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One Man. One Superstore: Alpio Barbara’s Employees Call Him a Commanding, Charismatic Leader. We Call Him Our 2016 Tire Dealer of the YearPosted on September 9, 2016
In 1969 Alpio Barbara was a college student needing to work more hours while pursuing his dream of becoming a police officer. He had a job in a stationery store and mentioned his search for more work to one of the store’s customers. Al Howard hired him to work at Howard Tire in Belmont, Calif.“The rest is history,” Barbara says. He feels as if he’s “been in the tire business all my life.”
Alpio Barbara is Modern Tire Dealer’s 24th Tire Dealer of the Year. MTD and our program’s supporting advertisers are donating to a pair of charities on Barbara’s behalf: the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Activities League and the Kainos Home and Training Center for the Developmentally Disabled. Photo credit: J. Ennis Kirkland
He started as a tire changer and learned to do alignments and some front-end work, though he admits he’s never called himself a mechanic, or today’s preferred term of technician. He moved from the service department to the wholesale side of Howard Tire and by 1984 he was itching to learn the retail side. One weekend he told members of the California Tire Dealers Association of his dream to someday own a single tire store.
His phone rang the following Monday. Dave Redfern was operating Redwood General Tire Service Co., the business his father Ernie started in May 1957 in Redwood City, Calif., and he was looking for a way out. Howard Tire was Redfern’s wholesale supplier.
The two men had lunch and a couple weeks later — on a handshake — Barbara and Redfern became partners. Barbara’s first day of business ownership was a memorable one.
On July 8, 1985, Redfern says he was excited about his new-found freedom and opted to go home for lunch. Barbara remained at the store and was talking to a customer in the parking lot when an electrical transformer behind the store exploded. Fire engines filled the street to extinguish the blaze, and the utility company got to work assessing the damage and making repairs. Barbara remembers a large commercial tire melting like it was a marshmallow. With all the emergency crews still on the scene, Redfern returned to work.
They both laugh about it now, and Barbara jokes he needed “to light a fire under these guys.” What they didn’t immediately know was every firefighter who responded to the call had to strip down to their underwear before leaving the tire shop. There was no safe way to clean their uniforms of the contamination of the exposed oil and gas particles, so everything was stuffed into barrels and sealed.
“That was my first day at Redwood General Tire. I was thinking, ‘what did I get myself into?’”
It was a fiery start, but over the last 31 years Barbara has built this single store into one of the largest independent tire dealerships in the country. He took over sole ownership in 2000 and Redwood General Tire has grown into a superstore with 40 employees who service 50 cars a day and ring up $12 million in annual sales. Barbara is Modern Tire Dealer’s 2016 Tire Dealer of the Year.
Good service doesn’t mean free service
In its 59 years of existence, Redwood General Tire always has called Redwood City home. When the business moved to 1630 Broadway in 1970, Redfern says it “seemed like we were in the sticks,” but that’s definitely not the case now. The 10,000 square-foot shop sits on an acre of land in a city where real estate is the hottest commodity. Its next door neighbor is America’s Tire, the California-named sibling of Discount Tire.
“I’m not worried about these guys next door to me,” Barbara says. “Costco as the bird flies is a mile away. Les Schwab is less than five miles away. If you give good service and do the basics, you’re going to succeed.”
Darlene Barbara and Denny Reiser are Barbara’s go-to assistants. She’s the brain trust and a workaholic, and Reiser’s the leader who handles any conflict in the right way. Photo credit: J. Ennis Kirkland
Good service doesn’t mean free service. His next door neighbors are known for their free flat repair. At Redwood General Tire, flat repairs cost $35. “They give away flat repairs. I don’t have to. I think it’s a service. I think I’m saving you what could be a $200 tire. If you give something away for free, then someone thinks it’s not a big deal.”
It’s one of the many topics he’s talked about with his sales team during their regular meetings. They call it a huddle. They review sales numbers, but also talk about ways to improve the business. When they talked about free flat repairs, the salesmen backed up his idea. The consensus: they already do so many of them — at least 10 a day — why should they start to give them away?
