For Ken Sylvester, the road to being a tire mogul started under the hood.
Sylvester, president of United Tire & Service Co., began his career as an auto mechanic. A switch to tires, and a quarter-century later, Sylvester finds himself leading a David vs. Goliath effort to keep local dealers like himself on equal footing against the Pep Boys and Mr. Tires of the world.
"There are a lot of large tire chains coming into the market and buying up as many of the mom-and-pop shops as they can," said Sylvester, who started in the business, with a partner, by owning stores in Ambler and Bustleton. "This is our way of being able to remain independent, but having the same buying power."
He was referring to a decision by 17 area dealers, all partners, to rebrand themselves under the United Tire logo and invite others to join their federation.
Many of the owners have known each other for some time, and coming together under one brand has been a process. Each dealer is an equity partner in the larger entity, while retaining their stores' individual names and character.
To the consumer, there was no way of knowing that Bustleton Tire & Service in Philadelphia was part of the same group that owned Feasterville Tire & Service or Concordville Auto Center. For a time, that did not matter.
Now, with the increased competition from the big chains, being a small-shop owner has become a liability.
"We are trying to change the way we are perceived," Sylvester said of his nine partners and their stores. "We really want people to know we are still locally owned and we are competitively priced. We came to realize that it was very difficult to market 17 different locations with 17 different names."
The shops now will be branded as United Tire & Service. What will not change will be the familiar faces customers see in each shop.
"We are all locally owned; most of the guys live in the township where they have a store," Sylvester said. "We hire within our region."
He estimated each shop employed from six to 12 people.
United Tire is looking to expand further, he said, offering potential partners an array of reasons to join, including the power of bulk buying and shared services, such as bookkeeping.
The group will also help small shop owners with succession planning, he said.
"We are getting a lot of dealers calling us and saying, 'I own a store and my kids aren't interested in running the business,' " Sylvester said. "We can help them hire their replacement."
Ultimately, Sylvester said, his group's goal is simply to help other independent small-shop owners, which is how the United Tire partners see themselves.
"The tire business is a hard business," he said. "We need to band together."