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Beyond the basics

For more than half a century, TFC’s Tires, Batteries, Accessories and Fuel Department has provided farmers with industry-leading products and service
Story by: Sarah Geyer 6/26/2020

Byyyyyyyyyyyyy the mid-1950s, most of Tennessee’s farmers owned at least one automobile and many had traded in their horse and plow for a tractor. As the farmers’ needs were evolving beyond the basics, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative evolved, too, developing departments like Tires, Batteries, Accessories (TBA)/Petroleum that could provide new product offerings and services to member Co-ops. Today, the department offers the gamut of quality automotive items, including tires, lubricants, accessories, antifreeze, and fuel. 


With his 20-plus years as TBA manager, Gene Carr is largely considered the driving force behind the department’s success. Gene’s nearly 40-year Co-op career began in 1953 at Tenco and included a few years at LaVergne’s warehouse before joining TBA, first as assistant to manager Howard Herr and later as manager. As author Forrest Bailey notes in The Tapestry of Success, Gene was “instrumental in the establishment of the one of the most efficient (automotive) departments of any regional cooperative.” 


One factor that contributed to the department’s success was the production of proprietary, Co-op-branded products. In 1972, TFC gained that competitive edge in the tire market when the Co-op joined eight others to form Universal Cooperatives.


 “Together, we had the leverage and volume, meaning we could buy molds and produce our own tread designs,” says P.O. Florida, who was hired by TFC in 1959 to create LaVergne’s new recapping plant and, a few years later, named Gene’s assistant. The two men worked together until both retired 14 years later.  “We had enough power in the tire industry to get the products we wanted, along with the pricing and volume we needed.” 


As an extra selling point, the TBA/Fuel Department offered a plan-to-please warranties on passenger and light truck tires and road-and-field hazard warranties on farm tires, which no competitors provided at the time. 


 “We got what the farmer wanted, a darn good product at a very competitive price, along with second-to-none service,” says William Lawson, who began working for TFC in 1964 in the LaVergne Distribution Center until he transferred to TBA in 1969 as an outside salesman. “Local farmers knew what the Co-op brand stood for, and that’s where we had an easier way  to get our foot in the door and earn that farmer’s business.”  


By the time Butch Gilley joined the department office staff in 1974, he says most of the products sold through TBA had a Co-op label or carried the Co-op name.


“All of our tires, our grease and oil, batteries, lubricants, tri-fire spark plugs, and shocks, you name it, we had the Co-op label on it,” says Butch, a recent retiree who began his TFC career in 1971 at the tire center. “I think that played a big part in our department’s success.”


Many of those proprietary products were a result of important partnerships between TFC and manufacturers. For example, East Penn Manufacturing has provided Co-op-branded batteries since the 1970s, and Farmland Industries in Kansas City, Missouri, produced Co-op-labeled lubricants.


Farmland Industries also played an

important role in TBA’s petroleum business. Through one of its programs, local Co-ops added bulk delivery and retail installations.


“That meant the farmer now had one place where he could buy his fuel, tires, and oil,” says Thomas Romans, who started at the LaVergne warehouse in 1963 and transferred the next year to TBA, where he handled fuel and auto accessories until retiring in 2001. “That brought in a lot of business for the local Co-ops, and soon, some had sales into the millions of gallons.”


By the early 1990s, TBA had helped many local Co-ops create tire centers, an undertaking that included shipping and installing equipment, as well as training personnel at each location. Once their centers were up and running, several of the local Co-ops purchased trucks and offered on-the-farm tire service. For those centers without service trucks, P.O. purchased equipment, making the process of changing large tractor tires easier for shop employees.


Today, the TBA/Fuel Department provides local Co-ops with industry-leading products through new vendor partnerships with companies like Lucas Oil and WeatherTech.


“We haven’t forgotten our heritage and that’s proven by relationships like our agreement with East Penn Manufacturing,” says Ed Robbins, who has worked in the department for more than 20 years. “We’re also open to developing new vendor relationships so we can continue to provide products that will drive business to the stores.” 


 In 2017, the department made an out-of-the-box distribution decision. For decades, TBA managed the purchasing, storage, and distribution of the tires. However, to better meet the needs of member Co-ops, the department ended its warehouse ownership and shifted the distribution to S&S Tire Company, allowing members to receive daily deliveries for the first time.


“Even though we’ve been quite successful, we are always trying to find ways to serve the member Co-ops better,” says Corey Damron, current department manager who started his TFC career in 2003 in the TBA warehouse. “We’re here to support their efforts; that’s what it’s all about.”


 
 
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