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Son, grandson continue business started 90 years ago

Sharon Hayes • Jun 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — In June 1919, Dan Wexler was 21 years old when he opened the Free Service Tire Co. on Buffalo Street in Johnson City.

Back then automobiles weren’t as reliable as they are today. Radiators frequently needed water, tires went flat, and the gasoline gauge had not been invented. Motorists often found themselves stranded on the roadside in need of help, and Wexler opened his business with the promise of “free service” to customers. When a call came in from a stranded motorist, Wexler would dispatch one of his blue and yellow motorcycles to the rescue. He charged only for gasoline and tire patches — labor was free.

The concept worked, and Wexler built his business based on customer service.

Today — after 90 years in business — Free Service Tire Co. is still based on customer service, and its headquarters is still located in the original Buffalo Street building. And although Dan Wexler passed away in 1983, his company is still family owned and operated.

Last week, Dan’s son, Lewis Wexler Sr., 72, and his son Lewis Wexler Jr., 49, reminisced about the business, and the father and grandfather who started it all. Lewis Sr. is now chairman and CEO of the company, while Lewis Jr. is president.

“He was a good man, had strong character, had good leadership abilities, and supported the community,” Lewis Sr. said of his dad.

Roots of a company

Dan Wexler was born in 1897 and grew up in Sullivan County. He went to school in Bristol, Tenn., but spent his summers on the family farm in Kingsport. The farm was situated on a hill where Eastman Chemical Co.’s incinerator is now located off John B. Dennis Highway.

After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Tennessee, played basketball and football for the college, and earned a degree in agriculture. But he didn’t want to work on a farm, so he entered the U.S. Army and became a lieutenant.

In 1918, a severe flu epidemic hit the country, and one of Wexler’s sisters died. As a result, the Army discharged Wexler to help his father support the family.

In 1919, he decided to start the Free Service Tire Co., and as he built the business, he helped build the local community. Lewis Sr. said his father was a founding member of the Johnson City Kiwanis Club, was active in his church, and helped in the development of the UT Alumni Council.

He also became involved in the Boy Scouts after his son Lewis got old enough to join the group.

“I had a good relationship with my dad — rode with him everywhere, he took me hunting and fishing,” Lewis Sr. said.

The second generation

Lewis Sr. started working at his father’s business at age 14, driving and parking customers’ vehicles three blocks down the street.

After service in the U.S. Army, Lewis Sr. went to work for Goodyear Tire Co. in Memphis, Nashville and Maryville, finally returning to the Tri-Cities in the early 1960s to manage his father’s store in downtown Kingsport.

Meanwhile, the company had evolved through the years. Just before World War II, it got into the retreading business. Then following the war, it entered the credit business and started offering customer financing on the spot.

“People could pay by the week or by the month. We had lots of accounts,” Lewis Sr. said.

In the mid 1950s, the company started offering more merchandise, from appliances and furniture to housewares and electronics. Onsite financing helped countless people across the region purchase merchandise and pay for it over time.

“For the longest time, we were almost like general department stores,” said Lewis Wexler Jr.

Free Service Tire Co. operated retail stores in large and small towns across the region, offering all kinds of merchandise and providing customer financing.

But that part of the business began to disappear with the advent of the credit card. And soon, the company closed its stores in small towns, concentrating on the larger retail operations.

In the meantime, the business was expanding into other areas.

Lewis Wexler Jr. said that in the early 1950s when the interstate highway system was being constructed, Free Service Tire Co. entered the commercial products business, selling huge tires to construction companies involved in road building projects.

Today, the business operates two truck tire centers serving Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

The company also operates two retread plants, including the only off-the-road retread plant in Tennessee.

And since the early 1990s, the company has been involved in the wholesale business, supplying tires to other dealers through four distribution centers in East Tennessee, Southwestern Virginia and Western North Carolina.

The company employs roughly 190 people throughout the region.

“A lot of people think we just have tire stores and that’s it. But it’s not,” Lewis Wexler Jr. said.

The third generation

Lewis Wexler Jr. got started in the family business at age 12, working in a warehouse behind one of the retail stores. A few years later, he went to work in one of the company’s retread plants and enjoyed getting to know and understand the business.

After high school, he attended the University of Tennessee, graduating in finance and business. But he didn’t immediately return to the family firm.

“I wasn’t 100 percent sure what I was going to do. So just like my father, I went and worked for Goodyear for about four years in different places in the South, and finally came back to the company in 1986,” Lewis Jr. said.

He initially headed a retail store and then held various positions along the way, finally becoming president of the business.

Today, Lewis Jr. oversees the retail and wholesale divisions of the company, while his younger brother, Harrison, oversees the commercial side.

As for those retail operations, Free Service Tire Co. now operates 11 stores from Roanoke to Knoxville, offering various different brands of tires as well as service for all types of automobiles.

The company still operates the original location on Buffalo Street in Johnson City, along with stores in Bristol, Morristown, and its Kingsport store on Center Street.

Last week, Lewis Sr. and Lewis Jr. were in Kingsport looking at property for a new location. The Center Street store, which will remain part of the Free Service Tire chain through the middle of next year, has been acquired by Pal Barger, founder of Pal’s Sudden Service, who is donating the property to Northeast State Technical Community College. The college plans to convert the store into the Pal Barger School of Automotive Technology. It will house Northeast State’s automotive services program, and be part of the Academic Village in the downtown district.

“They were looking to expand their automotive repair college. We thought it was a good time to make a move and they needed the facility,” Lewis Jr. said. “So we’re looking for another place to start the next generation.”

The next generation of Wexlers is up and coming. Lewis Jr. has two children — a girl age 13 and a boy age 9. His brother, Harrison, has three sons, and his two sisters, who don’t work in the business but who have financial interests in it, both have kids.

Lewis Jr. said perhaps one or more of those children will enter the family business.

“I would love for them to go into the business. It would have to be their choice just like it was for me,” Lewis Jr. said. “I’ve got to think there’s somebody in there who would want to carry the torch.”

He said Free Service Tire Co. has survived all these years because of its flexibility to adjust to the market.

“We’ve been so flexible and we’ve evolved and changed and adapted to the needs of the marketplace,” Lewis Jr. said. “I’ve just got to think that we’re going to be traveling in some form or fashion in transportation down the road.”

For more information, visit www.freeservicetire.com.

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