Store Manager Denny Reiser starts an August huddle by running down the total sales for the month for each of the seven salesmen, with notes about comparable month totals. With seven more full workdays in the month, overall sales are down, but another $1-million-month is possible. Year-to-date, the store’s revenues are down, but there’s an acknowledgement some of that is due to an overall drop in wholesale business. Each sales person manages some wholesale accounts.
Still, the lower numbers are a good segue into a discussion about price matching. “This is the perfect time to get out of the mindset we’ve been in for so long of just dropping our price and matching, matching, matching.” Reiser says. “For people who walk into the store we don’t necessarily have to drop.”
Barbara agrees, and says they need to use the triangle sales tool to present three tire options to a customer. Putting the right tires in the triangle sets up the framework for a good sale. “Just like everyone’s not going to be a doctor, not every car needs a Michelin. Michelin’s always going to be your best, we all agree on that, so let’s work from that.” Alpio tells his team an owner of a Buick might not want Michelins, but Pirelli and Continental are good options to fill out the triangle, or Pirelli and Hankook.
Reiser says, “It’s got to be a win, win, win. We talk about that all the time. What’s best for the customer? What’s best for the store? What’s best for the salesman? They’re coming in here because they want to be here. They’re not really coming here as an exercise because they want to shop tires. Once they come into the store, most likely they’re going to buy.”
These huddles also are opportunities to fix procedural problems that are slowing down the daily process. Inputting the complete part number for every tire on every invoice, rather than just the brand name or tire description, is a big one, and it holds up the check-in process when American Tire Distributors Inc. (ATD) makes its twice-daily deliveries. Alex Feliz says the Oct. 1 launch of the store’s new software system should help things. Feliz is in charge of information technology, on top of his assignment at the sales counter. He’s the go-to guy for wheels and all aftermarket accessories.
The discussion leads to how to best test the new system, and they plan for a soft opening on a Saturday. They’ll take care of the morning rush, but will limit mechanical work. They’ll also schedule the routine service for the company vehicles that day so Parts Manager Danny Catucci gets a chance to test his end of the system. Stephen De La Rosa will set aside a couple vehicles from his commercial fleet accounts for that day as well.
These conversations are valuable, Barbara says. They bat around ideas. The latest experiment is using Uber for a customer shuttle. The store has its own branded shuttle van which makes two runs each morning, dropping off customers at work. But Uber opens the door to transportation all day long, and customers don’t have to make multiple stops on their way. At $3 or $7 a trip and plenty of Uber drivers within reach, it’s faster and cheaper than him paying an employee. Redwood General Tire also has used Uber for tire deliveries from ATD when it’s missed the cut-off time to place an order.
“I tell these guys I love change. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll just change back. One decision is not going to bankrupt the company,” Barbara says.
The waiting area includes the standard magazines, comfortable seats and a TV, but there are also massage chairs, and two desktop computers plus countertop space for customers to work. “We want to keep them comfortable and at work. It takes the pressure off us,” says Reiser.
A lightbulb moment
Sometimes, a $1.10 decision makes all the difference.
Barbara admits he’s a worrier, and he’s short on patience. His office sits in the middle of his store, with one glass window giving him a view of the shop, and another window with a view of the sales counter. When he sees customers pacing around the property, he knows they’re running short on patience, too. Years ago he realized it was taking too long to finish a car. It was tying up the rack, tying up the technician, and tying up the sales counter. He asked a technician what was taking so long. He was waiting for a customer to approve something spotted during the inspection process — a $1.10 lightbulb.
“I’m not going to have my technicians stop, come all the way up front, tell Denny ‘the customer needs a tail light.’ Denny calls. He has to leave a message and the customer has to call back. No, just keep going. We even do that if an air filter looks dirty.”
It’s not just about workflow, he says. It’s a matter of valuing the customer’s time. Is it worth it to interrupt a customer, likely at work, to get approval for such a small dollar amount? They attach the burned-out light to the ticket and show it to the customer at checkout. The bottom line is customers trust them to make that kind of call. If a customer did complain, perhaps because he already bought a bulb and planned to replace it at home, Barbara says the shop would take it off the ticket. He can’t think of the last time that happened.“I don’t look at my business through the dollars. I look at my business through the satisfaction of my customers. When I see the lot completely full, I’m not looking at it as cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. I’m looking at it as are we going to get these cars done by the end of the day? If that lot is empty at the end of the day I’m going to have money.”
