| Nov 11, 2022

Why Les Schwab Runs to Your Car

Stories of customers driving with a flat tire to their local store in a panic and receiving immediate service are the stuff of internet legend.

Les Schwab Tire Centers employees are famous for running — literally —to your car as soon as you pull up, eager to get you the help you need as soon as possible. It’s one of the company’s signature moves, but to the untrained eye, it may seem a little baffling. Is it a PR stunt? A gimmick? An unnecessary gesture, when you could just wait in the lobby for the customer to come to you?

Hardly. Les Schwab’s greeting is a manifestation of the company’s laser focus on understanding and meeting their customers’ needs. Les Schwab has a long history of executing unique strategies — underscored by steadfast values — for the sake of making their customers happy.

The History of Les Schwab Tire Centers

Schwab was just 15 years old when both his parents passed away. Instead of moving in with family, he got a job delivering newspapers so he could support himself. It wasn’t long before he was running all nine paper routes in the city and, as legend has it, earning more money than the principal of his high school.

After graduation, Schwab stayed on at the newspaper for a while and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. But his entrepreneurial spirit drove him to take a big risk: In 1952, Schwab borrowed $11,000 to buy an OK Rubber Welders franchise store.

Schwab’s early days as a business owner were hardly glamorous. The building was no more than a shack, without running water or a bathroom. Because Schwab had never so much as fixed a flat tire when he decided to enter the tire industry, he was reliant on the knowledge of his sole employee.


Schwab was undeterred. In his first year of ownership, he took the business from $32,000 of annual earnings to $150,000. He opened up a second store and then a third, rebranding to Les Schwab Tire Centers. By 1971, less than 20 years after he bought the first, Schwab was running 34 stores. When Schwab passed away in 2007, there were 410 Les Schwab locations across the western United States, and the company was bringing in $1.6 billion every year.

But this incredible growth is not what has forged the brand’s reputation. Les Schwab has been called “arguably the most respected independent tire store chain in the United States.” So what’s the secret? Exceptional customer service is the easy answer, but Les Schwab takes it to the next level via empathy, accessibility, and employee loyalty — all of which are visible in some of the brand’s best-known tactics.

Les Schwab Employees Save the Day

It happens the minute you pull up to a Les Schwab location. There’s no waiting around in an empty lobby or ringing a bell at the front desk. Before you even get out of the car, someone will come running  to help you.

This star treatment is not reserved for customers with an appointment. Les Schwab stores are known for their willingness to drop what they’re doing and help anyone, at any time, even if the store is about to close. The internet is rife with stories of Les Schwab customers driving to their local store in a panic with a flat tire and receiving immediate service, often for free. 

Their dedication to last-minute service is displayed on the front page of their website: “We love walk-ins, so come by any time.” It points to a keen understanding of the customer’s emotional state. Even the calmest drivers are vulnerable to stress and overwhelm in the face of car trouble, especially when financial anxiety is also a factor. A customer in a heightened emotional state is going to remember a stand-out interaction — be it good or bad — with a service provider.

Les Schwab sees these tense moments for what they are: An opportunity to create a truly memorable impression. Their employees do everything they can to save the day and be remembered as the hero. Millions of Americans have pledged themselves Les Schwab “customers for life,” largely because a Les Schwab employee came to their rescue.

Free Beef

Yes, really.

In 1964, in search of a creative way to boost sales during the slow winter months, Les Schwab launched its first “free beef” promotion. The premise was simple: Buy new tires and get a voucher for free beef, redeemable at any meat counter in the area. The promotion was a smash hit and became a yearly tradition. Over time, the campaign evolved: Industrial freezers were installed in Les Schwab stores, so customers could take home their free beef the same day.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the launch of “free beef,” but the campaign’s primary success factors remain remain steadfast:

  • Easy to understand and easy to redeem: You can’t turn on the radio for five minutes without hearing an advertisement from a local car dealership or tire shop. Yet their promotions are so riddled with financial jargon and conditions — explained at top speed — that the actual benefits are nearly impossible to discern. Les Schwab keeps it simple: Buy tires, get beef. There is no confusion and no catch.
  • Aligns with the customer’s interests: Today, the demographics of the Les Schwab customer base are as diverse as the entire western United States. But in the early days, the brand’s footprint was fairly small — and rural. Many of Les Schwab’s customers were farmers, ranchers, and people who valued their hardworking way of life. Schwab himself understood what was important to his customers, so he found a way to promote his business and support these local families. His loyalty to the community, and his clear understanding of their values, paid off.

Investing in Employee Loyalty

Many Les Schwab customers will report that the company’s employees are happy, good-natured people. There’s a reason for that: They like working there. Les Schwab understands the far-reaching benefits of investing in their employees and puts a lot of effort into keeping them happy, starting with compensation.

Over 50% of Les Schwab’s profits go straight back to its employees. The company also invests in excellent healthcare and generous retirement plans. As a result, employees are highly motivated to stick around. A truly astonishing number of Les Schwab employees have been with the company for 10, 20, or even 30 years. Even Les Schwab’s management philosophies inspire and reward employee loyalty: At Les Schwab stores, the company only promotes from within. Employees have a real chance of moving up if they do good work.

Les Schwab’s success in this area is backed up by research. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that employees who feel valued are motivated to do better work; and when employees are happy, their customers are happy.

An Enduring Legacy

Les Schwab himself passed away in 2007, but his dedication to consistently exceptional customer service lives on through his company’s 7000+ employees. Every year, Les Schwab attracts more and more lifelong customers who experience firsthand the company’s unwavering dedication to helping people when they need it. The values exemplified by Les Schwab can be replicated by any leader who is willing to find their own way to run to the car.

Maggie Taylor

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Maggie Taylor is a freelance writer, editor, and PR strategist specializing in B2B. She lives in Akron, Ohio. view profile


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