon remembered:

“Our plan was to trade off of what we had learned, what we knew. We made an arrangement with Barney Burks to be a supplier of his recapped tires. That assured an entry into the lower budget end of the market. Next, we hoped to sell Dayton Tires. We were familiar with the brand, its quality and what might be expected of the several price levels. Dayton offered Blue Ribbon, Thorobred and other niche names, each with a suggested mileage level. However, there was one problem. There already was a Dayton dealer in Escambia County thus we had to make an arrangement with Santa Rosa County distributor and literally sneak our supplies into our county! Today that sounds – well – odd. But that was the way things were and, fortunately, the plan worked.”

Over time others asked the Vannoys why they particularly preferred the Dayton brand. The response was that those tires – actually a division of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company – had built a local reputation. In time the brothers had had the opportunity to meet and know Jim Thomas, the company’s president. That relationship warmed to the point that when Thomas’s son reached a proper age he came to Pensacola and served a sort of apprenticeship with the Vannoys, to learn the retail side of the business.

As an afterthought, Gordon Vannoy remembered:

“We always liked to tell the story of how our first shipments of tires came to use. Actually, it wasn’t long before Charley and I arranged a system with Bud Brantley, a dealer in Atmore. In essence he became our wholesaler for Dayton tires.”

The new store offered sales, wheel alignment, tire rotation, brake replacement, and then the sale of specialties, including custom wheels, inner tubes (for very special occasions), and batteries. From the first, the company told new tire customers that they were entitled to periodic tire rotation, balancing, repair of flat tires, air pressure checks...and lots of advice.

“We wanted each new customer to be a customer for life,” Gordon said. “We were always ready to discuss options, for while some drivers insisted on top-of-the-line quality, others must always consider budget and price. We determined to be ready to help each person meet their needs.”

As a family business, the Vannoys continued their long work days and the extreme schedules they’d worked before. That dedication and the reputation they’d built paid dividends. Within the first year the business had grown to a point where a second location might be considered. For this they worked with another friend, Walter Glenn, who also was open to an investment. The result was a second lease-purchase arrangement, at 126 East Nine Mile Road. Again, timing was good. The mid-1980s were a time when domestic auto sales were booming, and when multi-car families were becoming more common. All of this meant more cars on the road, more tires needed. Into 1986 a third location was sought.

“We began Store #3 in a rented building on the corner of Langley Avenue and 9th Avenue,” Gordon Vannoy recalled. “Now, that sounded good. Langley at 9th is a corner with multiple traffic signals, lots of traffic. It was also an intersection which produced congestion and accidents, lots of accidents. We quickly discovered that it was difficult and dangerous for our patrons to come and go. We had to move.”

A fresh start was begun on property owned by the Terhaar-Cronley construction firm. This, too, was on 9th Avenue – #6113 North. Again a build-to-lease arrangement was contracted, with the store opened in February, 1986. The new site proved all but perfect!

Several years would pass before the fourth location was developed. The store was on West Michigan Avenue, in what had once been a Firestone tire and service store, then owned by County Commissioner W. D. Childers. However within a year the former state senator was facing personal political problems and needed cash flow. At the lease date he tripled the payment, a figure the Vannoys knew was unacceptable. Again they turned to Jim Cronley, who proved willing to discuss another arrangement. The result was a new custom built structure, occupied by Vannoy Tires in 2004. That address: 2852 West Michigan Avenue.

The fifth store, opened in 1996, provided an entry into the fast growing Gulf Breeze market. The store was placed on a property owned by Dimitri (Jim) Constantine, at 3425 Gulf Breeze Parkway. With that location the brothers had carefully placed operations at critical traffic locations across lower Escambia County and now in Santa Rosa County, too. The company was – at least for the moment – at full speed.

As the business flourished there were – had to be – adjustments and additions to the product lines, including the Michelin® brand. International marketing was making a difference in tire buyer preferences. So were results seen in NASCAR racing, where tire performance was widely heralded. The Vannoys wisely studied their options, meanwhile making sure that they used knowledge of the industry to help customers make good decisions. A tire is NOT always just a tire.
 

