When Alyeska Tire owner Jerry Wortham first opened a used car lot in Kenai in 1978 with his then-partner, former Borough Mayor and local legend George Navarre, he was more interested in supporting his family than creating a tire store dynasty on the Peninsula.
“If you had asked me 40 years ago if I thought I’d be sitting here in the position I am now, with eight locations and the volume we have now, I would have told you you were nuts,” Jerry said during an interview on April 26. “I got off the plane in Fairbanks in 1976, and I remember it so well because I had 76 dollars in my pocket.”
Fast forward to today, and he and his son Craig operate a multimillion dollar company with seven retail stores in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Fairbanks, Wasilla and Anchorage, as well as a distribution center in Anchorage. Each of their seven retail locations sell a wide variety of tires and do some maintenance work including oil changes, but the K-B Drive location in Soldotna focuses on truck and tractor tires. Their base of operations is now at that truck tire center on K-B Drive, but Jerry said his heart will always belong to the Kenai location.
“It was 20 years before I started doing any expansion, so I worked at the Kenai store myself for a long, long time,” Jerry said.
Jerry and his wife Carla have three sons including Craig who all worked for the company at one point or another, pumping gas and hauling tires even as young kids. Jerry admitted that Craig was the last one he expected to join in the business with him. Craig agreed with that sentiment.
Craig said he came back to Kenai after finishing school and was working with his dad while waiting for a student teaching position to open up. As it turned out, a management position at the Soldotna location opened up first. Jerry offered the position to his son and Craig decided to try it out.
“I thought, ‘yeah I’ll give it a year,’” Craig said. After doubling the sales at the Soldotna location within a year, Craig decided he’d give it another year.
“And then another, and then another…” Jerry added, and before long the father-son team were running the whole operation together.
In 2017 Alyeska Tire received the Top Shop award from Tire Review Magazine, which is given every year to the best independent tire store in all of North America. Jerry said that the key to his company’s continued success all these years has been not deviating from their business model and concentrating on building the best team possible.
“Our approach has always been to take care of our customer, take care of our employee, and take care of our inventory,” Craig said.
“Every once in a while someone new will come in and say ‘we’re going to run Alyeska Tire out of business,’” Jerry said. “Well, let’s just say we’ve heard that one before.”
Alyeska Tire has a fairly unique approach when it comes to taking care of its employees. The company implemented a bonus program 13 years ago where each year, 49% of the net profits for each location are distributed among all the employees of that location, from the managers down to the tire guys. Craig said that last year, Alyeska Tire distributed $1.4 million in bonuses to 43 employees, with one of their managers receiving a bonus of $100,000.
Jerry and Craig have found that this program has only helped to grow their business and said that they are more profitable as a company now than they were before they began the bonus program. Jerry also said it has made running the business less stressful than back when he just had the one location because the managers and other employees take on significantly more responsibility.
“If you talked to our manager in Fairbanks, you’d think he was the owner. And we take that as a compliment,” Craig said.
By sharing in the profits of the company, Craig said the employees feel more of a sense of ownership and pride in their work, and they also keep employees longer and are able to consistently promote from within. Craig said that 25% of their employees have been with the company for over ten years, a figure which would make many other businesses green with envy.
Eric Parnell, assistant manager at their K-B Drive location, has been with the company for six years and has no plans of leaving. Parnell said that part of the reason he enjoys working for Alyeska is that the company encourages passion and pride for the work they do.
“I remember it was my first week busting tires, and I came into the showroom with some paperwork, and Jerry is in there sweeping the floors, talking to customers, making the place look good. And this is the man that’s been doing it for forty years?” Parnell said. “To me that shows a lot of passion, which I can respect a lot.”
Parnell said the bonus program at Alyeska is unlike anything he’s experienced from a lifetime of working in the automotive industry.
“Before this job, it was always just a paycheck,” Parnell said. Parnell said that the concept of profit and loss becomes a reality for every employee as people start to think about the business in terms of the whole fiscal year rather just on a two-week basis.
Alyeska Tire also encourages the managers of each location to give back to the community as much they can through donations and sponsorships. Craig said that Alyeska has donated over $300,000 to local non-profits within the last 10 years and donated $30,000 last year alone. Parnell said that it feels great to see that the company he works for has a positive impact on the community.
“I get to watch my kids grow up and be a part of the sports teams that are sponsored by Alyeska Tire,” Parnell said. “There’s a lot of pride that goes with that.”
The Alyeska Tire Locations in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Kenai – 200 S Willow St, Kenai, AK (907) 283-4821
Soldotna – 36095 Kenai Spur Highway, Soldotna, AK (907) 262-5068
Truck Tire Center – 35095 K-B Dr, Soldotna, AK (907) 260-4120