Rick Benton II is Vice President of Sales and Marketing at BTS Tire & Wheel distributors and Black’s Tire and Auto Service. Rick is in charge of wholesale distribution, logistics, and purchasing, among many other responsibilities. Rick and his brothers, Ryan and Jeremy, are second-generation tire dealers.
As anyone who has been in the tire and auto repair business for a considerable period of time can tell you, it’s not easy. It takes a special place with a unique culture to sustain a tire and auto business through multiple generations. How can that type of culture be built and sustained? Tune into this episode of Gain Traction to find out!
At Black’s Tire and Auto Service in Whiteville, NC, a family culture is what you’ll find when you first walk through the front door. According to Rick Benton II, who has worked there in some capacity since he was five years old, “at the end of the day, we really care so much about family, we want to help. We’ve been put here, and we’ve been blessed — so we feel like we’ve been blessed to help other people.”
On this episode of Gain Traction, Neal Maier sits down with Rick to discuss the business and culture elements that have sustained BTS Tire & Wheel Distributors for more than 90 years. Rick says maintaining their family culture can be challenging, but they make it happen by prioritizing events, community, charity golf tournaments, and relationships as highly as selling tires, products, equipment, and supplies. Don’t miss this insightful conversation!
Welcome to the Gain Traction podcast, where we feature top automotive entrepreneurs and experts and share their inspiring stories. Now, let’s get started with the show.
Hi. I’m Neal Maier and I’m the host of Gain Traction, where I talk with top automotive business leaders about their journeys. I’ve had the great fortune to enter lots of founders, CEOs, and long-term tire dealers, with some great stories. And today’s guest has a wonderful story, and most importantly, is leading a second generation into the business. Before we jump in with today’s guest, this episode’s brought to you by Tread Partners. Tread Partners is the home of ReTread, our new customer re-engagement program. By using targeted digital ads and communications, we’ll help win back your best lost customers and guarantee a 10X ROI. So what are you waiting for? Visit us at treadpartners.com. Today, I’m joined by Rick Benton II of BTS Tire and Wheel Distributors. He’s also a part of Black’s Tire & Auto Service and Carolina Retreads. Rick heads up the wholesale distribution logistics and purchasing sides of the company, among many other hats. Most importantly, Rick and his brothers are second generation tire dealers. Rick, welcome to Gain Traction.
Rick Benton II:
Hey, Neal. Great to be on. Appreciate you having us this morning.
Absolutely. Well, Rick, start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the business.
Well, I’m Rick Benton II. And a little bit about myself, I’m married and got four sons. And little bit about them. So you thinking about second generation, I’m thinking about, hey, maybe we got a third. And I’ll go in a little detail a little. We’re actually feel like we’re actually fourth generation coming on to business through the Black family and the way we transition and we’ll talk about that. But yeah, I have four boys and oh, four young men. One, Trey, my oldest, which he’s Ricky. He’d be Ricky Benton III, so we call him Trey. He plays professional baseball with the Cleveland Organization. He’s up in Ohio. I got twin boys, which they’re 22, just turned 22. They’re baseball guys too. They play Division 1 baseball at UNCW, UNC Wilmington. And then, my fourth is Chase. He’s a 12 year old and he’s the one still at home, keeping us all straight.
But yeah, a little bit about myself. I grew up in the business. As a youngster, me and my two brothers, Ryan and Jeremy, we really grew up in the business and even when our dad worked with Mr. Black at the service station, back in the seventies. I grew up as a 5, 6, 7 year old, as I was growing up, working in the station, washing cars, pumping gas. And so, we were all blessed to be able to grow up in the business. So as we grew and as my dad, Ricky Sr. come to Black’s Tire in 83, I was a young buck, but I was still like 12 year old and I was hanging around. So we changing tires or being in the shops at a early age.
So again, I think that’s a blessing, because we got to learn a lot, be exposed to the business. And gracious, we have seen so many changes. Over 30, 40 years, it’s just been crazy, crazy. But yeah, so kind of grew up in the business and even working through school and in high school and in college, stayed involved. And we played a pretty good role, even growing up into it. So again, a lot of knowledge with that. And again, just a lot of water under the bridge, I guess.
Well, in your career, Black’s has grown like crazy. Going from one location to a multi-state operation now. That’s got to have something to do with your roots. Got to have something to do with the way you guys started off. Talk to us a little bit about what makes BTS special.
