Barry Steinberg’s grandmother used to call him “plier fingers.” He was always taking something apart and putting it back together. Little did she know that her grandson would later go on to own four of the best tire and automotive service providers in the Boston area.
Barry was working at a bar in a New York City suburb when he was drafted into the military in 1966. It turns out, it was “the best thing that could have happened” for him. He celebrated his 21st birthday in basic training, where he did his best to stay out of trouble. “I learned that drill sergeants were essentially paid to put the fear of God into us.” Others grumbled, but Barry understood that they were just doing their job and that “toughening up” was a vital aspect of military training. As he learned from his father, “respect is a two way street,” so he made every effort to earn their respect.
From 1966 to 1969, Barry traveled from South Carolina to New Jersey to North Carolina to Thailand to Maryland serving our country. He and five other NYC-based recruits chose their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), received high security clearance and attended National Cryptologic School (NCS) at Fort Monmouth in NJ. From there, he went on to Fort Bragg, NC to learn the ins and outs of warehouse duty. His military journey didn’t end there. He spent the next year as a logistical administrator on the other side of the world in Thailand. They were there in case Cambodia and Laos decided to bring the Vietnam war to the neighboring country.
Giving Second Chances and Learning from Past Mistakes
Surprisingly enough, Barry re-met his high school prom date, who would later be his first wife, during his final assignment working in administration at the Fort Meade Stockade, which jailed over 200 military inmates. Some prisoners were there for going AWOL, some were disciplined for getting into fights, then there were the real felons. Barry helped these inmates get the proper legal help through the military, feeling sympathy for those he felt didn’t deserve to be there. There he learned how important it is to give someone who did something wrong an opportunity to make it right. In fact, Barry has hired over 20 ex-prisoners in the last 45 years and visits nearby prisons to motivate those getting out on parole. He tells them, “Never lie about your past. Be honest about the mistakes you made and what you learned from them.”
All About the Customer Experience: $5 Well Spent
His hometown, Port Chester, New York, home to Arnold Bakery, Lifesavers factory and Marvel Mystery Oil, was a typical blue-collar town. His father owned a children’s clothing store in town, where Barry begrudgingly worked on Saturdays when he would rather be riding his bike or playing baseball with friends. One particular moment stuck with Barry throughout the years. A woman who was 8.5 months pregnant with two children came into the store and claimed that a pair of Dr. Denton’s pajamas she purchased were “defective.” Rather than fight the customer, his father brought the woman a new pair free of charge and apologized for the inconvenience. Barry was puzzled by this, since the item was clearly not defective, so he asked his dad why he did that. His dad replied, “Look, she’s got two kids, she’s from town and she’ll be talking around town. That only cost me $5.” Fast forward to 1974, Barry followed in his father’s footsteps, starting his own business and making it his mission to deliver the ultimate customer experience.
Re-Entering Civilian Life
When his time in the military came to an end, Barry didn’t particularly want to return to his pre-draft job working at a bar in New York. It was then that he reconnected with an old family friend at an anniversary party. This friend learned that Barry was looking for work, so he asked “why don’t you fly up to Boston and see what you think about working in the wholesale tire business?” It was love at first sight. Barry walked into the boiler room, overheard salesmen cold calling people all over the Northeast to buy their tires and felt excited by the challenge. Plus, he loved anything related to cars. So he packed his bags and moved up from Silver Spring, MD with only a couple hundred dollars in his pocket.
After 4.5 years earning $200 a week plus commission, Barry had an itch to branch out on his own. That’s when an old coworker, Alby Stone, called him with the news that he found the perfect location for them to open up a shop together in Watertown, MA. Alby handled the lease, store design and equipment buying and Barry brought his tire sales and marketing expertise to open the first of four Direct Tire & Auto Service locations.
Formulating His Company’s DNA
His father’s customer-centric approach combined with the discipline and empathy he learned from the military contributed to Barry’s immense success as a leader and entrepreneur. His longest tenured employee has been with him for over 37 years, starting as a driver and, with the help of Barry as a mentor, he is now the company’s CFO. Barry’s General Manager has worked with him for over 25 years, shifting from the funeral home business to the tire business years ago.
Barry was hesitant to open up more than one store since “you always take away business from one if you open another.” But after 20 years of operating one location in Watertown, he opened another in Norwood, another in Peabody, another in Natick and a final one in Medway. He later closed the Natick location, now owning 4 locations and overseeing 75 “sensational” employees who he sees as family. Barry jokes that, “work doesn’t feel like work. When that stops, I guess I’ll have to figure out something else to do.”
Barry’s commitment to his customers and his employees (aka his family) is evident in both his words and his actions. When one of his tire technicians of 16 years, Fabio, closed on his first house, Barry called him to say “I’m so proud of you.” Fabio used to collect everyone’s cans at the shop to earn some extra cash. Barry reminded him, “all those cans you picked up, that’s what made the difference and got you what you want.” He is proud of the fact that he knows all 75 employees’ birthdays. In fact, he remembered during our conversation that his employee, Peter, turned 62 that day, so “he’ll have to remember to remind him that he’s the second oldest employee.”
Honesty is ingrained in Barry’s company DNA. None of his employees are on commission. They are not paid to sell, rather their incentive is to win over a customer and always do the right thing. He even claimed that “the best sale we make is no sale at all.” It’s part of earning a customer’s trust. Barry’s commitment to the customer was extremely evident when one of his employees was caught selling a customer something they didn’t need, so Barry fired him on the spot. “He was a really good salesman, but I had to hold us to a higher standard. If he got away with it, someone else will get away it.” He even called the client and offered to give them their money back for the unnecessary brake job. That woman is still a happy, loyal customer.
Getting Recognized for the Right Reasons
To take his transparent approach one step further, Barry has his technicians take detailed videos showing the customer the problem, rather than just telling them. He even overheard two women behind him in line at Whole Foods saying “I don’t trust anyone in this business but I trust them [Direct Tire & Auto Service] because they sent me this video.” Barry is rightfully proud that, on more than one occasion, he will be out to dinner, at a party or in a store, and a customer will recognize him from a TV commercial and come up and shake his hand to thank him for his shop’s top-notch service. One time, a customer approached him with his daughter. He said to his daughter, “This is the gentleman that owns Direct Tire, the shop that I always talk about. I wanted you to meet the guy who runs the best business in the world.”
His advice for other veterans re-entering civilian life? “Knock on as many doors as possible within a field that interests you. If the opportunity isn’t there, create one on your own. I met a veteran who finished three tours in Afghanistan. He just got divorced and wasn’t sure what to do next. I asked him, have you ever washed windows? Because the easiest business to start is something you can start yourself and you only need soap and water. Everyone wants their windows washed, but no one wants to do it themselves.” Feel free to visit Barry’s company’s website to learn more, schedule an appointment online or send him a message of gratitude on their AI-powered virtual service advisor.
Did you know that 2.52 million US businesses are majority-owned by veterans? These businesses are managing 5.03 million employees across the nation with an annual payroll of $195 billion.
While 9.1 percent of all U.S. businesses are veteran-owned, the percentage of veteran-owned businesses varies by industry:
12.8% | Finance and insurance
12.1% | Transportation and warehousing
11.4% | Construction
11.3% | Agriculture, forestry and fishing
10.9% | Utilities
10.8% | Professional, scientific, and technical services
10.2% | Manufacturing