Acquisitions

Charging forward

St. Lucie Battery and Tire on a roll

Doug Miller, president of St. Lucie Battery & Tire

Doug Miller, president of St. Lucie Battery & Tire, relies on having the space to warehouse one of the most varied tire inventories among independent tire dealers in the United States. Doug has led the company since taking the reins from his father, Joey Miller, a dozen years ago. MICHAEL P. SCHNEIDER

St. Lucie Battery & Tire experiences growth spurt during tough economic times

BY BERNIE WOODALL

St. Lucie Battery & Tire, at 54 years old, is about to experience another growth spurt.

Even without adding any stores, the Fort Pierce-based privately held company with 235 employees is poised to become one of the top 50 largest independent tire dealers in the United States as private equity and consolidation take out some of those with more than the company’s 17 outlets service centers.

Doug Miller, company president, says it’s a reasonable aspiration that in the next decade, St. Lucie Battery & Tire will double its number of outlets, and further diversify into commercial and agricultural centers in the state’s interior. Sixteen of its locations are in cities near the Atlantic coast from Sebastian to West Palm Beach, with a commercial and ag center in Okeechobee.

But, Miller, 51, says the company has no ambitions to become a national or even statewide Goliath.

“I can see fill-ins from West Palm Beach moving back north. We just added another location in Sebastian. I see [expansion] in Sebastian and further expansion into the Indian River County market, as well as possibly expanding our location in Okeechobee and, quite possibly, more rural markets, where our super center model plays well.”

In particular, he mentioned new full-service operations in rural but fast-growing cities, possibly in Clewiston, LaBelle, Sebring, Lake Placid, and others where farming and larger commercial vehicles need service, batteries and tires.

Battery comes before tire in the company name because batteries came first. Now, tires and tire services account for about half the company’s revenue, which Miller declined to disclose. Batteries and auto parts account for another quarter of the revenue, and labor makes up the rest, he said. Oil changes are not central to the business. Miller said most of the oil change customers are already in one of the shops for tire service.

The company’s revenue has doubled in the past decade, and average growth has been 10%, lower for 2020, the year when the economy was hit by COVID-19 shutdowns. No workers were laid off during the crunch caused by the virus. After a dip in 2022-23 2020/2021, revenue is seen rebounding to up 12% to 15% annually, Miller said. His business is somewhat insulated from economic downturns, because as consumer spending power weakens, people hold onto their vehicles longer, meaning more maintenance and replacement tires are needed. The average age of a U.S. car rose to 13.1 years in 2021, and pickup trucks to 11.6 years, for a combined 12.2 years, up from a combined 10.5 years in 2010, according to S&P Global Mobility.

St. Lucie Battery & Tire

St. Lucie Battery & Tire recently opened a new location in Sebastian, its 17th site. If the economy continues to pressure consumers, as experts predict, many will hold onto their vehicles for a longer period of time, meaning more visits to repair shops and tire dealers.

OVERCOMING JUNE FIRE
Doug Miller’s father, company founder Joey Miller, 80, has largely stepped away from day-to-day operations. Joey Miller was in the battery business in 1968, Doug Miller said. He says he knows that because his father was selling batteries already when the oldest Miller offspring, Mickey, was born that year. So the business goes back 54 years, even though it ceremoniously marked the half-century mark last year. By the time the business was incorporated in 1976, it had been selling tires for a few years. It was called St. Lucie Battery, which many people called St. Lucie Batteries, until about 1986 or 1987 when the “& Tire” was added.

Mickey Miller is the company’s executive vice president. Its general manager is Jeffrey Deans.

The business is still headquartered at its original location on western Orange Avenue, which in early June suffered an intense fire that destroyed less than a fifth of the company’s tire inventory.

“Eighteen-inch steel I-beams were twisted and sagging. The metal roof [of the shipping and receiving area] was melted,” Doug Miller said, adding that the intensity of the fire was increased when an area storing small batteries caught fire. The fire was mainly in an office section of the business. No one was injured, but there was more than $2 million in inventory and building damage, he said.