Well, really, it started… Our company, this is the 93rd, going on the 94th year, of business for Black’s Tire. So it really goes back to 1929, when Mr. Coral Black, he started the company and he started the company in a time of it was during the Great Depression. So really, through some challenging times, he stepped up and really got involved and really started making a difference from day one. Now, Mr. Black, jumping in the sixties and the seventies, Mr. Black’s son, which is Buddy Black, he come in and they were doing some growing within and they got a little involved with some local wholesale business and some different things. And then, Mr. Black’s son, Buddy, he actually got involved in the seventies with the export business. So they were doing, even back in those days, they were one of the ones that started buying groups.
And then, they had a company also. It was called International Tire Marketers, ITM. So really, well before our time, we had a really great foundation to growing and connections in the business and just really coming through, again, some tough times, some hard times, but really just made us better, made us stronger. And so, my dad, actually in the seventies, he actually run a service station for Mr. Black. And that was back 1990, excuse me, 1975, 76, in that range. And Mr. Black continued to stay on my dad, Mr. Coral Black, his son really didn’t have as much interest in the retail and the commercial side of the business. So he was, again, more on the export and some of the other parts of the tire business. So my dad, finally, after five, six years, Mr. Black staying on him and said, “Hey, why don’t you come over here and run this company?”
In 1981, 82, my dad come on and came on as a partner with Mr. Black. At that time, they only had one location here in Whiteville, North Carolina. So really, from that, we just had a good base. And as we grew, never, and even today, we don’t grow just to be bigger. If it makes sense with people, just our culture, if it helps people, and if we have teammates that feel like they can stretch and do other things, it just kind of opens the door to do other things. So that’s really how we grew. So we grew in the middle eighties. Back in 85, opened a second location, and then, again, my dad would actually go to these locations, help get them started, But again, being gone, you had to have somebody strong in that spot to keep that going. Early days, trying to keep that culture.
But really, through the rest of the eighties and nineties, we did some moderate growth. We had late nineties and the two thousands, we really started growing up just where opportunities existed. Again, not to be bigger, just to just try to be better and this where the opportunities come up and even that’s all the way up to the today. We do a lot on the side of really relationships. That’s how the business was founded through the relationships and through the business. And a lot of companies even today how we’ve grown is being through relationships and some friends and even customers of the business decide, “Hey, we’re kind of ready to maybe retire. And hey, we want to partner with you guys. We want to kind of keep what we’ve got going.” And that’s where we’ve really come on and partnered with people and kind of grew and grew together with them over time. And there’s a lot of situations like that we’ve done.
But in most of those and in a lot of those situations, those families are still involved with us today. So again, that’s how we’ve grown, one by one, up to today, we’ve got growing. We have 55 [inaudible 00:09:01] company owned Black’s Tire locations. Currently, we have six, soon to be seven, wholesale distribution centers. And then, we also do, we have three satellites, so that’ll put us 10 wholesale centers between our DCs and our satellite wholesale. And like you mentioned too, we’re also a manufacturer. We got a manufacturing plant, Goodyear ReTread Center in Clarkton, North Carolina. So pretty diversified across the business. And we’ve just tried to grow through people and relationships in the business and partner with the different dealerships and family businesses throughout the Carolinas and Southern Virginia areas that we’re in now. But just trying to grow the right way.
That’s fantastic. And I was just thinking that culture that Mr. Black and, subsequently, your dad carried through taking care of people and treating your staff like family, I think that’s bled over onto the customer side too. It sounds like the culture’s made life easy, made business easy, as you’ve grown.
Well, I would not say this business is easy, but yes, it does. It makes it definitely more rewarding and definitely easier to come to work every day, knowing that, yeah, we’re coming to work. But when you’ve got families and you just got that culture, of course, our BTS family, we’re, I think, 950 team members strong today. But it’s so much more than that. Our customers, we’ve got other retailers and dealerships and just other family businesses that we partner with on our wholesale distribution network that they’re a part of us. It’s hard to describe the family atmosphere. Again, everybody stays so busy, ultimately, but at the end of the day, we really care so much about family. We want to help. That’s what we feel like in this business that we’ve been put here and we’ve been blessed. So we feel like we’ve been blessed to help other people and by grouping together with people all across our area and really partnering with them, of course. We want to sell products, sell tires and equipment and supplies and the different things that we do.
