Clever marketing and business acumen aren’t the only things that define Van Kleeck’s Tire in Lake Katrine, New York. It’s how staff and owners Clayton and Karen Van Kleeck think about creating a memorable customer experience that creates loyal customers and a unique, even fun, company culture.
These reasons and more are why the one-stop dealership that covers just about every tire you need has been named the winner of K&M Tire’s 2020 Mr. Tire/Big 3 Tire Best Store. Each year, K&M Tire, in partnership with Hankook Tire and O’Reilly Auto Parts, crowns a Top Shop winner who represents the best the industry has to offer. Van Kleeck’s dedication to improving the customer experience and not being afraid to stand out from the competition led them to take the cake.
At K&M’s 2022 Dealer Conference in February, Tire Review sat down with Clayton, a second-generation tire dealer with a keen eye on the tire business, to dive into what makes his company a Top. Shop and how K&M helped him grow his business (and continues to do so) into what it is today.
TR: Clayton, it’s been two years since Van Kleeck’s Tire was named the winner of K&M Tire’s Mr. Tire/Big 3 Tire Top Shop contest. Top Shops are truly known for their innovation and willingness to change and improve and you obviously embody those qualities. How do you feel since winning the award, has your shop somehow evolved or changed?
Clayton Van Kleeck: Well, I think the environment had a big effect on us. Look at what has happened over the past two years. But, one of the things that helped us the most was that we decided to schedule appointments, which our company had never done. We are now taking appointments for everyone, for everything and clients really like it. It made our business more efficient. This has allowed our employees to better anticipate what is happening, and it works very well for us. It’s a total surprise. I never imagined that would be the case.
This was a recommendation from some of our employees, but it was the pandemic that proved it to be useful. I was a little hesitant. I was not comfortable at first, but it worked really well.
TR: Clayton, at the 2021 SEMA show, there was some pretty exciting news about the business side of your business.
CVK: I had a truck tire retread shop and we needed software to run the shop. My team and I developed software for ourselves and suddenly someone saw it and thought someone else could use it. All of a sudden we now have about 26 shops using our software for manufacturing management in their retread shops. This is to help retreaders. The software is called Treadwear.
We knew what we wanted because we were originally a retread shop customer and then a retread shop owner. We knew what we needed from the software. We knew the information we needed. So my store manager and his brother were both computer savvy, and they just started experimenting, and all of a sudden, through the wonders of technology, we came up with software and we got the support of a good technical company. It’s just a dream come true. It’s something I never would have imagined. Who would think that a tire guy is now a software guy.
We needed to interface with point-of-sale systems, such as ASA from FOG and TireShop from FreedomSoft. In this process, we started to build a good relationship with ASA and FOG, and… now they are going to sell our product all over North America.
TR: Now, for your store, you do your own radio commercials and are known for your merchandising and marketing efforts. Van Kleeck’s Tire slogan is “home of the best free cup of coffee on the planet”. How do you stay smart, like that, and relevant with your marketing?
CVK: It’s a running joke in our family. I always wanted to be on the radio when I was little, and that (the radio) as an artistic outlet for me was something else. I didn’t want to work on Saturdays, so I just made coffee to make it look like I was just going to have coffee. Well, it’s become an infectious disease. And now we have to get coffee for everyone. And then one day I just challenged it and said, “We have the best free cup of coffee on the planet.” And it became the slogan of our radio ads. And you know what? It’s not about tires. I’m not talking about price. It’s just something funny that people remember. And they laugh when they think of Van Kleeck’s Tire. That works.
It became kind of a joke… I have other people who call me and want to challenge me. I say, “Bring it [your cup of coffee] in.”
TR: It’s great. I have to drive there and have a coffee. So you have the radio but describe the company’s marketing mix.
CVK: We made a lot of impressions. We backed out of that. We are very satisfied with the radio advertisements. They affect the demographics we want. Besides, I love doing it. I left the social media side to my daughter and the younger group. They get it, and it really worked to our advantage. I am really happy.
TR: Clayton, after being named the 2020 K&M Best Tire Store winner and seeing others at K&M Dealer Conferences every year, what do you think really makes a better store in our industry?
CVK: There are three things. First, integrity. K&M is a company of high integrity. When we walk on these floors [of the conference], I’m impressed with the integrity of the resellers, of the people who are here. #2 is customer-centric. Like K&M, we are at the service of our customers. What does the customer need? We think of it that way. The third thing is that we are really trying. This is for our customers to be our enthusiastic fans. I want to be able to walk into a restaurant, walk into a restaurant, and not be approached by someone we worked for. I want them to be proud of us. To joke about our coffee or just think we gave them a good experience. The tires aren’t that cool, so we want to experience them by upgrading them.
TR: Last question: can you describe your relationship with K&M Tire and how you work with them?
CVK: When K&M came along and took over from the other supplier we had, we basically told them they would work really hard to have to mess it up. Well, they did a terrific job. They never missed a beat. They delivered what they said they would do. They have great delivery staff. It may seem trivial, but this driver is definitely important to us. Support staff were wonderful to work with. They look like us. They deal with us like we deal with our customers. We like that. It puts us at ease.
Sponsored by K&M tire.