The fire caused a “fairly significant business disruption, but we’re going to figure it out and come through better than we are now,” Miller said.

One of the reasons St. Lucie Battery & Tire will rebound rather quickly is that it has three additional locations with warehousing space, he said.

y Miller, center, founded St. Lucie Battery & Tire

Joey Miller, center, founded St. Lucie Battery & Tire and brought his sons into the business when they were still young. Doug Miller, left, is now the company president, and Mickey Miller, right, is the executive vice president. This photo was taken about 2008.

GROWTH FROM DAY ONE
The first store was its sole one until 1982 when the company opened a Port St. Lucie store on Hancock Drive, followed by a downtown Fort Pierce location around 1985.

An April 1987 newspaper display ad announcing the grand opening of another Port St. Lucie store shows the company logo looking much the same as it does today, with a quote in italic-type separate from the logo: “You need a good price, but you also need honest, reliable service…” Today, the logo on the company’s website slbatterytire.com includes a shortened version of that same message: “Home of Honest, Reliable Service.”

Mickey and Doug were essentially raised alongside batteries and tires at their dad’s first shop at 5500 Orange Ave.

“My brother and I were fitted for brooms at a very young age,” he said.

“I think it was 1975 or 1976 when my dad built his first real shop. He started in the family’s chicken barn.”

Joey Miller and his family lived in a house “right next to the shop, behind his little grocery store,” said Doug Miller, a 1988 graduate of John Carroll High School.

By 2000, Doug Miller had bought the downtown Fort Pierce store from his father, then opened new outlets in Vero Beach and Melbourne. The Melbourne one was a casualty of the 2008-2010 recession. The company’s sales slowed then, but it was strong enough to take advantage of below-market leases to expand its footprint.

“After the recession was over, 2011-12, I opened three stores in one year. That was Sebastian, the Bayshore Boulevard [Port St. Lucie] store and Jensen Beach and we just kind of kept on rolling,” Miller said.

It was during this time that Doug Miller pretty much took the reins from his father as leader of the company, and became its majority owner. The bigger company and locations with storage capacities made it versatile, he said. Tire customers don’t want to wait for a shipment to come in.

They want same-day service, and the tires are usually in stock or can be borrowed from another company store.

There is a fleet of about 45 St. Lucie Battery & Tire trucks, including 10 dedicated to tire, battery and auto parts delivery to other stores or direct to the bigger customers at farm or work sites. Since its early days, 24-hour roadside service has been a feature, and there are about 20 service trucks, Miller said.

Goodwill among customers is important, and Miller says the company has thrived on that since its founding. Supplier relations are also key, which proved vastly profitable at the onset of the ongoing global supply chain problems.

After getting a tip from a rep of tire distributor Penn Tires who said foreign shipments were about to be scarce, Miller significantly hiked his purchases, leaning on the company’s warehousing ability.

When the supply chain issues hit, independent tire stores that rely on just-in-time inventory often left customers waiting, Miller said.

“We continue to be all-in because the supply chain is not fixed and it’s not going to be fixed anytime soon,” Miller said. “I don’t see normalization until, maybe, the end of 2023.”

St. Lucie Battery & Tire’s signature location

St. Lucie Battery & Tire’s signature location may be its third store, in downtown Fort Pierce, which opened in the mid-1980s. In 1998, the plain concrete building was fitted with a new roof of Spanish-style architecture matching neighboring historic buildings and serves as a gateway to the core downtown shopping district.

BUILDING AFFORDABLE HOUSING
The ability to keep high inventory levels differentiates St. Lucie Battery & Tire from other independents. In the 2021 rankings of the largest U.S. independent tire companies’ store count, it was 67th, according to the publication Modern Tire Dealer. Only the biggest one, Discount Tire, with 1,100 stores, offered more tire brands than St. Lucie Battery & Tire, which had 16 stores last year.