Pep Giannini is one of those trusting customers of Redwood General Tire. He first met Barbara in 1985. Giannini was working as a dishwasher at Green Hills Country Club, where Barbara has served as president three times. One night Barbara was leaving the club during a driving rainstorm. He noticed a man with a bicycle standing at a bus stop and thought he recognized him from the country club. He rolled down the window of his El Camino and asked if he needed a ride.
Giannini remembers him saying, “’Hey buddy,’ and I’m thinking, is he calling me Bobby? My name is not Bobby.” Barbara knows little Spanish, but quickly remembered the word for home. “Then he said casa.” Giannini put his bicycle in the back, got in the front seat and used his hands to point right and left to lead Barbara to his home.
That encounter in a rainstorm stuck with Giannini. He and his wife are now regular, longtime Redwood General Tire customers. “This is the place I trust. It’s hard to find a reliable car shop. Even when I have major issues with my car, I know I can trust them. I can give my house keys to these guys, that’s how much I trust them, but it’s all because of Alpio. He projects that image of really trusting.”
Barbara identified two businesses as his biggest competitors: his next-door neighbor, America’s Tire, and Tire Rack. Dan Brown from Tire Pros calls the side-by-side stores a David and Goliath story. He tells other dealers they have advantages in these situations: “Turning customers into friends, independents can shine.”
2008: A year of reluctant change
It’s that kind of trust and customer relationship Barbara has built into the foundation of Redwood General Tire. His salesmen have a following, and it’s not uncommon to watch customers wait to talk to “their guy” even if someone else is available to help them. One morning as Spence Sperduto talked to a customer on the phone another one walked in the door, waved, dropped off a box of doughnuts and left. Reiser, the store manager, admits he often gets teased by the others for how much time he spends with his customers. “Are they coming to Thanksgiving? I get a hard time for that. But it becomes a relationship. And not to stereotype, but especially with women, they want to talk more, and once you’ve earned their trust, everything’s in the open. It’s not just their car anymore; it’s their personal life.”
And those sometimes lengthy conversations come at an incredibly busy sales counter. There’s a shop rule that there can never be fewer than five people working the front counter at any time. (There’s space and computers for six.) Reiser estimates each of them answers 75 phone calls a day. Kurt Boegner, the commercial road service manager who has worked at Redwood General Tire for 30 years, thinks it’s closer to 100 calls each.
All the action at the front counter translates to a busy day for Carlos Perez, the service manager. Perez holds a pilot’s license and says the training for a controlled crash comes in handy.
“It’s controlled chaos. We have schedules. There’s always a change of plans, but somehow, by the end of the day, it works out.”
At times it’s plain loud in the showroom, but that’s because all six people at the counter are talking to customers, and more customers are lingering in the waiting area. Barbara can’t stand to hear the phone ring, so he’ll often jump on a call from his office and pass it off as needed. In one swift motion he answers a call, transfers it and then slaps the “easy” button sitting on his desk. He thrives on the frenzied pace.
Ten years ago, Barbara was in the midst of the madness. He was running the sales counter and working as the service manager. He was handling all the marketing and advertising. Nothing happened without his stamp of approval. But three strokes and one open heart surgery in 2008 forced a change, albeit a reluctant one.
He had what he described as a weird morning. He fell at home while getting ready for work. When he arrived at the shop and tried to unlock the front door it took several tries. He realized he was standing in the street, and wasn’t anywhere near the door. Once he got inside he fell again. One of the city’s firemen stopped in, as they often did for coffee or just for a chat, and Barbara told him about his “weird day.” The fireman told him to raise both his arms, and when he couldn’t raise both arms to the same height, the fireman told him he was having a stroke and needed to go to the emergency room. At that moment Darlene Barbara, Redwood General Tire’s office manager, walked in the door for work and she rushed him to the hospital.
Barbara learned he had a hole in his heart, and that a blood clot that probably had plugged the hole his entire life had moved. Doctors tried an experiment with a patch to cover the hole, but months later the patch dislodged and Barbara suffered two more strokes. Open-heart surgery was the final fix.