But more than that, we want to provide them resources, provide them tools, to help them provide their families with more and just want to make a difference. So again, our extended BTS family, of course, our team members, but again, our customers. It’s a special deal. And again, can’t describe it, but again, and it’s a challenge. As you grow, it’s a challenge to keep that same culture, but we work so hard on the different functions that we do and the different activities and the dealer functions and the dealer trips. And we had a big family day last weekend. We brought in almost 2000 family members. These are customers, these are team members, they’re families, suppliers. And just, we rented a fairgrounds, and it was like the state fair. And again, we’ve got a great team that puts these events together and helps. And it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort.
But it is so rewarding when you see the family smiling and you say, look, life’s pretty short. And whatever you can add, if you can add smiles and add a difference, and just create something different. And I like to talk to my guys a lot of times, “Let’s just don’t take up air. Let’s make a difference. What are we doing in people’s lives?” And again, we fall so short every day, but we’re trying to get better each and every day and trying to get our team members better. And Lord, this day in time, this world needs it. So yeah, just definitely trying to make a difference. And family culture is everything. And we try to extend that over to not only just our team, our customers, and our vendors as well. So pretty neat, pretty cool. And again, it’s hard to describe, but it’s an awesome feeling with our total team.
That’s phenomenal. And absolutely, you have to be proud of that. One of the things that we see from the outside is we see the Black’s family crossing over into the community as well. I think you guys just celebrated a 25th milestone with your golf tournament. Tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah, definitely. Another way to give back, other than our families and our teams and our customers and just those things, is giving back into our communities. We try to support all the communities we’re in, from the little league ball teams to on up to the causes. Like you were mentioned, the Boys and Girls Home. The Boys and Girls Home, actually they’re one located here in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina. Pretty close to our corporate office here. And to tell you a little bit about that, back, Mr. Black actually was one of the founding members in, I think it was 1954, in the fifties. One of the founding members of the Boys and Girls Homes. And so, it’s grown and really made a huge difference over the years. So we’ve tried to continue to stay involved over the years. We started back in the late nineties, when we really try to bring our marketing efforts to another level.
One thing we did is we did team up and said, “Look, this is one of our charities. We really want to jump all in and help. We’ve seen a big need.” They were struggling at the time. So again, I think you mentioned, it’s been 20 some years at this charity golf tournament that we’ve done. So it was, again, this event was last week, and we were blessed. We were able to raise $175,000 for that event. But we’ve been able to do that event every year, other than 2020. COVID shut us down one year, but we come back in 2021 and doubled it up. So last year, we actually brought it together. I think even due to tougher times, we were able to do $275,000 for last year, for the two years. And that was a very important time for them, during this COVID, because again, this has affected business. But you think about nonprofits and charities, it’s definitely affected them. And it’s just rewarding to see what you’re doing go directly to a charity.
So many different things today have so many loopholes and different things and national organizations. But when you can see, you can be hands on and see it going to work and seeing how it affects these kids. These kids, they need help. And they don’t choose to be in those situations. And so, again, we’re blessed and we’re just able to really make a difference. And so, we’re proud of that. I think over just for that charity, I think we give, over these years we’re talking about here, I think it’s like 1.6 million. I want to say we were up to on this. And again, we don’t do it. They send these numbers to us and show us. And we don’t do it for that reason. We do it to try to see difference in these kids’ lives. And again, that’s pretty special.
Again, it takes a lot of time. We actually work on these functions all year long. The planning now will start for next year, but amongst other things that we do, each week, each month. But this is just one of them and we’re pretty proud of it, just coming off that event. So pretty proud of it. Again, we’re blessed. And again, we couldn’t do it without the support of our team. Our team, they take a personal pride and supporting it and trying to raise funds throughout the year. And our customers. We had some customers that donate and don’t even want their name mentioned. And it’s just pretty cool. And then, again, our suppliers, these suppliers stepping up. And really, you’re stepping up and making a difference. So that’s where we’re all doing it different. We’re all making a difference together.
That is phenomenal. And absolutely, I know you and your brothers and your dad are all really proud of that. But especially that, again, it comes back to the culture, that family culture leads you to take care of each other, take care of everyone, from your suppliers to your customers, but also, reach out into the community. So congratulations. That’s a phenomenal milestone.
