“The Top Shop Award recognizes the extraordinary independent tire dealers whose business practices reflect the utmost in quality, innovation, service excellence and professionalism, and whose team members work to ensure that customers return to their dealership with confidence and trust — time and time again,” says Mary DellaValle, Tire Review editor. “We salute the past and future Top Shop winners and finalists who embody these guiding principles for success as a daily course of action.”
In describing attributes of Waukegan Tire that contributed to its win, Mary DellaValle, editor of Tire Review, noted: “Waukegan Tire’s guiding principles are based on the values of always working hard and with integrity, treating people with respect and kindness (like family) and exceeding expectations. This dealership provides a level of extended care and honesty that fosters customers for life. It proudly services the vehicles of multi-generational customers, who are ambassadors for their business and send countless referrals their way. While this dealership is progressive, forward-thinking and keeps up with technology, it hasn’t lost focus of the foundation upon which it was built—making customers priority No. 1 every, single day.”
“I’m so proud of our team of dedicated employees, what an incredible honor,” remarked Steve, as he was awarded the Top Shop trophy by Dean Martin, publisher of Tire Review. Expressing gratitude for his father’s influence on his life and the business in general, he continued, “What a great journey. I’m really proud of my dad and being able to work alongside of him.”
Waukegan Tire has been a finalist for The Top Shop Award in 2010, 2017, 2019, & 2020! Each year there are only 4 finalists chosen and Waukegan Tire is honored for this recognition.
If you were to peel back the layers of this 52-year-old company to see just what makes Waukegan Tire tick, Jerry sums it up this way: “To have the best selection, the most competitive pricing and the best service that we can provide. We build trust by providing the best products at very competitive pricing backed by extended care.” Steve emphasizes the team’s effort to make customers their No. 1 priority. “My father’s belief of putting the customers’ needs first and ensuring that the right product is on the right vehicle is at the core of our company’s philosophy. It’s ingrained in every aspect of our operations. Our service technicians are well-trained, knowledgeable and honest, and they won’t sell things that customers don’t need. We have always operated with integrity, something we have all learned from my father.”
Waukegan Tire’s family environment fosters a committed employee base with several team members being employed for more than 20 years. It’s also important to be “at the ready” to respond to customers in our highly-digital world, he continues. “Every day we’re going through social media. We’re monitoring everything on all the different channels, whether it’s Google, Bing, Yelp, Carfax, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Being able to respond quickly to a post, a review or a consumer concern is really important.” Steve says customers will also find a daily “Tires and Heels” Facebook post from Waukegan Tire aimed at helping educate and empower female customers about automotive safety.
Michael McBride, general manager, details the importance of offering customers unexpected extras to help cement relationships—those little things that make customers realize you offer a “value-added package,” not just tires and service. “You can buy tires everywhere now. But, to get people coming back, you have to give them that service, that extra something,” McBride says in reference to Waukegan Tire providing free rotation for the life of the tires, a free suspension inspection and alignment check with every set of tires sold, and brake inspections where the pad thickness for every vehicle is recorded.
“We can give customers a good idea how much life is left on their brakes to give them the opportunity to plan for any work that may need to be done. Customers seem to really appreciate when we go over and explain the brake measurements to them when we are closing them out. I have actually had customers call me from the car dealer and ask me if I still have the brake information on their vehicle because the dealer is telling them they need their brakes replaced when we told them they didn’t,” McBride adds.
Steve points to the importance of connecting with customers to build awareness before they even walk through the door. “We’re really involved with local radio and getting the Waukegan Tire name out there and supporting and sponsoring a lot of events,” he says. “We do a lot of commercials each and every day and on a variety of different radio stations; we feel that helps with awareness. And, we get a lot of referrals from customers who had that good experience and want to send family, friends and neighbors [to us]. We’re very proud of that.”
With its sales mix precisely defined as 68% tires and 32% service, Waukegan Tire’s three independent tire stores, also Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Centers, offer customers much more than getting them back on the road. They receive exceptional customer service and are treated with a level of respect that makes them feel like they are part of the family, affirms Jerry. “Nothing feels better than a customer walking in, handing you his keys, and saying ‘do what needs to be done and call me when it’s finished.’ When your customer has that kind of trust and faith in your place, you have to make sure you exceed their expectations.”
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Tire Review 2019 Top Shop finalists and winner hold magazine covers with their portraits on them. From left, Don Foshay, Jr., owner of Don Foshay’s Discount Tire & Alignment; Jerry Nerheim, owner of Waukegan Tire; Alpio Barbara, Top Shop winner and owner of Redwood General Tire; and Chris Monroe, owner of Monroe Tire & Service.
ARTICLE FROM TIRE REVIEW - October 2019
If you’re ever lucky enough to spend any time with 84-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Nerheim, the founder, president and CEO of Waukegan Tire & Supply Co., don’t be surprised if you don’t talk much about the tire business. Instead, phone in hand, supplementary pictures at the ready, he’s more likely to share in illustrious detail just how proud he is to be the father of four well-accomplished children, as well as a grandfather of eight.
In fact, you’ll quickly discover how much he credits the success of his four independent tire stores, all of them situated about midway between Chicago and Milwaukee, to the other members of the Nerheim family. He’ll show you how each one — from his oldest daughter, Lori Nerheim, who is a member of Waukegan’s historical society and chairs the city’s arts council, to his youngest two grandchildren, ages 10 and 12 — have helped shape Waukegan Tire at some point in their lives. Working behind the service desk, organizing the warehouse, making deliveries and even running day-to-day shop operations, the entire family has been involved with the 51-year-old company from angle.