Through American history there have been countless family businesses, and despite the huge variety of types, sizes and purposes there have been basic similarities. The Vannoy Tire Company story fits that mold. From the day when Charley and Gordon agreed to “make the break and take a chance” those two, with other family members, have appreciated that success comes from hard work, dedication, long hours, and a need to make the customer’s experiences good. Each part of the family took ALL of those needs seriously.

Charley’s role, like Gordon’s, began on Day One. Charley brought years of experience with tires and tire customer needs to the venture. He was an affable man, someone to whom friendships came easily. He had a knack of recognizing a customer’s special needs and of defining ways to meet them. Over his lifetime Charley had two marriages. The first, which produced sons Gregg and Todd, ended at about the time the new tire business took form. Together with his brother, Charley literally put his shoulder to the wheel, obtaining and installing the elements for the lifts, the air lines and other gear essential to a quality tire store. He enjoyed hard work and did his share, helping with the equipment as the early stores went on line.

In 1982 Charley and Leila were married, a devoted union which carried through a full quarter century. However, Charley and Leila had no children. As time passed, son Gregg chose a career in healthcare delivery, becoming a radiological technician, a profession which carried him to Connecticut. As this account was prepared, he had recently returned to the Pensacola area.

Son Todd completed high school, then joined the Vannoy firm, beginning “at the bottom,” working through the several skills levels, then becoming a store manager. However, after four years Todd felt he saw a new opportunity and so joined his step-brother in owner-managership of several tire locations which once had been part of the Big Ten operation. However, that move proved transient. Todd later pursued a career in real estate, then entered the Valpak advertising field, where he remained in 2009.

In the mid-1980s Charley was diagnosed with a brain carcinoma. A lengthy struggle with the illness followed, Charley continuing as he could to carry his share of the load with the tire stores. Now, however, he could no longer do heavy work.

Gordon remembered:

“Charley did everything he could to help Vannoy Tires. He was our ambassador! He carried ‘our flag’ to so many places, and his efforts at the stores never ceased. For years we all hoped that he had totally overcome his problem, but that wasn’t to be the case. With a recurrence, Charley died in June of 2008. Prior to this, recognizing the need for family solidarity, Charley had sold his interest in the business to my son Jeff.”

Jeff was one of the two children of Gordon and Evelyn. The pair had begun dating in their years at Tate High School and had married in 1957 while she still had one year of studies remaining. What had been almost love at first sight truly endured, and while Evelyn was not “in the store” in the business, she, too, had roles in the automobile field. Upon graduation Evelyn became part of the office staff with the area Oldsmobile-Cadillac dealer, Mitchell Motor Company. Following a dozen years there she spent brief time with Hamrick Heating & Air Conditioning Company, then moved downtown, to be part of the staff of Muldon Ford, owned and operated by Frank Welles. Evelyn would remain at Muldon Ford, for seventeen years. She was the last to depart when the dealership closed in the 1990s! Thereafter she joined the Orville-Beckford Ford-Mercury dealers in Milton. Once again, she was with the firm until its doors closed.

Gordon and Evelyn were blessed with two children, Jeff and Vicki.

Vicki seems never to have doubted her interest in being part of Vannoy Tires. Immediately upon graduation she reported to work with the original Lillian Highway location, working first in the office, then in the store proper. At the appropriate moment she was transferred to the Michigan Avenue location where again she did “just about everything,” finally becoming store manager.

Her father remembered:

“Vicki learned everything there was to be done. When we made her manager, it was to deal with a deteriorating situation. I suspect that some of the employees there set out to test her, to see how strong she was. She showed ‘em! Almost in one sweep, she let them all go...leaving her for a day or so with ZERO help! But, she – we – managed. She proved what she could do. Vicki remained in that role until her first child was to arrive.

