Third-generation family business keeps focus on the customer

Dan Harper of Harper’s Tire tells us what it takes to compete against huge operations. And why getting good service when it comes to tires is important

Dan Harper is co-owner of Harper’s Tire in Calgary.

Dan Harper
Dan Harper

What’s the history behind Harper’s Tire and how it began in Calgary?

Harper: My grandfather, J.M. Harper, opened the original store on 12th Avenue S.W. in 1931. During the war years, tires were rationed so repairs and custom retreading was a large part of the business. Our father, Stan, took over the business in 1961 with his two brothers.

As kids, my brother Tom and I used to ‘work’ at the shop. We loved rolling the new tires down the stairs and stacking them up in the basement where they were stored. I loved the smell of new tires right from the start and while I don’t notice it quite as much as I used to, the smell of new tires is still one of my favourite things. As young boys who spent a lot of time hanging out at the shop, I guess we were destined to run the business eventually. We took it over in 2000 and have been managing it ever since.

Can you explain what you’ve done to consolidate your business and why?

Harper: We decided to sell the Crowfoot and Douglasdale stores this year and they will no longer operate as a Harper’s Tire store. We will continue to operate our main location at 5516 4th  St. S.E., where we perform tire service, automotive repairs and have a tire storage facility. The Harper’s Carwash at Douglasdale will continue to stay open.

We decided to make these changes for a number of reasons. First, we’re dealing with a couple of family health issues and want to have more time to spend with our families. Second, we felt we had spread ourselves too thin and were unable to give our customers the personal attention that has made us so successful in the past.

The people we work with are amazing, we would not have been able to succeed without them. Now that we have only one store, Tom and I can help our team become even better at what they do, allow them to have more time to serve our customers and give them the opportunity to spend more time with their families.

How difficult has it been to run a family business and compete against some of the giants in the industry that are chain operations across Canada?

Harper: We’re trying to compete in an industry that has become dominated by huge organizations that have hundreds of stores across the country, as well as price clubs and online marketers that treat tires as a commodity, similar to electronics and mobile phones that look the same and, generally speaking, perform the same. Tires aren’t like that at all; while they may look the same, the technology that goes into making the good ones rivals the technology that goes into building the space shuttle.

So it’s been challenging for us because these large competitors have a huge pricing advantage due to the volume of tires they buy and many of them have tried to use this advantage to bully the market. We concentrate on providing the best service possible while being as competitive price-wise as possible. As a family-run small business, we’re able to provide a personal touch that the big guys just can’t match. I think that’s what sets us apart and really means a lot to our customers.

What would you say have been key factors in the business operating for 80 years?

Harper: This year will be our 87th  anniversary. I wish I could say that we have a secret formula for success, but we really don’t. Considering that 50 per cent of family businesses don’t survive the transition from second to third generation, my brother Tom and I are pretty proud of the fact that we’re still going strong in Calgary. My grandfather and my father both worked hard on and in the business and they both strived to provide the best service possible to their customers. That work ethic has rubbed off on my brother and I. We are fully engaged in the business and we try to do everything possible to make our customer’s experience amazing.

 It’s that time of year again in Calgary. What tips can you offer Calgarians about snow tires?

Harper: There is a lot of information out there on whether or not winter tires are necessary for our climate. The key thing to know is what happens to the rubber compound of any tire when the temperature drops below 7 degrees C. What matters most is the ability of the tire to stay soft and supple when it’s cold. While tread design has an impact on traction, the ability of a tire to conform to the changing road surfaces in the winter is the most important factor for winter driving safety. Everyone’s situation is unique and budget considerations, storage room and vehicle use all impact driving decisions. Keeping that in mind, here’s what I recommend:

All-weather tires: These are built to be adequate in all conditions, but that means sacrificing mileage and some winter performance in order to have something that can be driven year round. If you can only afford one set of tires, all weathers are a decent choice.

All-season tires: All-season tires made by high-quality manufacturers like Michelin and Bridgestone are better than all-weather tires made by second- and third-tier manufacturers. The key benefit of all-seasons is that they’re designed with longer tread life and that comes at the expense of winter performance.

Winter tires: The gold standard and the best choice for winter driving in Calgary. Below 7 degrees, they will conform to changing road conditions like ice, snow and slush. Consumers should be very wary of anyone who tells them that all-seasons or all-weather tires are just as good as winter tires; it’s just not true.

When buying tires, it’s important to consider the source of the advice you’re getting. Find someone you trust and ask lots of questions if what you’re hearing seems to be too good to be true.

– Mario Toneguzzi

harper tire

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