Jerry’s son, Steve Nerheim, serves as vice president and COO of Waukegan, and just like his father he’s a family man through and through. He’s closely mirroring the way Jerry got him started in the company by grooming his own son, Stephen, a high-school senior golfer and hockeyplayer, to learn the trade by training him to work on the wholesale side of the business, in the warehouse and to make deliveries. “I started at a really young age, from cleaning to stacking tires, moving tires, just helping out wherever I could,” Steve says. “We’re just really blessed and fortunate to be working with Dad every day. And our team is just incredible. We have some really great people working hard to always do better.” Jerry can’t say enough good things about his employees. Whether it’s due to the atmosphere (Jerry addresses each of his 60-plus employees by name as he passes by them in the store and through the halls, caring as much about their home life as he does about what’s going on at the shop), the ample opportunities for growth or the generous pay, Jerry says he experiences extremely low staff turnover, so today’s industrywide technician shortage is nearly nonexistent at Waukegan. “I think we’ve been fortunate that our people stay with us,” Jerry says. “We have tried to make it as as we can for them and reward for their good work.” “We’ve had a few of our managers who have started as a tire technician, working on alignment and suspension work, and now they’re managers of the stores,” Steve adds. “It’s great so see them find ways to grow. They’re constantly trying to work on ways that we can improve what we’re doing and grow our customer base.”
As correctly predicted by Jerry’s daughter, Julie Nerheim Scroggins, when the company was a Top Shop finalist in 2017 (this year marks the third time Waukegan has Top finalist honors; the first time was in 2010), the business continues to be on the cutting edge of shops in the automotive industry by offering new services like vehicle wrapping and plastic dipping. But in order to stay ahead of the curve, Waukegan Tire must invest heavily in ongoing employee training; this helps staff members both hone their technical skills as well as stay up-to-date on detailed information regarding the nearly 20 tire brands regularly in stock. These include Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Hankook, Goodyear, Bridgestone, Firestone, Dunlop, Continental, General Tire, Falken, Toyo, Laufenn, Vogue Tires, Vredestein, Nokian and Pirelli.
Jerry credits his well-informed staff with giving Waukegan a reputation for being the area’s go-to shop for custom wheels. “Our people understand it; that’s the thing. We’re pretty proud of what we can do here, and it’s because of our people,” he says. “We get calls on a daily basis from people asking us if [we think certain wheels] will work. They’ll ask us ‘can I do this on a [Mercedes-AMG] S63, what will work?,’ because they’ve been down the road where they tried it and it doesn’t work. If your [shop is] going to do [custom wheels] you have to know what you’re doing, otherwise there’s so much risk. “We have them on display and have them in our warehouse so we can do them right now, that day, because a lot of times it’s an impulse item.”
Waukegan has been a Michelin dealer since its founding in 1968. Around 2002, Jerry says Michelin invited him and a handful of other dealers in the U.S. to a meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, to update them on the tire manufacturer’s plans for the future. Jerry sent his daughter, Julie, who was then the vice president and CFO of Waukegan, in his place, setting in motion a chain of events that led to Michelin’s CEO at the time, Edouard Michelin, making a special visit to Waukegan — something Jerry refers to as his “biggest honor.” “I was [in Phoenix] on behalf of my dad for the meeting and certainly was not one of the larger companies in attendance. One of the things that [Edouard] said was important to him was loyalty, and then he directly referenced our company and our relationship with Michelin,” Julie says. “At that time, he was really being groomed to take over the organization, and I don’t know that he had attended one of those meetings prior to that, so it was a big surprise he was there. “I was fortunate to have him join me at my lunch table, and I could share with him about our company and about my dad and how hard he’s worked. He was very interested at that time in nitrogen inflation, which we were putting in our tires, and the different brands that we carried, and my dad and his energy,” she continued. “And he shared stories about his own family. It was quite a glimpse into the man behind Michelin.” The two stayed in touch, and in 2004, Edouard left France to pay Waukegan Tire a visit. To prepare, the stores were cleaned from top to bottom, Julie says, and the family put out French water, French pastries and ee made with French press. She remembers the first thing he noticed during his tour of the building was an old check imprinting machine sitting on an office desk. “He said, ‘Wow, only the finest modern equipment!’” she says. “We all just laughed. It was just not expected. He had a quick wit and an infectious laugh. He was so humble and personable. When he left, he hugged each one of us, and seeing him hug my dad, that really stands out to me. Thinking back, that was the biggest highlight of my career.”
Prior to opening Waukegan Tire, Jerry worked his way up the ranks at Goodyear for nine years, eventually becoming a store “At the time, Goodyear sold appliances, everything for the car and home. They sold washers and dryers, vacuum cleaners, toasters, televisions…and all customers were encouraged to buy on budget, which means you became a credit manager as a salesman. So, we had to go out and collect if you didn’t make your refrigerator payment,” Jerry says, knocking on the table as if it were someone’s front door. “And I was in a store that was in a pretty tough neighborhood. Our store was broken into at least once a month.” It was this experience as a credit manager, Jerry says, that helped him understand what he calls “the human side” of the customer, which, in turn, drives his desire to give back to his community. Locally, Waukegan supports several schools, United Way of Lake County, Breastfest for breast cancer, area sports teams and dozens of civic organizations. It’s a passion that he’s passed on to his children as well. His youngest son, Mike Nerheim, is the Lake County, Illinois, state’s attorney, and while Julie still helps Waukegan Tire in a consulting role, she founded the 501(c)3 organization Bcureful in 2011 to help find resources to battle Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC), and today works for the national organization devoted to the same cause, the TS Alliance, as a regional manager for the western United States. “[Dad] has helped more people throughout the years than I can count,” Julie says. “I have so much admiration for my dad and my brother, and our whole family of employees, and for how hard everyone works. I’m just really proud of the culture of Waukegan Tire.”