We couldn’t do it without the support. And again, we talk about family. Obviously, in our company, my mom and dad, Ricky and Diane, they say they’re retired, but they’re not. They’re involved every day and make a huge difference in what we’re doing. Just the culture and just taking the time with our people. It just means a difference when you take the time. And again, we’re concerned from the front door or the back door. I don’t care if it’s somebody taking the trash out or somebody making a big sale or whatever it is, from cradle to grave. It’s just the whole team and the whole family. Again, that’s our culture. And again, we try to extend it. It’s not just our immediate family. Again, they got my mom and dad and my brothers, Ryan and Jeremy, and myself. But we have literally a lot of family in the business, but also, some of our closest friends and non-relative family are in this business.
And that’s special. You get to work with your friends. And again, is it always perfect? No, but you can do great things when you have that family culture. And sometimes, some people don’t get it and some people, but we’re so blessed. We have so very little turnover, just because of how we preach the culture. And we spend so much time on that and really just trying just to care. But if we do that with our teams and in every location and our people and our managers, and again, they extend it to the assistants and the sales team and the people, everybody in the shop and everybody on the delivery vehicles and the distribution centers, you think about one by one. And again, right now, it’s more important time than ever, because newer generations of people just, you got to give them a reason to stay and say, “Look, man, you want to be a part of something special.”
But if you can ever get that across these, I think that gives them a special tie in. And just, again, it’s more than about having a job. You have a career, you have a family. We spend more time at work than we do at home, so why not make it special? Why not make it family? And I’d be lying if I’d say every day was roses and candy and cupcakes.
But at the end of the day, I said, “Look, man, this is good.” And we just have to all remind ourself every day how blessed we are and what we got and the team you building. And you can’t slack up, you got to keep building that team, and you got to continue to pat people in the back and help them in what are struggling, you just got to be there for them. But that’s the culture. It’s no secret. It just takes a lot of time and energy. And again, this day and time, that is the most important resource you can have and the time you take with your people. And again, a lot of places, we’ve seen a lot of consolidations in business and I think the ones that have been successful have kept culture, have kept people, have kept that mindset. And the ones that haven’t have struggled a bit more.
And so, we’re trying to do both with our growth. We’re trying to grow with people and try to grow with culture. And again, and we’re involving the families with that too. For example, we do functions and open houses or other things. Hey, we just don’t invite the customer or the tire place, the dealership, or a lot of functions we do, “hey. And bring the family. Hey, that’s everybody.” But that’s the culture. That’s how you do it. And you work on every single day, you have to be engaged with it and you have to live it. Talk’s cheap. You got to live it and you got to sell it every day. And it’s got to be more than words. You got to put action behind it. And if you do that, it can be special.
There’s some really good lessons in there. And I think that one of the biggest challenges all tire dealers face is staffing. And the fact that I’m sure staffing is a challenge for you, no different. But having that culture, having a really low turnover, and being able to build that family atmosphere sounds like it’s been key to your success.
Absolutely. I think we all today have to spend more time on recruiting, but it sure is nice when you can go in there versus other competitors of competing industries, just say the Amazons of the world or the anybody of the world, what sets you apart is the culture and the time. And again, just not being just a number with someone. And you can be bigger and you can be a larger company, but somehow, you have to figure out how to steal good culture and selling the family side of things, to me, to be successful. Or to set yourself apart, that’s what we do.
I love it. Well Rick, I have one last question for you. Of all the advice you’ve been given through the years, what’s something that’s really stuck with you?
Well, all the advice. Well, I’m given a lot today, so anytime I’m expecting Big Rick to pop in here, he’ll give us little advice about each and every day. But it’s so much, man. Industry leaders, we’ve learned, I had to say too, from over conversations with different people in the business, obviously, my dad and my parents, they instilled hard work. Whenever they were coming up, they had it tough. And even today, we know the value of a dollar and we know, don’t forget where you come to. And truthfully, with the things going in this world today, we’re not worried, but we’re concerned each and every day. You have to stay on it and you can’t slip. So the advice with then would be great. Obviously, daily, really daily advice with our leaders and our team members in our company and suppliers and industry leaders of today is that we listen and we don’t think we know it all.And we come with a humble attitude and want to learn more and want to help each other. So through industry leaders again. So definitely with my brothers, we communicate a lot with our company leaders, with our leadership team. We’re blessed. No individual knows it all. But together, when you get all these team leaders together and the managers and salespeople, and even the people in the field, the people… There’s a good trainer that we really like. He used to work with Goodyear. His name’s Billy Taylor. And something that I learned from him, and he come done some different things for us at time.