The company is often celebrated for its civic activities, which in recent years has included providing landscaping, sod and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity homes. Miller says he will continue to support Habitat, but much of the company’s efforts along those lines will shift toward building affordable housing, primarily for St. Lucie Battery & Tire workers.

The first round of five living spaces, houses that will be lease or lease-to-own with financing help from the company, and a rental duplex will go up in the next year, Miller said. After that, he hopes to build two or three houses per year. This is being done in the face of a housing cost crisis that makes it difficult for the average worker to make ends meet. It will also prove to be a good recruitment vehicle at a time when the highest-level auto and tire technicians are tough to get.

See the original article in the print publication


Treasure Coast Business is a news service and magazine published in print, via e-newsletter and online at tcbusiness.com by Indian River Media Group. For more information or to report news email [email protected]

Jul. 1, 2022|

Spreading its wings

Spreading its wings

Southern Eagle Distributing’s Fort Pierce warehouse

Southern Eagle Distributing’s Fort Pierce warehouse prominently displays the Anheuser-Busch logo, identifying it as the Budweiser-Busch beer headquarters. SOUTHERN EAGLE DISTRIBUTING PHOTOS

Southern Eagle’s purchase of Palm Beach beer distributor greatly increases its market share

BY ANTHONY WESTBURY

Philip Busch

Philip Busch, a son of company founder Peter Busch, has taken over the helm at the family business. ANTHONY WESTBURY

Southern Eagle Distributing was founded in Fort Pierce in 1984, when Peter Busch signed a franchise agreement with brewing giant Anheuser-Busch to cover the Treasure Coast territory.

Starting with only 28 employees, Southern Eagle has grown exponentially since then. It has increased its market share of package beers by more than 73% and handles more than 50% of the draft beer market on the Treasure Coast, which includes Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.

A separate distributor serves Okeechobee County.

The company recently added 120 employees after acquiring Palm Beach County beer distributor Brown Distributing in December, bringing the number of its employees to more than 300. The vast majority of them operate out of the firm’s Glades Cut Off Road location in Fort Pierce.

The company, now run by Peter’s son, Philip, 39, still strongly emphasizes its family atmosphere and values. It does not operate like a big-city distributor, Philip and other top managers insist, and employees seem to appreciate this approach. Many have 10- or 15-year careers with the company.

“We should all try to do what is best for our community in which we live,” Philip wrote on the company website.

“It’s important to foster growth and give back to the very people who help our business survive.”

Adolphus Busch III

Adolphus Busch III created America’s first national beer, Budweiser.

ALL IN THE FAMILY
For Philip Busch, who comes from a long family line of beer luminaries, it’s all about family. And what a family.

Philip’s great-great-grandfather, Adolphus Busch III, took a solid regional brewing operation in St. Louis and blasted it into the stratosphere. In the course of his career, Adolphus built 18 breweries in cities across the country and created America’s first national beer, Budweiser.

It’s interesting to hear from Philip that Adolphus never liked the taste of beer; he preferred wine. He discovered a small brewery in Czechoslovakia that produced a light pilsner beer called Budweiser.

Adolphus pioneered pasteurizing the product so it could be shipped long distances and he started using refrigeration for the first time.

Philip’s great-grandfather, “Gussie” Busch, kept up the momentum, but diversified the company’s direction and public exposure with several marketing innovations. He purchased the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, built Busch Gardens and came up with using Clydesdale horses as a marketing tour de force.

Philip has been president of Southern Eagle for 10 years. And while Peter is still available for business advice, Philip says it is his show now. He has always wanted to work in the beer business, which he describes as multifaceted, interesting and exciting.

Philip clearly recalled his father’s 40th birthday celebration. Peter borrowed a friend’s mega yacht and threw himself a lavish party for 500 guests. During the party, Philip took the microphone to announce to the world that he really wanted to be part of this exciting business and how he couldn’t wait to take over. He was 12 at the time.

He is one of six siblings, but the only one to take a consistent interest in the company.