He was lucky to be alive. And like many independent tire dealers, he thought his business couldn’t survive without him. Two-and-a-half weeks after heart surgery, he came back to work. He had to wear compression garments under his shirt to protect the incision, and told his staff he “had to be careful.” No doctor had cleared him to return to work. His first day back, Boegner told him they were having a huddle the next day.
Barbara was worried. Something must have gone wrong while he was absent. He spent the day asking employees what had happened. Even though Boegner was one of the most senior employees, he was not the type to call a meeting. The sales team gathered in Barbara’s office and Boegner took charge, calling out his coworkers, instructing them to step up and manage the sales counter, the service department and to knock off the funny business. “He was really adamant,” Barbara says.
He asked Boegner what he was supposed to do.
“Do what bosses do. Do nothing.” Boegner told him, rattling off the number of employees, the number of spouses, and the number of children depending on him for their livelihoods. “We can’t have you dropping dead in here. That’s not part of the deal.”
Barbara can be tough, but he’s also a softy. Tears flowed down his face. “That was the beginning of me starting to let go and let these guys flourish to do what they can do,” Barbara says. “I’m not saying we haven’t had any bumpy roads, don’t get me wrong. But they’ve stepped up.”
Redwood General Tire approaches the day with a rolling start. The store opens at 7 a.m. with the full sales team. Technicians start at 8:15 a.m. and roll their first cars into the bays. The tire crew reports for duty at 8:30 a.m. “There’s no sense in overlapping times,” Barbara says. “You might as well put people to work.”
Now Barbara, who is 65, supervises, but doesn’t manage the nitty gritty daily details. He doesn’t open the store on a daily basis anymore. He takes time off. He’s even bought a house in Scottsdale, Ariz., and this spring opened what he jokingly calls his “man cave.” Alpio’s at Troon is a 4,300-square-foot building where he’s displaying his collection of muscle cars and vintage gas pumps and also operating an event center.
But that doesn’t mean he’s disengaged from his tire business, or ever plans to leave Redwood City. He jumps from his office chair dozens of times a day to talk to customers he’s known for years. At the end of a day when a frustrated man returns with his work truck, unhappy that one of the service jobs on the order wasn’t completed, Barbara jumps in to smooth it over. He apologizes for the mistake and makes arrangements to give the man a ride home and ensure his truck is the first order of business the next morning so the customer’s work day isn’t affected. By the time the customer leaves, he was apologizing to Barbara for being an inconvenience.
A forward-thinking problem-solver
Barbara’s personality is contagious. Going to lunch with him is like eating with a local celebrity. Sitting at an outdoor café he calls the employees by name and engages in a constant conversation with others who drop by the table. They talk about business developments, hometown politics and the news of the day. He seems like a natural politician, in the ways that is a compliment.
But politics move too slowly for Barbara. Endless meetings and discussions aren’t his style. He wants to think about something and do it. Reiser says, “Everyone is afraid of red tape. He’s not afraid of the red tape. The more red tape the more he cuts through it. He is about getting things done. He’s got a strong opinion about what should be and what shouldn’t be, and that’s what helps him run his business.
“He doesn’t wait for a problem; he tries to see beyond that before it becomes a problem. He’s so forward thinking.”
That was obvious years ago when the world was just beginning to grasp the internet and email. “He knew it was the future,” Reiser says. “He adapted really early. He just has a way of thinking. It was all new to us and we were afraid of it, but he kept saying this is the future. We gotta do it.” That same thought process led Redwood General Tire to offer free Wi-Fi years ago. “We were way ahead of the game,” Barbara says.
Barbara tells customers “I’d like to hear what you have to say,” and encourages them to reach out to him on his cell phone.
And it’s paid off, Reiser says. “That was probably the single greatest thing we’ve done in terms of customer service, allowing Wi-Fi and having workstations for people to work.”
For Barbara, it all boils down to one thing: “I don’t want to follow.”
That mentality shows when he meets with two men from a tech start-up company. It takes him less than 10 minutes to say he’s in. He asks them to come back a week later and present the same information to his sales team at the weekly huddle. He also lets them know he’s not happy that he wasn’t the first tire and repair shop on their list.
