With all the disruption in the auto business over the last couple of years, one thing has remained basically the same: A lot of Americans can’t afford to go out and buy a new set of tires for their ride. RNR Tire Express is there to serve them with rent-to-own payment plans for tires and wheels that has made the Tampa-based retailer a $200-million company.
Despite the proliferation of government income supplements during two years of economic dislocation from the pandemic, and a well-documented spurt in Americans’ savings account during that time, “more than one-third of Americans still have less than $700 in the bank,” said Larry Sutton, CEO of RNR and creator of its business model. “That means if people have an emergency expense like new tires, they have had to go to used-tire stores — and many of those tires aren’t safe.”
RNR’s “lease-purchase model” provides a low threshold for financial information and qualification and then allows customers to put as little as $20 down to get into a set of tires, allowing them to afford better tires than otherwise, Sutton told me. “They don’t have good credit, so they’re not going to be able to get new tires from a new-tire store,” he said. RNR builds a payment plan around each customer’s budget and also provides free services such as rotating and balancing of tires and even roadside assistance.”
Customer loyalty ensues: Repeat customers made up more than 40% of RNR Tire Express franchisees’ sales last year.
The company has grown to about 160 company-owned and franchised stores as sales have grown each year for 12 years, including by 14% in 2021. RNR — for Rent N Roll — originally focused on marketing and selling wheels.
“This model works extremely well in the wheel business,” he explained. “Guys always want to soup up their cars, but often, three or four months later, once the love has worn off, they want something different. In a rent-to-own program, you can get something different and get credit toward the wheels you’re getting.”
But several years ago, Sutton shifted the stores’ emphasis to renting tires over wheels. “When people get wheels, they get tires, but people who just needed tires weren’t coming to us,” he said. “We figured out that tire customers want to go to a tire store, and our message about wheels wasn’t reaching them. We had to change our name to RNR Tire Express [from RNR] and update our stores and introduce a new business model focused on tires.”
Now, the stores have about a 70-30 ratio of tire sales to wheel sales. But the chain still sells about as many wheels as it did before the transition. The tire trade simply has provided all the growth.
RNR Tire Express and its franchisees have been able to staff the sales growth because of the company’s culture, Sutton said. “We sent every employee a check for $500 when covid started and made a pledge to everyone that no matter what happens, employees would be paid until we ran out of money,” he said. The company also has increased its pay by an average of 7% over the last couple of years.
Sutton said his approach to management is turn the typical hierarchy pyramid “upside down: I work for them instead of them working for me,” he said. “We communicate and listen.”
RNR Tire Express and its franchisees also have made a point during the last few years of recruiting female store and corporate managers. “Traditionally, our industry is a male-dominated one,” Sutton said. “We hadn’t put much effort into changing that. So we sat down and decided to recruit more women. I wanted women in every position but in particular in managing stores and regions. We’ve been very successful with that, and some now are in positions of leadership. We recently made three heavyweight promotions in our office, and all three are women. It’s something you have to focus on and control, although we’re not close to where we want to be.”Read More