As the third-generation owner of Acheson Tire, John Acheson has seen a great deal of change in his business. Not only has technology enhanced the products he sells, but the customer base has evolved dramatically, too. There is one thing John credits for the success of this business, and that hasn’t changed: a focus on customer service.
“My father drilled this into my head,” John explained. “If customers are taken care of, and you treat them fairly, and you’re honest, you can develop lifetime relationships. How much is that worth to a business? Everyone can answer that for themselves, but in my world it’s priceless.”
Once upon a time—1916—J. W. Acheson (John’s grandfather) started a business catering to servicing and selling tires for trucks and the small number of automobiles that existed in the Grand Rapids area. J.W. was a master plumber and the first owner of the Chevrolet Motor dealership that he later sold to the Swanson family (later Swanson Chevrolet just a block from the paper mill on Pokegama Avenue). John’s grandparents had moved here from Pennsylvania “for my grandmother’s health.” Apparently the weather agreed with her, and the family planted their roots in Itasca County.
In the early days of the business, most of the tires were sold to loggers, farmers and truckers. And as recently as 1977, when John came to work for his father, Bob, on a full-time basis, 40% of the company’s business was still loggers, farmers and truckers.
“There was rarely a time when there wasn’t at least one—and mostly more—trucks in our parking lot waiting to have tires repaired or changed,” said John. “The tires on those trucks were large, and I recall beating and pounding on tires with a sledge hammer until I couldn’t breathe, and then the next guy would jump up and take a turn. My dad would do this, too; it was very physically demanding work to loosen the tires from their rims, and everyone took a turn. Now, of course, we have a lot of automation, but this is still a job that requires a lot of physical exertion and toughness.”
The changes to the local farming and logging business and the changes in the patterns of auto ownership have also changed the customer mix at Acheson Tire. As John was growing up, seven siblings shared one automobile. Today, virtually everyone with a driver’s license now operates his or her own vehicle. That change has meant selling and repairing many more automobile tires.
“Timing is everything in business,” John noted, “and the big uptick in retail tire sales meshed nicely for us with the decline locally in industrial tire sales.”
John has also observed a vast improvement in the technology of tire construction. “We went from bias-ply tires to seasonal tires (snow tires and summer tires),” John explained. “Radial tires became mainstream in the 1980s, and there were warranty issues in the early days. The quality is fantastic now given all the advancement in tire technology, especially with snow tires. In fact, in Canada today it is mandatory to use snow tires during the winter months, or essentially half the year.”
“A few years ago I read an article about the top 100 inventions of all time, and rubber tires were included,” John continued. “If you think about how rubber tires have enabled us to be as mobile as we are, it’s amazing. And during the time tires have been around, they’ve figured ways to make them more durable and versatile at the same time.”
Acheson Tire primary tire lines are Bridgestone, Firestone, Toyo and Hankook, but they have a network of suppliers who can provide them literally any tire on the market within a day or two. That level of service has always been a key differentiator for Acheson Tire. It’s one of the things John’s father instilled in him. “Our customer has to be more important than you are yourself, because if you don’t have customers to serve, as a business you don’t have anything.”
John credits a long relationship with Grand Rapids State Bank for his business’ ability to grow. “I’m not exactly sure, but I believe we’ve been banking there since the 1930s,” said John. “We’ve been treated well, and have received good service. Just as we expect to deliver great service to our customers, we’ve experienced that same treatment from Grand Rapids State Bank.”
Acheson Tire employs 10 people, including John and his son-in-law, Nick. For his part, John reached a milestone birthday earlier this year. He appreciates having Nick there to learn the business, but he’s not quite ready to step away from the daily routine.
“This is the work I’ve done all my life,” John said. “As long as I can still work through the aches and pains, I know that I enjoy the interaction with customers and helping them out.”