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January 20, 2021

Maine's VIP Tires & Service is up to 63 stores in four states, and counting

Courtesy / VIP Tires & Service Auburn-based VIP Tires & Service has opened four stores in the last six months, and relocated the one in Windham, seen here, renovating a former Tim Horton's and adding 9,000 square feet for the service bays.

The new Windham VIP Tires & Service store was most recently a Tim Horton's doughnut shop; another VIP location that will open in Auburn this year was a pool hall. Another planned for Sanford used to be a restaurant.

A new store that opened in Rutland, Vt., last fall was half tire store, half bike shop.

"Every store has a story," said Tim Winkeler, CEO of the Maine-based tire and service company. "They all have such interesting stories." Recently, those stories have been stacking up.

The company, based in Auburn, has been on a tear the past five years, with 40% growth. The company employs more than 500 at 63 stores in four states, 35 of them in Maine.

In 2020, new stores opened in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. There were two relocations that involved major expansions in Maine — the Windham store and one in Brunswick. More is planned for 2021, including store expansions and relocations in Auburn and Sanford.

The company shook up its management structure in 2019, when Winkeler was named CEO and president. John Quirk, chairman and CEO at the time, became executive chairman; and Allan Kirkland, chief financial officer, became CFO of Quirk Automotive, VIP's holding company. The move allowed Quirk and Kirkland to focus on real estate management, new store development and acquisitions.

Winkeler told Mainebiz Tuesday that, behind Quirk, VIP prefers renovating former tire or other auto-related stores, but will take a former Tim Horton's, or something else, if the location is right..

"Our sweet spot is going into these auto repair shops and making them brand new," Winkeler said. 

One example of that is the Worcester, Mass., shop that opened in a former Midas service center in mid-December. The new eight-bay, eight-employee location has been the busiest store of the new ones that have opened in the past six months. Others were in Brookline, Mass., Rutland, Vt., and, last Friday, in Keene, N.H.

A small brick building with a sign that says VIP Tires & Service and a racing care parked out front
Courtesy / VIP Tires & Service
The new VIP Tires & Service in Windham included renovating a former Tim Horton's as the reception and office area and adding a 10-bay service area.

'A massive, massive project'

The Windham store opened Oct. 1. Unlike Worcester and other stores that opened in former auto service shops, it involved renovating the former Tim Horton's and adding a 9,000-square-foot 10-bay addition.

"It was a massive, massive project," Winkeler said.

The relocation was necessary because partner O'Reilly Auto Parts, which is paired with 50 VIP stores, was looking to expand. O'Reilly took over the building at 826 Roosevelt Trail, and VIP bought the adjacent Tim Horton's, at 2 Amato Drive, which had been empty for several years.

"We started small [in Windham], but had just grown tremendously," Winkeler said. 

The Windham location is now the company's biggest, with 14 employees and is in its top three or four busiest as far as sales volume and customer counts go.

The opening was just one highlight in a flurry of new openings in the last 18 months, including: 

  • A September 2019 remodel of the 51 Bath Road VIP shop in Brunswick, which added 5,000 square feet and expanded from three service bays to seven and expanding its customer area by 500%.
  • An Oct. 7 opening at 133 Strongs Road, in Rutland, Vt., in a former combination bike shop and Vianor Tire store. The full renovation resulted in a 7,800-square-foot, five-bay store with eight employees.
  • A Nov. 1 opening at 128 Boylston St., in Brookline, Mass., in a building that land been locally owned Liner Tires for 100 years. It's one of the few stores VIP leases, and the 7,100-square-foot store has seven bays with 8 employees.
  • A Dec. 16 opening of a sixth Massachusetts store, at the former Midas location, 3 Coes Square, Worcester, with 8,200 square feet of space.

Last Friday's Keene, N.H. opening, VIP's 63rd store and 20th in New Hampshire, was another "interesting story," Winkeler said.

VIP first entered into a contract to buy the property three years ago and finally closed last spring. In the meantime, the company worked with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to clean it up. The site, formerly owned by Sunoco, was a brownfield site and had been vacant for 15 years before VIP bought it.

The 11,000-square-foot store has nine bays and employees 10. "It's in a great location," Winkeler said, at the intersection of Route 12 and Route 101, a major east-west corridor across New Hampshire and Vermont.

