First Tire & Automotive Takes A Team Approach To Corporate Success
When you find something you enjoy and can do it for a living, you never work a day in your life – or at least that’s how it feels.
Craig Popp has been working in this industry for more than 40 years and his dedication to his career has benefitted himself and the residents of Fort Bend County, Texas, with excellent automotive service.
Popp, owner of four locations of First Tire & Automotive in Sugar Land and Katy, TX, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his first shop.
“I started in the automotive industry when I was 16 and still in high school,” says Popp. “I continued working at a local parts store and put myself through college at Texas A&M University. It was something I gravitated to and enjoyed through college while I got my business degree. The parts store was starting its commercial department, delivering at all the local shops. I was one of the first four outside salespeople for a couple years. Then I went into store operations, and soon started asking ‘How do I move up?’”
That question led Popp to several successful years as a store manager until he learned that his store was being sold to a competitor.
”That wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he says, “and my dream had always been to own my own business, so in 1995 I began working in a local repair shop on Williams Trace in First Colony in Sugar Land. A little less than a year and a half later, in 1997, I bought it from the previous owner. I was 30 at the time.”
Times were good, recalls Popp, and the shop was successful. “I was very fortunate to be able to buy the shop and do very well, and, in 1999, we opened our second location. Then, in 2003, we were able to open our third shop on Eldridge.”
Popp’s plans for growth were intentional and not reckless. “I tried to open another location one time but every time I turned a corner, there was a brick wall. It was like someone was telling me that this isn’t meant to be this time. The reality is, I wasn’t necessarily looking to expand in 2017, but the opportunity presented itself and I thought it made sense.”
Popp says his methods of expansion varied by location. “The first one, of course, was an established business that I was managing and eventually able to take over. The second one I started from scratch. I had a partner for a little over a year, before becoming a sole proprietor.
“The third and fourth locations both were empty buildings that I started up from scratch. The Sugar Land locations are all, realistically, within an eight-mile radius – the fourth, in Katy, is about 15 miles away from the others.”
Popp says First Tire & Automotive strives to be “one-stop” shops for its customers. “We basically do everything except for body work,” he says. “We do tires and TBA sales, as well as full-service mechanical repairs. We try to stay away from heavy line service, as much as we can. We tend to focus on domestic nameplates but that doesn’t prevent us from working on an occasional European vehicle. We’ll do an engine swap or transmission replacement, but we don’t rebuild them.”
Popp says he has relationships with local rebuilders if a customer insists on having his existing engine rebuilt. In the interest of productivity, he finds it’s easier to refer certain jobs elsewhere.
“We strive to provide same-day service for most repairs. We found that most of our customers need their cars back quickly, so by providing efficient, quality and thorough service we are able to take care of our customers. This enables us to create a profitable business.”
And to produce this profit, Popp makes sure the right people are in the right places.
“First, my wife Nancy is a key part of the team. She takes care of the payroll, helps with the marketing and coordinates company events. I may run the business, but I bounce ideas off of her before making the final decision,” Popp says.
“I can’t do any of this by myself. That’s why I have 36 employees and Nancy to help me navigate through this and enjoy this success,” Popp explains. “I’m a very normal person, but if I have one thing I’ve been good at over the years, I’ve been very fortunate at being able to hire great people. I know my weaknesses and I try to fill those gaps with people who have those strengths. All my managers, service advisors and technicians are really superstars – my job is to bring out the best in them.”
Not one to seek personal praise, Popp credits his team with much of his success. “Everybody seems to say, Me, me, me’” he says. I know it’s not me. I think it’s all of us together as a team, and that makes the company successful.”
Popp says he’s celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary and three of his team members have been with him the whole time. “Besides the fact that I have three employees who have been with me the whole 25 years, I have several others who have been with me for 10, 15 and 20 years. Some people say it can be a curse having employees with you for so long, but if you have the right people, it’s a blessing.”
Recruiting is always a challenge, he says. “I mean, can you find a person? Absolutely. Finding the right person is the challenge. Word of mouth is key. I’ve been very blessed to be able to make an environment where people want to come to work and receive great benefits.”
Each of his shops has a unique but familiar look, Popp says. They’re all brick stores in upscale master-planned communities. The First Colony store is a nine-bay shop, the Greatwood location is a 10-bay shop, the Eldridge store is an eight-bay shop, and the Cinco Ranch location is an eight-bay shop. “We’re professional from the way we dress, to the way we act, to how we treat the customers,” Popp says.
The signage and shop appearance are one thing, Popp explains, but what’s most important is customer rapport. “When you come in, I think the nice thing about part of our identity is the friendly greeting – my people are my identity. They share my core beliefs of taking care of the customers and being honest. Our company motto is putting our employees and customers first, and always providing friendly, reliable and trustworthy service.”