He’s incredibly active in nonprofit and business organizations in Redwood City and across the San Francisco Peninsula, but he doesn’t want to serve on some sideline committee. He wants to be in charge. The year he had his strokes and heart surgery, he was chairing four organizations at the same time: the Independent Tire Dealers Group LLC (ITDG), a Rotary Club, his country club, and the Redwood City Downtown Business Group.
Barbara Bonilla was instrumental in getting Barbara involved in the Redwood City Police Activities League (PAL). The two met almost 20 years ago when she was organizing a fundraiser and approached him for a donation. She invited him to serve on the PAL board. He was the first civilian to do so. The PAL club works to keep at-risk youth occupied in safe activities after school.
When the group had an offer from the local school district to take over an unused plot of land for a new community center, Barbara led the charge and helped raise $3.2 million for the $4.5 million project.
“Every community should have an Alpio. It’s hard to find an organization he’s not been on the leadership board for.”
And he does more than write a check, or solicit other community leaders to write a check, Bonilla says. He flips pancakes at fundraising breakfasts. He collects toys. He helps organize everything from golf tournaments and poker runs to music festivals and comedy night fundraisers. He’s even dressed up as Santa Claus. And since Bonilla has moved from her previous job with the police department to the director of community services for the San Mateo County Sheriff Office, Barbara now is supporting its PAL equivalent, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Activities League.
Erin Niemeyer is the recreation supervisor for Redwood City and has been part of many fundraising events with Barbara. “The strength of his character is what pushes everything through. He’ll make sure the event is a success.”
“We want to take full responsibility for your car. We’re not looking for a way out,” says Barbara.
That’s evident in moments both great and small. In 1996 Jenny Corral was graduating from high school when she earned the Sequoia Award, an annual scholarship given to students who exemplify outstanding community service. Corral’s family couldn’t afford to attend the $100-a-plate dinner to see her accept the award. When Barbara heard this he sponsored a table and invited Corral and her family to sit with him. They met the night of the event. “My family was taken aback by this guy,” says Corral. “He owns his own business, but he’s thoughtful enough to think of someone else in the community.”
Carlos Bolanos, the sheriff of San Mateo county, says there seems to be no limit to Barbara’s generosity, whether it’s coaching a sports team or donating shoes to a child who can’t afford them. “It’s not the big flashy things; it’s all those little intangibles. The guy never says no.”
When Brian Banks was in high school, he was building his first car, and when it was time to get tires, his dad sent him to Redwood General Tire. Barbara gave him his first set. “He won me over at 16. I’m 41 and I’ve never forgotten that.”
Now Banks is president of Action Towing & Road Service Inc., the business his father started while he was in elementary school. Redwood General Tire services its fleet of 74 trucks and provides what Banks calls “first class service.”
Leo Zea pulls tires from one of the dozen shipping containers for a customer. Barbara offered him a job after watching him work at a fast food restaurant. Zea manages the wholesale center.
A commercial growth option
Commercial business is where Barbara sees an opportunity to grow. With three service trucks, Redwood General Tire does a little more than $1 million in commercial business, and De La Rosa, who focuses on those sales, says the bulk of the company’s business is with small fleets of about 10 vehicles. Barbara says there’s more business out there. The closest alternative is 24 miles away in San Jose. While chasing new customers, Barbara tells his sales team it’s important they do things right with the ones they have now. That includes charging the correct labor rate. “This is where we’re missing the boat,” Barbara says.
So they review the rules again. If it’s a medium truck or higher, dual wheels, whether it’s a one-ton Ford F-450 or GMC 5500 or a motorhome, entering the truck labor rate is essential. Without it, the store isn’t getting paid for all the set-up time it takes to jack up the vehicle and assemble the right tools in the only space available to do these large commercial jobs — the parking lot. “Our lot is full of them. If we lose one out of five (because of the higher rate), that’s fine.”
But Reiser doesn’t expect to lose any business. “We’re not robbing them. We’ve just got to get paid for it.” Barbara tells his sales team, “Maybe you guys should go outside and jack up a motorhome, then you’ll know what we’re talking about.”
No property? No problem
With an eye on increasing sales on the commercial side, Barbara says his wholesale business has taken a hit in recent years. The biggest drop has come from new car dealerships who ordered from him. “We spent so much time training them, teaching them, and then all of a sudden, they kicked us out of the equation. We’re not selling cars. Why should they be selling tires?”