“It’s the perfect industry to stay engaged,” he said, “You’re always learning new things. It keeps you on your toes.”

Southern Eagle employees and owners

Southern Eagle employees and owners gather to celebrate 30 years of business on the Treasure Coast.

Paul Trabulsy, chief financial officer for Southern Eagle Distributing

Paul Trabulsy, chief financial officer for Southern Eagle Distributing, helped with the new acquisition.

BOLD BUSINESS MOVE
Philip and his chief financial officer, Paul Trabulsy, 61, have spent a lot of time recently on their toes. Since August, Southern Eagle had been negotiating for a bold and perhaps daunting business opportunity that concluded with the purchase of Brown Distributing.

Beer distributors form one-third of the chain of beer delivery [from brewers to distributors to retailers, including bars, restaurants and grocery stores]. Anheuser-Busch dictates strict franchise territories for individual distributors as a way to encourage competition and to keep such lucrative companies in as many hands as possible.

Coincidentally, on the very same day in 1984 that Peter Busch took over the Treasure Coast franchise, Brown Distributing signed to take on distribution in Palm Beach County. Last year the ownership of Brown decided it was time to sell the business.

Brown had aggressively been buying up the distribution rights to dozens of small craft breweries since the early 2000s. Craft beer reached its peak in popularity between 2008 and 2009. Many of these small breweries were outside the traditional Palm Beach County territory. When it came time to consider selling the company, Brown had to divest itself of the out-of-town and out-of-state craft brewers — all 48 of them.

Sale prices of distributorships are a closely held secret in the industry, Philip and Trabulsy both said. But Philip did indicate he estimates that Brown received “north of $300 million” for the rights of the small breweries.

Southern Eagle employees and family members

Southern Eagle employees and family members participating in a community service project benefiting the Treasure Coast Food Bank.

PREMIUM PRICE
Philip is wary of disclosing the price Southern Eagle paid for Brown but did admit the company paid a premium for the Palm Beach company. The assets of Brown south of Palm Beach County were purchased separately by the country’s largest beer distributor, Reyes and Company, for “several hundred million dollars,” according to Trabulsy.

Trabulsy and Philip said they would have loved to have taken over the entire Brown operation but it would have left them really financially stretched.

With the purchase of Brown, another 120 people were added to the company’s payroll, Philip said. Most are delivery drivers who make the daily commute from their Palm Beach County homes to the Fort Pierce warehouse. Southern Eagle has retained a small salesforce with an office in West Palm Beach to service accounts there.

Philip made a point of talking individually with every driver who came with the acquisition. That was a big contrast with the more corporate approach taken by Brown management. Several 10-year employees admitted they’d only seen their previous bosses once or twice during their careers.

Toys donated by Southern Eagle employees

Toys donated by Southern Eagle employees benefit the Boys & Girls Club and St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Department.

OPEN DOOR FOR ALL
By contrast, Philip maintains an open door policy toward all his employees. That fosters a sense of camaraderie and a family atmosphere, he believes. Southern Eagle holds several big company parties, picnics and even a rodeo every year for
its employees.

Retaining Brown drivers after the merger was crucial, Philip said. He pays them $500 a month for daily travel time and has boosted the wages of his existing and very loyal group of Fort Pierce drivers. Average salaries range from $50,000 to $75,000 a year, not including frequent performance and retention bonuses.

Philip pointed out the national shortage of CDL drivers and how other distributors such as food companies routinely pay $100,000 a year or more for a 6-day week. He said Southern Eagle is working toward a four-day, 10-hour day week for most drivers, which is a popular move.

“I have a real strong passion for my people,” Philip said. “They count on me. Life’s too short to work for an *******. You can achieve results without being an overbearing, numbers-driven person, that’s not real.”

Philip, as does his father, believes in supporting local nonprofits and community causes. While Peter is geared more toward environmental causes, Philip concentrates on helping the less fortunate in society. He has particular fondness for the mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs.