We all agreed then that the store manager’s role was too time demanding for her to remain there, so at the appropriate moment she came to our 9th Avenue store, where she became our inventory control manager, ordering, maintaining key records. She also became our trouble shooter. Because her experience is so broad, she can go into any store situation and resolve a problem.”

To 2009 Vicki had two marriages. The first was to Danny Dunga, and that union produced a son, Blake, who was fourteen in 2009. The second was to Brian Beachaine. Their daughter Avery was six in that year.

Evelyn and Gordon’s son Jeff in a sense followed that same general pattern. While in school, he began learning the tire business, literally from the ground up. Experiences followed, in service, in basic understanding of the industry, its patterns and needs, and in evaluating customers and competition. His purchase of Charley Vannoy’s portion of the business positioned him for growing roles. Into the 21st century, as Gordon phased down, Jeff became the company’s ongoing leader.

Jeff’s marriage was to Beverly Bell, daughter of Dr. (dentist) Bill Bell, a World War II Air Force veteran and son of a county government icon, Langley Bell. Jeff and Beverly’s family included daughter Langley (sixteen) and son Clay (fourteen). Beverly had trained as a physiotherapist, and worked first in that profession at West Florida Hospital and Pensacourt. When her growing family had greater need of her presence, Beverly took added training to become a massage therapist, a role where she could closely regulate her personal hours. In recent years she practiced that skill in facilities in the family’s home, on Klondike Road, a site next to where Gordon and Evelyn had long lived.

Jeff described his family’s life as being “somewhat different.”

“We all love the out-of-doors, and animals. I guess one would call our place a small farm, for we have considerable land, we grow many things, and we keep all sorts of animals: horses, cows, goats, lambs, chickens. Our children love animals, and Langley hopes to become a veterinarian.”

Meanwhile, Evelyn Vannoy, free of her auto dealership duties, became a NASCAR racing fan. In a sense she had carried on a tradition which Gordon’s father had initiated in 1950. Gordon and Evelyn attend races at the Talledega track regularly. (And Gordon adds that Evelyn is not to be distracted when she watches weekly races on television.)

The Vannoys, wise in the ways of family business, continued to work with their eyes on the future. Would there be another generation to follow? That question could not be answered in 2009. Hopefully? Perhaps? Vicki’s son Blake could be a possibility. So might Jeff and Beverly’s son, Clay. In both cases 2009 was too early to tell.

In other ways the Vannoy’s kept focused on tire and wheel trends. Michelin® researchers continued to work with a possible wheel and tire single unit. Other possibilities included a unit that could run completely flat and airless. With all of the automotive industry viewing “The Green Revolution,” greater fuel efficiencies, and cost control, a tire dealer must remain focused.

Another point of future strategy might be in who sells tires, and where. The advent of internet selling could make significant changes. Where 100 years ago Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward sold many tires through mail order catalogues, in 2009 the system already had adjustments. Both Gordon and Jeff described the progress made by Vannoy’s wholesaler, American Tire Company. That firm had been offering tires on the internet, but with linkage to their retailers such as Vannoy Tires. When such a sale was negotiated, the tire would be transferred, not directly from wholesaler to buyer but to the retailer, such as Vannoys. Sales and financial paperwork transpired in that triangle and the placement and servicing of the tire on the customer’s car would be done by the retailer.

“It’s a system that puts new technology to work in a way that benefits everyone,” Jeff Vannoy affirmed. “We like it.”

Meanwhile, as 2009 proceeded, the nation and the world were settling into an economic disorder the like of which had not been seen in eighty years. The Vannoys were watching each day with a wary eye.

Concluded Jeff:

“We monitored each day’s expenses with great care. There was no overtime these days, and we could foresee no pay raises. In 2009 we met regularly with our store managers to review what we could see and what they might add. We resolved to continue to do everything we could to make every customer a customer for life, to give top quality service, to be sure we take advantage of every realistic opportunity to work smarter. Beyond that? Well, we had been there for over a quarter century. We resolved to work to do our best.”