At its peak Redwood General Tire was selling $150,000 worth of tires a month to at least 10 new car dealerships. Only a couple dealerships remain on the customer list.
His less-than-$1 million wholesale business now is focused on small, mom-and-pop auto repair shops and service stations. It’s a niche he serves with the blessing of his own wholesaler, ATD. “They want us to go call on the small gas stations. They don’t want their truck to drop off two or three tires, so they have no problem with that. We made an agreement on that. We’re not calling on tire shops.”
Redwood General Tire manages its wholesale and retail inventory from a series of metal shipping containers that are parked in the far corner of the parking lot. Once upon a time the tires were stored in a section of the shop, but as the service business grew, Barbara had to make room for more lifts and more technicians.
Because real estate costs are so high, he sought a unique solution. There are now a dozen shipping containers on site painted to match the building. Tires are organized by brand and size, and a metal staircase is rolled around and used to access the upper deck of containers.
When a wholesale customer needs a delivery, the tires are loaded directly from the containers into a Redwood General Tire truck. When a retail customer purchases new tires, they’re loaded onto carts and rolled across the parking lot.
Barbara isn’t afraid of unique solutions. Frankly, he’s not afraid of much at all, whether it’s tire manufacturers selling direct to consumers or trying to use his customer data from tire registration forms.
Dan Brown, the recently retired president of Tire Pros, of which Redwood General Tire is a member, says Barbara’s approach to change is refreshing. “He’s constantly watching the trends and what’s happening and how he might need to adapt his business today as compared to yesterday.
“Many dealers took a strong opinion that they weren’t advocates of installing tires bought online elsewhere. They saw that as a threat. But Alpio looked at it knowing ‘it’s going to happen and my taking a position opposing it isn’t going to stop it, so how can I modify my business?’ He embraced it. He saw it as an opportunity to turn that internet customer who belonged to someone else into his customer. I think he’s been quite successful with that.”
Barbara says, “Independent tire dealers are the foundation of the industry, and for some reason manufacturers are always trying to knock us off the foundation. They’re always trying to cause an earthquake.
“The bottom line is people come to us and say, ‘can you match this price?’ The reason they say that is because they want to do business with Redwood General Tire. If they didn’t want to do business with us, they’d just go get that tire, because it’s the best price. They don’t ask can we beat it.
“They know we have a great reputation. They know we’re in the community. They know we’re local. They know we’ll back it up.”
Redwood General Tire is led by its veteran team, from left, service manager Carlos Perez, 27 years; commercial road service manager Kurt Boegner, 30 years; Barbara; store manager Denny Reiser, 24 years; and lead technician Joe Della Chiesa, 30 years.
His relentless focus on service stems back to when Barbara got a divorce in 2000 and went to a high-end furniture store to buy a new bedroom set. He spent $15,000 on furniture, arranged for delivery, drew a diagram of where each piece should be placed, left his door unlocked and went to work.
He was excited to get home and see it in place. “I get home and there’s no mattress. I call them up. They say, ‘Mr. Barbara you didn’t order a mattress.’ ‘I just spent $15,000 and you didn’t think I needed a mattress? You think I’m going to use an old one?’
“They didn’t finish the sale.”
It was a lesson he knew he could apply at his business. Another shopping trip to a Victoria’s Secret was just as painful. He was shopping for a gift and had no idea what to buy or what size to purchase and he left a sweaty, nervous mess.
But it was another a lightbulb moment. He told his team they had to explain things to their female customers in terms they could understand. And really, male customers need just as much explanation. “Help them and don’t say LOF. Lube, oil and filter is what it means to us, but we don’t know what it means to the customer.”
It’s a simple thing, and it adds up to good service, Barbara says. There are other things a dealer can do to help his or her business, and it doesn’t matter if the dealer owns one store or many more.
Barbara recommends volunteering to serve on a dealer council. Pick a tire manufacturer and tell your sales rep. “It’s the best experience. You can listen to what other people say. Share ideas. Get some ideas from the other guy. You’ve gotta give to get something back, and it really works in our industry.”