But he worked at the plants and he’s one of the ones that really helped save Goodyear and some of these plants and really, really brought them to high efficiency levels. One of them being here in Fayetteville, North Carolina. But he was talking about advice and how he learned. He come in through the back door and where he would learn his information and how the plant was running through the janitor and through not the eyes of people that’s going to tell you what you want to hear, but tell you the truth.
So things like that. And through speakers and different things, I can reel off several other industry leaders in our company that always had a lot of respect for. Obviously, Mr. Black. Even going through school and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I grew up in the tire business and really had been around all facets of it from… Pretty much one thing about it is that pretty much could do anything in the shop, other than major mechanical work. We were taught to be well rounded. Anything that has to do with our business that we could go do, do it. Pretty much anything.
And so, that helped. But industry leaders. Coming on with Mr. Black had a lot of wisdom and learned. I was able to work along with some great managers over time that we brought on that had a lot of… John Mathis in here, on the wholesale side, taught me a ton. We worked along together many, many years. Mr. Bucky Stein, he was another one that was kind of mentoring me through… He owned Target Tire that later selled to American Tire, back in the nineties. Great industry veteran, but there’s so many to mention. So many, many. But just again, and I was also blessed to go into SEMA. I went to the first SEMA in Las Vegas, what, the nineties. This year here, I think I’d be going to SEMA for 20, gracious, 25, 26, 27 years, along those trips. Didn’t really realize it, but the people I was around on the Black’s Tire side and on the International Tire Marketer side, some of those people, I can just think about them right now, just one by one.
Just those conversations you’re in. And so, really pretty blessed, because our dad really involved us at an early age as a teenager in business side of things through meetings. So whenever we rolled out of school, the first thing I do is we come in and we manage locations. We didn’t have to start all over. We knew the business. And so, that advice through that, obviously too, on the personal side too, is leaders in our community, in our church. Again, just mentoring people like that on the personal side, because I think you have to be well-rounded and blessed that… Again, it goes back to principles of our company, principles, the way it was founded, and principles is today. And whatever happens, however you grow, is just stick to that. And I remember those conversations, but at the same time, we had to change and we had to change fast. The last couple years, like you well know, has been so much change in the last two years. I feel like there’s more change in two years than there were the 20 years before, probably times 10.
I remember coming into business when I first got started, they were 15, 20 SKUs. Literally, that’s how much it’s grown since the nineties. Much less the seventies and the eighties. So again, those are the things, just that wisdom that you hear, that you try to be a sponge and try to have two ears and one mouth. Try to listen twice as much as we talk. And try to live by that each and every day.
I love it. Two ears and one mouth. That’s exactly how I got my start in this business. And I think a whole lot of us listening all just you learn by watching and learn by doing. Well, Rick, I appreciate your time. I’m really thankful to get to hear a little bit about background and especially about what makes Black’s and BTS so special.
I appreciate you. I appreciate your time, Neal.
Absolutely. Today, we’ve been talking with Rick Benton II of Black’s Tire Service, BTS Tire and Wheel Distributors, and Carolina Retread. Rick, where can people learn more about BTS?
Well, you can learn, we do have a Black’s Tire website, www.blackstire.com. And we do pretty decent. We need to improve on it, but we do a pretty decent job on social media. Follow us on the Black’s Tire Facebook page. We try to do right much on that, involve our different family functions. And it says it’s @BlacksTire. And then, we do on wholesale distribution, we do an @BTSPartners. And also, our wholesale side of things is our BTS Tire and Wheel Facebook page. So that probably the best way, a lot of that. But we do try to keep news up and running on that. But yeah, other than that, and look, anybody in the industry that we’re a open book, we want to help other people and anything that we can ever share, any knowledge we have, again, I’m in Whiteville, North Carolina and my email is [email protected]. So I’m pretty open book. And again, just trying to make a difference and help each other. And there’s what opportunity is. Hopefully, I’ll make a difference in somebody else’s life and that’s what I’m looking forward today in my own. So we’re there to serve.
Well, thank you. Thanks again for your time. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Appreciate it, Neal. Have a great day.
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