Local philanthropist Leonard “Bucky” Stein built a successful wholesale tire distribution company, which by the time it was sold, operated 11 distribution centers in the Southeast and had about 1,800 customers. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
In Wilmington, Leonard “Bucky” Stein is perhaps best known for his involvement in the arts and culture scene, and for the contributions he and his late wife, Ruth, have made to theater, music and other arts organizations.
But for most of his life, Stein built a reputation as a successful entrepreneur – one who succeeded by being, in part, a master of improvisation.
As an example, when Stein realized early on that his first tire store – opened in 1952 in Jacksonville – was not going to pull in enough sales, he turned to tire recapping.
“There was a need in the South for recappers. Many tires [in the South] were not suitable for recapping, so I would go through cities up North: Baltimore, New York, Queens, Brooklyn, Philadelphia,” he said. “I would close up on Saturday night and drive to Wilson. I’d take the night train, go where I wanted to go. First time, I had no truck to [take the tires] South. I went to a trucker hangout and asked if someone would do it. One guy said yes.”
That first experience started Stein on an important part of his enterprise. He would locate a source of good-quality tires that could be recapped and send a load of about 1,000 back to Jacksonville, where he put on the new casing and sold them. He netted one dollar per tire.
“That would carry me for a month,” he said.
Those Northern cities and his chosen field of business were familiar to Stein. He grew up in Philadelphia and joined his father’s tire business after World War II. But Stein says it was not easy for him to get rolling in that city.
“I wasn’t doing too well in Philadelphia. I didn’t like the way business was conducted at my level. Quality was not important. I wanted to build a base I could grow from, but [business] was not structured that way in Philadelphia,” he said.
Stein knew a customer of his father’s in Fayetteville. The man talked about how well he was doing and made North Carolina sound like an attractive place to do business.
Stein did some research and chose Jacksonville, figuring he could sell tires to Marines. He secured a property on the highway leading to Camp Lejeune’s main gate and hired a manager recommended by a friend. But, the businessman admitted, he didn’t understand the territory.
“After we opened up there I realized I was not going to succeed in my first attempt because I did not understand the circumstances of highway driving. I was on a two-lane road with a kamikaze lane in the middle,” he said, explaining that traffic moved too fast and turning was too difficult.
Taking a different tack, Stein tried the routine of calling car dealers every morning to sell them tires. “Even that didn’t work,” he said.
So Stein adjusted his business plan with that first trip north that launched him into tire recapping. His efforts began to gain traction.
The first three years of Stein’s Jacksonville business were a struggle. Sometimes he had to ask his wife to forego her weekly $100 housekeeping allowance, which she always did without complaining, he said.
Even though retreads represented most of his profit, Stein didn’t give up on new tire sales.
“After a year, I found another property a quarter-mile up the road. I leased it with option to buy and opened my second place,” he said, adding that he kept his first location, because, he said, “I’m stubborn about refusing to be defeated.”
On Fridays, when Stein couldn’t meet payroll, he would take a load of recaps and drive to car dealers.
Meanwhile, Stein was aiming for a competitive edge in the new tire business by negotiating lower prices with sales reps. “The only way they would give me a better price is if I bought more tires,” he said.
Faced with more inventory than he could move, Stein began selling his excess tires to other tire purveyors. That was the start of a wholesale side of the business, which eventually became Stein’s primary focus as he formed Target Tire in the early 1960s.
A burgeoning business required a new store. In planning it Stein decided to depart a bit from his normally frugal habits.
“I did it first class,” he said. “I got an architect from Wilmington to design it. I borrowed the enormous sum of $60,000, which to me was like $6 million.”
During his 60-year business career, Stein followed several guiding principles. One, he said, was the importance of building capital. He was frugal and did not use credit, except for real estate purchases.
Another was his commitment to quality. “When you build a good product, people will come,” he said.
A third guiding principle was the need to stay close to his customers; and a fourth, the value of forging personal relationships based on honesty. The deals that helped start his career were often based on handshakes. And when Stein found a good employee, he nurtured the individual. He claims he never fired an employee.
Stein also was the beneficiary of help from others.
“I’ve been lucky in my career,” he said. “At every juncture, somebody would step up – never to any benefit to themselves.”
When Stein and his son Howard sold Target Tires in 2004 to American Tire Distributors Inc., the company was exclusively a wholesale new tire distributor having earlier exited the recapping business on the advice of a consultant. Target had operations and warehouses in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia, and employed close to 300 employees, most of whom were long term.
“When the company was sold, we gave every employee a bonus if they had been working for us at least three years,” he said. “I figured out a formula. Some of them could retire on that bonus.”
Stein’s impact on his industry is reflected in his election to the N.C. Tire Dealers Association Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Tire Industry Association Hall of Fame in 2015.
As enjoyable as his long career was, however, Stein said he gets even greater enjoyment from giving money away. Despite his record of giving, he said he does not consider himself a philanthropist.
“I am just a guy trying to do the right thing,” he said. “If I see there is a need and I can help, that’s a huge pleasure.”
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