Popp says that even with all the locations and all the people, he still wants First Tire & Automotive to have a family atmosphere. “Just Saturday, we had a crawfish boil for everybody and their families and all the kids. Everybody had a great time.”
For the 36 families under his umbrella, Popp knows he must do more than just provide comforts.
“It’s not just the 36 employees,” he says. “I am responsible for 36 families, and my job is to make sure that they don’t just survive, but that they thrive. If I don’t create that opportunity for them, I’ve failed.”
Setting expectations and goals for his team is Step One on the road to thriving – and that first expectation is to deal with every customer honestly and openly, one at a time.
First Tire & Automotive relies on digital technology in the shop to keep the workflow organized, but Popp says good old-fashioned conversation is still important.
“If you don’t tell the customer the whole story of their car, you’re doing them a disservice. We do the inspections and, of course, we can’t predict everything that might go wrong. But, we need to give them the whole picture and help guide them so that they can make the best decision for their needs.”
Popp says he instructs his service advisors and managers not to be a salesperson. “Just have the conversation with the customer to help them make the right choice. Sometimes, the right choice might be to get a different car.”
Training continues into the repair bays and Popp credits his relationship with the Pronto Network for helping him to keep his techs educated.
“Pronto sponsors so many training classes,” he says. “And, there’s so many other resources out there as well, from magazines like yours to online information databases, to help them diagnose cars. We make all that information available to our guys.”
Popp provides tablets for techs’ digital inspections, and computers are in multiple locations in each shop, as well. “It’s incredible how much information is out there, and while the younger technicians use certain technology more than the older generations do, they’re all using it because it’s a necessity nowadays.”
Popp says it’s interesting to watch the dynamic between the generations, especially with diagnosis. “The younger guys may look for information on YouTube, while the older guys are gravitating toward Identifix, ALLDATA, or just pure knowledge of having seen it so many times. When it comes to the repair, I have Master-Certified Technicians in all the stores, so when a younger guy is stuck, they’ll help each other. We found out that when they work together, everybody wins.
“We’ve stayed up with all the technology, from scanners to alignment machines to the road force balancing tire machines. All our tools and equipment are able to keep up with what’s happening out there so that we’re able to fix the cars,” says Popp.
“I hire the superstars, so we minimize comebacks. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll have a few comebacks, but we try to minimize that with quality products, quality parts and quality service. Cheaper is not better than quality. If we use the quality parts like those from our local Pronto supplier, XL Parts, we can offer a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty on everything and not worry about it.”
Popp adds he has been with XL Parts and the Pronto Network for a very long time and appreciates the relationship’s benefits. “I’m able to have that confidence level, as well as the training and the benefits of extended warranty, so if something happens and the customer’s not in the area, they call Pronto, knowing that they’re going to be taken care of.”
Popp knows that he hasn’t built such a loyal customer base without such supplier relationships, but his community involvement over the past quarter-century has also been crucial.
“Sugar Land is a good-sized community, and over the years I was a little league coach and soccer coach and I was involved in different aspects in my church. You’ll see plaques of swim teams and baseball teams on my walls – I sponsor youth because they’re our future. We also sponsor different local organizations and their events.
“My wife has done great things with all of our marketing resources, from the website to the in-store promotions – but I think one of our biggest strengths is our community involvement,” Popp says.
Popp says that while he keeps an ear out for advice from experts, he knows that what matters most happens within each shop’s four walls. “I don’t worry about what the shop down the road is doing or is not doing,” Popp explains. I’ve got to make sure that I’m doing everything in my own organization to be successful.”
After 25 years, Popp says he’s just as excited to face the next 25. With new technology, including hybrid and electric vehicles, he believes he has nothing to worry about.
“We’ve already been through so many different changes, from carburetion to fuel injection, to electronic ignitions and ABS brakes. You know what? There’s training out there for the next thing and we’ll be fine. I’m not worried about if I’m going to be out of date or become obsolete because of technology passing us by.
“The one thing I do know is that no matter how many cars the dealerships sell, they can’t take care of all of them, and eventually they’re going to make it to us. We are going to adapt. Whether it’s all-electric 25 years from now or not, it’ll all be fine because we’ll have access to the training and tools we’ll need to take care of those cars,” he says.
“I’m not worried about change,” Popp adds. “If you’re scared of it, you might as well get out of the business now because it’s just going to continue.”
Popp says he didn’t get to where he is today by running from a challenge, nor by failing at customer service. “We got here by doing a great job, being there and creating an environment that the customers trust. There’s nothing more trusting than when a customer comes in and throws the keys on the counter and says, ‘Fix it. Don’t call me until it’s done.’”
This trust has been built for generations, in some cases, Popp says. “I saw guys who told me, ‘This is my son who’s starting to drive now.’ Now, HE’S the father, and his daughter is driving now.
“It’s not only amazing, but also humbling, to have created an atmosphere of such trust for three generations of customers to put their faith in us over the past 25 years,” Popp says.