From Inspiration At Pottstown Plant, CJ’s Marks 40th Year

BIRDSBORO PA – A family-owned regional tire and automotive business, which marked its 40th anniversary this year, started from a simple idea that came to its founder as he worked a full-time job in the former Firestone tire plant on Armand Hammer Boulevard in Pottstown.

CJ's Tire And Automotive founder Paul "Skip" Levengood Sr., right, and son Paul Jr.

Today, Birdsboro-based CJ’s Tire & Automotive Services operates 12 retail stores throughout southeastern Pennsylvania; a separate automotive parts franchise, called “Mighty Auto Parts,” serving four counties; and an e-commerce division. Ironically, it also includes a wholesale division that occupies 80,000 square feet of space in an industrial park that was once home to Firestone itself.

But Paul “Skip” Levengood Sr. says he didn’t envision that kind of growth in spring 1971, when the company began as “C&J Tire.” He had something far more basic in mind: earning a living by treating customers better than he felt he was being treated.

Too many area tire dealerships back then had bad reputations, Levengood said Wednesday (Dec. 28, 2011). He considered himself a victim of some of them. He’d been working as a tire builder in the Firestone plant since the early 1960s, and like everyone else occasionally replaced a tread or two on the family vehicle. Lousy customer service from vendors was a common complaint.

“I knew I could give better service than what I was receiving at these places. I didn’t want to gouge customers and I was tired of being treated poorly,” Levengood said. “So I decided to open my own store.”

He had help, of course. Levengood, his wife Judy, and a partner and his wife, Carol, combined efforts to launch their store – with its name, C&J, taken from the women’s first initials – inside a converted boat shop in Birdsboro.

The early going was rough, even “tumultuous,” Levengood recalled. The four struggled to keep the business afloat. Levengood would work at the tire plant, while his partner operated their retail store. When his shift was over, Levengood headed to the shop and finished the day’s business, often working well into the evening.

In time, although the store was still small, it was “doing a decent business.” However, differences arose in the partnership, Levengood claimed, that took their toll on the operation and its customers. It “couldn’t survive with a split personality,” he figured, and made an offer to buy out his partner.

It was a barely affordable proposition, according to Levengood, that “took every dollar” the couple had. So in addition to the Firestone job and running the shop, he picked up additional hours as a bouncer at a local night club. He and Judy spent nights and weekends managing the tire inventory, paying the bills, and balancing their books.

More adversity struck shortly after the buyout was completed. Burglars ransacked the fledgling business in the middle of the night, Levengood said, stripping the store of most of its assets and just about every tire in inventory. That forced him to work “creatively” with suppliers, he joked.

The business survived, even thrived, and by 1973 Levengood reports he left his job at Firestone and immersed himself full-time into C&J Tire. Slightly more than a year later, the store celebrated its first year “in the black.”

In 1991, C&J Tire evolved into CJ’s Tire & Automotive, and Levengood opened a second location in West Lawn PA, outside Reading. That was followed with locations in New Holland (1993), and Lititz (1994). The wholesale division was also taking root as a regional tire distributor. More family members got involved, too.

“Tires are a commodity, so it’s up to us to show our customers how and why we’re different,” explains son Paul Levengood Jr. “Our formula is really pretty simple. We emphasize that it’s not about who is right, it’s about what is right. Taking care of the customer, hiring people with very high morals, and treating both customers and employees like they are family is what we are all about.”

From just four employees in 1971, CJ’s now employs more than 200 full and part-time sales people, tire and auto technicians, managers and administrative staffers.

As it looks ahead to 2012, the Levengoods said their company plans to open another two retail stores by June; locally, it already operates stores in Limerick, North Coventry, Kimberton and, naturally, Birdsboro. It’s also re-styling several showrooms to make them more functional and comfortable, revising its websites, and taking a new approach to marketing.

All of it, the elder Levengood noted, is to ensure that people who patronize his business feel like they got value for their money … the same feeling he craved four decades ago.

Photo from CJ’s Tire