Another is to join a network. Barbara is a member of Tire Pros, as well as ITDG. On top of that, he’s part of the Bridgestone Affiliated Retailer Nationwide Network, Pirelli’s FasTrack program and the Tire One program from Tire Warehouse Inc. He’s a Continental Gold dealer. He thinks dealers shouldn’t be scared to join multiple programs. There are plenty of benefits. With Tire Pros he’s able to offer a nationwide warranty. ITDG gives him buying power. Tire One promotes twice-daily delivery and contests.
“The bottom line is they want your business. They’re not going to put the number so far out there that it’s not achievable.
“Look at the programs and don’t worry about making that big commitment. Once they see you’re giving them some business, they’ll work with you. You can’t be alone anymore. You just can’t.”
Barbara thinks community involvement is critical. “Redwood City made me who I am, not only Redwood City but our neighboring cities. Without them, we’re nothing. I’ll never leave my community. I’ll always support my community.”
There are plenty of people in Redwood City who believe Barbara has done his part. J.R. Gamez is the city’s police chief, and when he came to town five years ago he wanted to reach out to community leaders. Several people suggested he make a date with Barbara.
“He gave me the once-over and wanted to know, how committed am I going to be?” says Gamez. “I’ll be honest, I kind of liked it. He passed the smell test as far as I’m concerned. He bleeds Redwood City through and through.”
A lot of times businesses are in it for themselves, says Gamez. He’s watched Barbara advocate for things as part of the downtown business group that will in no way benefit him or Redwood General Tire. Gamez asked him why he cared so much. His answer: “Because it’s the right thing for the city.”
A man with a plan
Barbara often is asked why he doesn’t open additional stores. Clearly, he has a good thing going at Redwood General Tire. Maybe if he could clone himself, he’d consider it. “I’m a worry wart. I want to make sure my customers are taken care of.”
With additional stores he’s not sure he could guarantee his same expectations of service, cleanliness and efficiency would be met. Reiser, the store manager, understands his predicament.
“Alpio has a grand plan for everything. He envisions everything. I have trouble envisioning a week down the road, but he envisions two years down the line.”
Ironically, Barbara’s not sure about the long-term future. He hit the magical retirement age of 65 in April, but he’s not ready to cash it in yet. He is taking more time away from the business. In August he took about three weeks off and drove 5,456 miles on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He and some friends shipped their bikes to Boston, rode all over New England, across Canada, through North Dakota and then to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D., before driving home.
Despite the long break, he likes being back home in Redwood City. “I like what I’m doing. I like talking to my customers. People ask me about buying the store. It’s going to have to be one of those things where you keep everybody here. You can’t just come in here and clean house, because they’re the ones who built the store the way it is.
“I just love ‘em too much. We’ve been together so long and I’ve got some great history with them,” Barbara says.
Years ago when updating the employee handbook, he decided to give employees with 20 years of service four weeks of vacation. He thought to himself, “No one’s going to work here for 20 years.” He has 13 people who qualify.
Barbara dreams of someday turning his business over to his employees. He’s not married and doesn’t have children. He can’t imagine giving up his office or not being able to see his customers.
Feliz, the aftermarket salesman, says, “He works hard to make sure we all continue to have a place to work that we can be proud of. He continually cites his reason for not selling the business as the fact that he knows an outsider would come in and start making staff changes, and he just can’t sit back and let that happen.
“He can be stern when it’s needed, but he always does what is best for the store and its employees. At the end of the day, Redwood General Tire is a family, and nothing less.”
Housing: a barrier to business
It might sound strange to cite housing costs as the most pressing issue for Alpio Barbara’s business. But this is California, and more specifically, this is the San Francisco Peninsula.
Housing costs here are among the highest in the nation. One bedroom, 600-square-foot apartments rent for more than $2,500 a month. A couple making $300,000 a year can’t afford to buy a home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median value of owner-occupied housing units in Redwood City is $795,000.
Here and in neighboring communities, it’s not out of line to buy a $4.5 million home, raze it and build new. “That’s exactly what’s happening,” Barbara says. An acre of land is worth about $5 million. He’s turned down a recent $6 million offer for the acre on which he does business.
High housing costs force employers to pay higher wages. His tire techs make $17 an hour.
Of his 40 employees, he’s one of only six who own homes. Most rent and live nearby. One man and his wife commute two hours each day.