By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
MERCER, Pa. -- Far from the bustling commercial strips where big box stores flourish, Flynn's Tire Company's flagship store and headquarters draws a steady stream of customers.
The old-time tire store on a country road midway between Mercer and Hermitage stays busy, its owners say, because it follows a principle that has driven the 40-year-old family business from the start: putting people first.
"A lot of businesses think location, location, location. We've found that isn't completely true," said Flynn's president and co-owner Joe Flynn III.
"It's not so much the location of the business, it's whoever is in that store, the people. If you have the right people, the customers will find you."
Flynn, 31, and his sister Tania Warminski, 34, assumed operations of the family business with their uncle, D.P. Flynn, after their father and company co-founder Joe Flynn Jr. died in 2002.
Flynn's Tire now operates 16 retail stores in Ohio and Pennsylvania, distributes tires to other retailers from its three wholesale warehouses and runs a tire retread division for the motor freight carrier industry.
Flynn would not divulge the company's annual profit figures or its work force totals, but he said the increased number of stores over the past seven years reflects its strong sales.
Growing very gradually at first, the company more than doubled its store number in 1997 when it bought the 10-store, Pittsburgh-based E.W. Tire Co., and it added stores in Youngstown and Austintown with the acquisition of the Safety Tire Co. in 2001.
The brother-sister team has an ambitious growth plan for the company, centered on an expanded employee training program and the philosophy that people -- more than the tires and other products they sell -- are their most valuable asset.
Flynn's Tire recruits for its employee training program at area high schools and colleges, Warminski said. They look for people who have a positive attitude about customer service, a desire to learn and an interest in finding a long-term career with the company.
"We look for people who understand how important it is to treat customers like gold," she said. "That's something you can't teach. If they have that kind of attitude, we can teach them everything else."
Prospective recruits start out by serving a two-day trial in a Flynn's store or auto repair shop. Managers watch for a customer-friendly attitude, and those who meet the grade are invited to begin the company's six-month tire line training.
Flynn's specializes in tires, Warminski said, so employees are trained to be tire experts. From there, employees who qualify and want to continue can choose between the store manager track and the master technician track.
The owners' plan, she said, is to add new stores when they have qualified employees to staff the stores as managers and service technicians.
"As our people develop, that's how we'll grow," Flynn agreed. "The plan is, when we have trainees ready, we'll pair them up and buy a shop for them."
Future stores will be company-owned, he said, and the company will likely limit its new locations to Ohio and Pennsylvania for the next two years, at least.
Joe Flynn Jr. was just 22 and fresh out of the Air Force in 1964 when he started Flynn's Tire Co. in partnership with his father, John Joseph Flynn Jr. , and his brother D.P. Flynn.
Smiling, the founder's son talked about how Flynn Jr. wrapped old tires in paper and stacked them on the shelves of his small shop in downtown Sharon. The young entrepreneur couldn't afford to keep new tires in stock, but the wrapped tires gave the appearance of a full inventory.
When a customer ordered tires, Flynn Jr. ordered them from a wholesaler, jacked up the car by hand and installed them himself on the street outside because he had no garage.
Two years after opening, the business moved to the building on West Market Street in Mercer, now home to the company's headquarters and training center. Flynn Jr. would often repaint the building's exterior just to attract customers' attention, even adding barbershop-style stripes to the utility poles in front.
"He did it just to get people to stop by," Warminski said. "He was good."
Growing up in the business, Flynn III and Warminski remember their home telephone ringing at all hours of the night with calls from truckers needing emergency tire service. Flynn's still offers the 24-hour emergency tire service for trucks.
Flynn III said he never considered any career other than working in the family's company; Warminski thought about becoming a veterinarian as a child but fell in love with the tire business by the time she reached her teens.
"I love the hands on. I love being in the shop," she said with a grin. "I'm a girl that hates shopping. If I go to the mall, I'm always checking out people's tires."
She has a 9-year-old daughter, Aubri, who is just as impressed with the business. The child learned how to mount weights on a semi-trailer tire at the tender age of 5, Warminski said proudly, and enjoys helping out in the office after school.
D.P. Flynn's son Jim and daughter Annie, both in their teens, also work in the family business.
One dilemma Flynn's faces in the tire business is inconsistency in advertised tire pricing. Flynn's uses an all-inclusive pricing, which includes everything from tire stems to balancing to disposal of the old tire. Many of its competitors advertise one price for tires, then tack on a long list of additional charges.
For Flynn III, the pricing issue boils down to honesty. He believes it's more honest to list a total price from the start, even though it may make Flynn's prices seem higher at first glance.
"My dad used to say, there's so much honest business out there, why would you have to be dishonest," Warminski added. "To us, honesty is key."