Craig Lewis was told as a youngster that he would never work in his father’s business.
“You’re never going to work in the tire store. It gets complicated with families,” Lewis recalls his father saying.
But last year, after spending more than a decade learning the ropes, Lewis purchased Lewis General Tire Inc. from his father.
The 30-year-old recalls the moment his father changed his mind about allowing his son to work in the family business.
“I was across the street mending fences for a neighbor and there was a carpenter there redoing a neighbor’s barn. (The carpenter) said, ‘how would you like to get a job working for me as a carpenter,’” Lewis explains. “So we worked out an arrangement where I was going to come work for him and it just kind of fell through and didn’t work out.”
It was his first big disappointment, and he wore it like a shroud.
“I was sitting in the living room hanging out and my dad came in, sat down and said, ‘how would you like to come work at the tire store,’” Lewis says with a smile. “I decided to take him up on the offer and started that summer working as a tire tech, when I was 16.”
That summer job taught Lewis that adult life was going to be about getting up and working hard every day, and he did not mind that.
“The playing around is over and life’s going to be about work,” Lewis says. “And that’s a good thing, I think.”
In its first year with Lewis at the helm, Lewis Tire posted revenues of $7.7 million, the highest the company has seen in its 97-year history, and a 10 percent increase over the previous year. The company employs 33 people at its West Henrietta Road facility in Henrietta.
“That was my first year running the company and I was extremely proud of that,” Lewis says.
Lewis Tire was founded in 1919 by Lewis’ great-grandfather, Leon Lewis. He had left his family’s farm in Dundee, Yates County, and moved to Rochester to find work. He started as an apprentice to a blacksmith and then found a job in the tire business.
The company he was working for sent him to Akron, Ohio, to meet with some executives from General Tire and Rubber Co. The executives liked what they saw and asked Leon Lewis to start his own dealership. They helped finance the fledgling company, founded at East Avenue and Pitkin Street, where Arena’s Inc. is now located.
A decade or so later Leon Lewis found himself knee deep in the Great Depression. To keep the business afloat Lewis merged with a competitor, who also was located downtown. The two companies took on an equity partner and became known as Scanlon Lewis General Tire.
Over the next couple of decades Lewis got his sons involved in the company and it became apparent the Lewises eventually would carry on the business. Lewis bought out his partners in the 1940s and the company again became known as Lewis General Tire.
In the early 1970s Leon’s son Richard Lewis Sr. took over the business and moved it from its downtown location to its current facility in the heart of Henrietta’s Dealer Row. At the time there was little going on in the area, save for farmland, but Lewis Sr. had the foresight to envision what Henrietta would become. It was a move that would prove quite advantageous, given the number of car dealerships and retail stores that have opened in the area in the last few decades.
In 1994 Richard Lewis Jr. purchased the company from his father and ran it until last year, when Craig Lewis purchased it. The elder Lewis still has an office at the facility and comes in periodically to check on things.
“I think he’s kind of done with the stress,” Craig Lewis says of his father’s semiretirement. “I think he feels comfortable that things are going well enough that he (doesn’t have to) worry about it.”
Lewis Tire’s newest owner learned the business by working his way through several positions. After tire technician, he moved on to a low-level mechanic job, mostly doing brakes. Lewis served as warehouse foreman for a while and after college was credit manager. Prior to buying out his father, Lewis served as a department manager, overseeing the commercial division.
Lewis Tire has three divisions: retail, or passenger vehicle service; commercial service; and retreading. Within the retail division, the company sells and installs tires and performs most auto repairs, with the exception of body work. Its largest segment, the commercial division, offers tires for light, medium and heavy trucks, as well as off-the-road vehicles such as construction equipment.
Lewis Tire’s retreading business takes the casings of used tires and retreads them into like-new products. Each remanufactured tire reduces the amount of oil used to make tires by 20 gallons, Lewis notes.
“It’s really an important recycling thing for the industry,” he says, adding the company warranties its retreads for the life of the tread. “There are retread manufacturers out there that don’t put out a good product. We’re very conservative with our retreading. We’ll only retread a casing if we’re extremely confident that that casing is going to last for the life of the tread.”
And while Lewis Tire sells and services numerous tire brands, the company only uses rubber from the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Lewis says that makes for a better retread, and it was one of the first goals he set for the company when he took over.
“It’s opened up a lot of doors for us that previously were closed,” he says of the switch to Goodyear rubber. “That’s really helped grow the business in the short term.”
Lewis’ long-term goal is to become the biggest commercial tire dealer in Rochester.
“I know at one point we were the biggest commercial dealer in Rochester, and I want to get back there,” he says. “I think that’s a reasonable goal. And that is set in stone.”
In addition to its multitude of offerings, Lewis Tire has numerous longtime employees who help make the company a success, Lewis and his colleagues say.
“They’re the people who make this place tick,” Lewis says. “I’ve got people who have been here 20 years, 30 years. I actually have one part-time employee that my great-grandfather hired 60 years ago.
“There’s a lot of knowledge under this roof, and that definitely makes my job a heck of a lot easier,” Lewis adds.
Customers do business with Lewis Tire for a reason, says Vice President Louis Brothers, and employee longevity has a lot to do with that.
“I think it’s the group of individuals that know their jobs, that know the aspects of the tire business,” says Brothers, an employee since 1999. “I think it’s a big trust issue when it comes to the customers that you deal with.”
Despite its recent growth, Lewis Tire has had its ups and downs. The recession that began in 2008 stagnated growth, Lewis says.