“In the 12 years I’ve known Philip, he’s been a loyal supporter of Boys & Girls Clubs not just financially — which we really appreciate — but he also has great ideas, like our Learn & Earn food truck,” said Will Armstead, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Lucie County. “His family foundation was the first to invest in the food truck for our Teen Workforce Readiness program.”

Gathering of many retired and current Southern Eagle Distributing employees

Gathering of many retired and current Southern Eagle Distributing employees at Little Jim’s Bait & Tackle to celebrate all of the great times together.

RIGHT TIME TO GO
Philip said he feels fortunate his father decided to step away from the business in 2012 and hand the reins over to him. He said the Anheuser-Busch family has seen too many difficult transitions between different generations.

“My father legitimately walked away,” Philip said. “He wanted me to figure it out on my own. We do financial reviews together and he is available for annual budgeting. He’s up to date with the big picture about the company, but I handle all the day-to-day operations. I feel we are partners.

“I did ask for his advice over the Brown transaction because it was such a big undertaking for us,” Philip continued. “We made a lot of obligations to our bank, so projections of future business are even more important. Now it’s a new business, with new retailers. Everything is different.”

The Busch family recently welcomed a fifth child into the world. Philip has two girls, 14 and 12; and three boys, 7, 2, and 8 weeks. He said he’s particularly close to the girls.

“I encourage them to have a passion for working,” he said. “They need to apply themselves. In the back of my mind I see I could use an attorney and an IT person in the future, so I’d welcome them into the company in some capacity. But I’d require them to first work for another distributor and learn the ropes somewhere else.”

The Busch family business seems poised to stretch for another generation soon. That’s fitting for a company whose motto is “Making friends is our business.”

See the original article in the print publication


Southern Eagle Distributing

Locations: Warehouse at 5300 Glades Cut Off Road, Fort Pierce; satellite office in West Palm Beach
Employees: More than 300
Fleet: More than 100 delivery vehicles
Territory: Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Hendry and Palm Beach counties
Brands Carried: Budweiser, Bud Light, Busch, Natural Light, Corona, Modelo
Craft Beers: Sailfish, Islamorada, American Icon,Hop Life, Motorworks, BluePoint, SweetWater
Spirits Carried: Walker’s Cay Bourbon,Hope Town Vodka, Costa Tequila, Cantera Negra Tequila and Cape Fear
Nonalcoholic Beverages Carried: Celsius, Essentia, Nestle, Arizona, Sparkling Ice, Nesquik and Good 2 Grow


Treasure Coast Business is a news service and magazine published in print, via e-newsletter and online at tcbusiness.com by Indian River Media Group. For more information or to report news email [email protected]

Apr. 13, 2022|

Indian River Medical Center and Martin Health System join the Cleveland Clinic Health System

Cleveland Clinic, Indian River Medical Center and Martin Health System officials announced January 2nd that Indian River Medical Center (IRMC) and Martin Health System are now part of the Cleveland Clinic health system, effective January 1, 2019 following the recent regulatory reviews and approvals.

Moving forward, IRMC and Martin Health will continue all current operations, […]

Jan. 3, 2019|

Frosch acquires Treasure Coast travel agencies

SEBASTIAN and VERO BEACH – Travel agencies Gadabout Travel (in Sebastian and Melbourne) and Treasure Coast Travel Agency (in Vero Beach) have been acquired by Frosch.

Gadabout Travel manager Theresa McKeone, told TravelWeekly.com that its “offices will still be locally operated with the same great travel experts, but now with a wealth of buying power, […]

Sep. 12, 2016|

Company acquires 530-unit self storage facility

PORT ST. LUCIE – Strategic Storage Trust II, Inc. (SST II) – which is sponsored by SmartStop Asset Management, LLC – recently purchased a self storage facility located in Port St. Lucie. The four-building facility totals approximately 530 units and approximately 53,100 rentable square feet.

“We targeted this self storage facility due to its high […]

May. 9, 2016|