St. Lucie Battery and Tire on a roll
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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