“After that stagnation we saw a lot of inflation in the tire industry, so prices started growing pretty rapidly,” he explains. “Historically, you’d see prices go up once a year; we were getting price increases on an almost monthly basis, which presented some challenges for us going to the customer.”
In the last five years, Lewis says, a new challenge has arisen, which involves the influx of Chinese-made tires to the market.
“You’re talking about manufacturing halfway around the world, where the labor practices are questionable,” he says. “So you see questionable quality coming in at really low prices. So, from our standpoint, it’s been a situation where we have to educate the customer that they really need to look at cost per mile, not acquisition price.”
What sets Lewis Tire apart from its competitors, Vice President David Gebo says, is its service.
“We provide a brand-new tire to the customer,” Gebo explains. “We service what we sell, ‘from cradle to grave.’”
The organization is all about teamwork, Gebo adds, and every employee is instrumental to the company’s success. Lewis’ purchase of the company was the best thing that could have happened for Lewis Tire, Gebo says.
“(It is) bringing new ideas and new thoughts into the company, and his overall dedication to this company,” says the 24-year veteran of Lewis Tire. “He is dedicated from daylight to darkness. He’s 100 percent vested in this company.”
Lewis’ door is always open and he will take time to listen to employees no matter what he is doing, Gebo says.
“His input into the day-to-day business is very instrumental,” he adds.
Brothers describes Lewis as a hands-on leader, and one who feels technology and staying ahead of the curve are crucial to the company’s success.
“He’s the future of the company. Craig is big on making the company modern, as far as bringing in new technology and updating a lot of the equipment that’s here,” Brothers says.
“We’ve got a really good group of people that are working here,” he adds. “So every morning when I wake up I don’t have to dread coming to work. It is a positive workplace.”
Lewis leads through a seven-person management team that meets each Friday to keep each other informed.
“I figure if these seven people are all on the same page, that’s going to ensure that everything comes together at the end of the day,” Lewis says.
Lewis says he thrives on pressure.
“I think it brings out the best in me and allows me to rise to the occasion,” he says, acknowledging that when the company goes through down patches it can be discouraging. “It’s hard to stay motivated during that off-season.”
The best part of his job, Lewis says, is having relative control over his destiny.
“I’m not usually under somebody’s thumb,” he says. “Relative to most jobs, I’m in control, and I kind of like that.”
Although he never met his great-grandfather, Lewis says he influences his business decisions and is a role model to him.
“I live on stories of him. It’s hard enough to take an existing business and take it over and run it. I can only imagine what it’s like to start from scratch,” Lewis says. “I’ve really got to give him a lot of credit on that. And I feel like it’s very important to take advantage of your opportunities in life and I think he did that.”
Lewis’ father had a saying that rings true to him, Lewis says.
“Either you run the business or the business runs you,” he says. “If you’re not on top of your game things are going to get out of control. Instead of you being in control of the business, the business is going to control you.”
Lewis was born and raised in the Honeoye Falls area and now lives with his wife, Nicole, in Farmington, Ontario County. The couple have two pit bull rescues that Lewis spends a lot of time with.
“Both of them were pretty messed up when I got them and I’ve spent a lot of time getting them squared away,” Lewis says. “They’re just the best pets you could have.”
Lewis enjoys the outdoors and is a member of the Mendon Conservation League. He recalls as a child spending day after day outside getting lost in the woods or riding his bike.
“I was always independent,” he says. “Gone all day, back for dinner. I think it was a great time to grow up and a great area to grow up in.”
He also enjoys gardening and growing his own food.
“I don’t plant flowers,” he says. “If it doesn’t bear fruit or you can’t eat the leaves I don’t bother with it.”
One reason he enjoys growing his own food is because he spent a good deal of time learning how to cook from his mother.
“I treasure those memories,” he says. “I really enjoyed cooking with my mom and she passed on what I think is a really important life skill.”
Lewis speaks highly of his wife, whom he met in college, and says she is one person who has changed his life.
“She is an amazing person. She’s incredibly motivated,” he says. “She’s a very strong woman. I feel like she’s inspired me to live my life to its fullest.”
Longtime friend Joshua Mandelberger says Lewis draws strength from his wife and from his relationship with his family.
“I think he definitely feels for the community and wants to give back in some way,” Mandelberger says. “I think that comes from his relationship with his family and his wife.”
Lewis is honest and determined and loves Rochester, Mandelberger says.
“I think that’s part of the reason why he decided to go back to the family business,” he says. “He’s very passionate about the area, very passionate about his business.”
To that end, Lewis and his team have been throwing around ideas for ways to give back to the community. The company recently held its inaugural car show, which drew more than 100 classic and hot rod vehicles over the weekend event and raised roughly $9,000 for the Arc of Monroe and Golisano Children’s Hospital.
“I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’re a part of this community,” Lewis says. “We’ve been doing business in this community for 97 years. The community has kept us in business.”
Lewis says what keeps him coming back for more is the idea of living up to his full potential.
“I don’t think sitting at home is going to do that for me. Coming here and giving it everything I’ve got does,” he says.
In addition, through the ups and downs of the business and economy there always has been a Lewis involved in the company.
“Right now, I’m that Lewis. That’s a big responsibility I want to live up to,” he says. “I want to pass on to the fifth generation something better than what it is now.”
Title: President, Lewis General Tire Inc.
Education: B.S., business administration, 2008, SUNY at Albany
Family: Wife, Nicole; two rescue pit bulls
Home: Farmington, Ontario County
Interests: Enjoying the outdoors, gardening, cooking
Quote: “I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’re a part of this community. We’ve been doing business in this community for 97 years. The community has kept us in business.”
8/19/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.