Five white men in bright blue shirts sit at a table facing the camera and smiling
Courtesy / VIP
As it expands its geographic footprint, Auburn-based VIP Tires & Service also restructured its management team in 2019, from left, Gary MacCausland, John Quirk, Tim Winkeler, Allan Kirkland and Scott Pickard.

Five years of moves and changes

The new build in Keene doesn't mean that VIP is going to abandon its successful strategy of looking for former auto service stores that "need a little TLC" and making them into a VIP.

Some of Maine's most successful stores follow that model, Winkeler said, including in Presque Isle, which is in the former Sears Auto Center at the Aroostook Centre Mall. The store more than doubled its space, to 9,200 square feet when it moved there from its Main Street location in 2015.

As with many of VIP's relocation, O'Reilly Auto Parts took over the Main Street storefront when VIP moved out. VIP also hired five employees of the Sears shop, which had closed months before.

Winkeler said locating in former auto service shops solves two major issues: the building already has the bones for the type of work VIP does, and local zoning allows that work.

VIP started as L&A Tire Co. in Lewiston in 1958, opened by Tom Auger. His son, John Auger, sold the company, by that time VIP Discount Auto Service, to Quirk in 2001. Quirk at the time owned Quirk Tire & Service in Watertown, Mass., which his grandfather started in 1926. (There's no connection to the Quirk auto dealerships.)

Since then, the company has grown from 50 stores in three states — 49 VIP in Maine and New Hampshire and one Quirk, in Massachusetts — to the current 63 in four states.

The company moved its headquarters from Lewiston to Auburn in 2017, buying a 15,351-square-foot building at 24 Harriman Drive in 2017. 

Plans for this year include renovating the former pool hall behind VIP's Auburn headquarters into a VIP Tire & Service store as O'Reilly takes over the store at 128 Center St. The same thing will happen in Sanford once a deal is completed on the property VIP intends to buy there, a former restaurant.

Winkeler said the Sanford move will be similar to Windham, and more than double the space of the store and add several jobs.

The VIP-O'Reilly partnership began in 2012 when the company got out of the auto parts business to focus on tires and service, and sold its auto parts business to O'Reilly. The Missouri-based auto parts business (Nasdaq: ORLY) has 5,592 stores in 47 states.

VIP also plans to open a new store in Seabrook, N.H., later in the year. 

A large waiting room with wooden floor and paneling, with customers wearing face coverings sitting a distance from each other and tires on a near wall
Courtesy / VIP Tires & Service
All VIP Tires & Service renovations include a waiting room that features wood paneling, free wifi, a computer bar and photos of customers on the walls.

Focused on community

The pandemic didn't slow business down. In fact, as many big box stores that offered tire service shut that down for the pandemic, VIP picked up some new customers, Winkeler said.

Despite the expansion from its humble origins in Lewiston more than 60 years ago, the company still sees itself as a community company. It doesn't move managers around, for instance, but keeps them in the community.

"We want managers who live in the neighborhood they operate in, we want them running into customers in the grocery store," he said. 

The comfortable waiting rooms not only have a coffee bar, computer counter and Wi-Fi, but the walls are lined with photos of happy customers. The company is focused on culture, providing employees with advancement opportunities and hiring from the community the store is based in, company officials said.

"This is a relationship business," Quirk told Mainebiz in 2019. "We do sell a lot of tires, but our goal is to earn an automotive customer for life."

That pride in community extends to the annual Make-A-Wish drive, which raised a record $58,000 from customers buying $1 stars at stores in November and December. Quirk matched it, and the company donated $116,000 to the organization, which provides experiences for seriously ill children.

VIP is always looking to expand that community, scouting out new locations, Winkeler said. "We're looking at eight to 10 markets at a time," he said. But they don't get fixated on one. For instance, Rutland was midway down the list, but a sharp-eyed manager saw that the former tire shop at the location had closed and made a phone call.

"John [Quirk] was there the next week to look at it," he said. The story there? The long-time local tire shop had shared the space since the 1970s with a Schwinn bicycle shop. The bike shop owner was ready to retire when VIP moved in, and the the basement where the shop used to be now holds 2,000 tires.

Winkeler said that while many people don't realize VIP started in Maine and is still Maine-based, the company sees that as a point of pride, and a further tie to the communities it operates in, even if nearly half are now outside Maine.

"We want our stores to be part of the community," he said. He said that's part of VIP's brand, "We're proud of it."

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