Rebounding from tragedy: Dealer’s
unexpected death brings family together
By Kathy McCarron
Dana (left), Jason and Kathi Berge are pulling together to run NYS Discount Tire.
PORT JEFFERSON, N.Y.—When tire dealer Ron Berge died unexpectedly
last December at age 51 from a heart attack, he left his wife of 26 years alone to run the two-outlet dealership they had
built over the years.
“It was a horrible shock,…but the family pulled together,” said Kathi Berge,
quickly adding that she never considered closing or selling NYS Discount Tire, which her husband founded in 1974. Instead,
two of the couple’s four grown children left college to help run the business with their mother.
support has helped the dealership grow and thrive so far this year, despite the difficult personal and economic challenges.
Mr. Berge started his career selling tires out of his garage before opening stores in Huntington Station and Port Jefferson
on Long Island. The couple expanded the business to two more locations at one point but discovered the hard way that without
their physical presence at the two additional stores, they were unprofitable and subject to employee theft. So Mrs. Berge
ran the Port Jefferson outlet, which was open only part time to sell tires on a cash-and-carry basis, while her husband managed
the Huntington Station store, a full-time operation that was much busier and offered tire mounting services in its four bays.
“He knew millions of people,” Mrs. Berge said, recalling how Ron would offer customers deals. “We
still have people come in every day asking for him.... He built a good customer base.”
Their four children literally
grew up in the tire store, according to Mrs. Berge, before going on to pursue other careers. Amy is a police officer, Shanna
is in beauty school, Dana was in college to pursue a paralegal career while Jason was studying music.
After their father’s
death, Dana, 25, and Jason, 20, sidelined their studies to help run the business, with Dana assisting her mother at the Port
Jefferson store, while Jason is managing the Huntington Station outlet. The dealership employs three at each location.
husband always wanted him (Jason) in the business.… Jason decided it was the right thing to do. Now he loves the tire
business. My husband would be absolutely thrilled,” Mrs. Berge said.
As for Mrs. Berge, while she had managed
a small store for years, she was thrust into handling the gritty details of running a business totally overseen by her husband,
who handled all the ordering of inventory, supplies and equipment—all things she now has had to learn.
hard, but I’m learning. I had to learn on the spot. I started comparing old bills.… I try not to pay more than
he did,” Mrs. Berge said, admitting she just might have developed into a tougher negotiator than her husband.
also managed to fulfill one of her husband’s goals by moving the small Port Jefferson operation to another building
a mile away that has four bays. Now the store offers mounting, balancing, tire rotation and brake services and can service
tires up to 26-inch rim diameters with equipment Mr. Berge had purchased in anticipation of finding a larger location. The
couple had started looking for a new location last year.
“A lot of people didn’t want to go around the
corner to get their tires mounted,” she said of the old store. Parking also was limited at the old site. The couple
had held off expanding the Port Jefferson location for years, even though Mrs. Berge admitted “it was not busy at all”
because “my husband was doing well at the other store and you just get used to something.”
The store relocation
and added services actually helped the dealership’s overall sales increase this year despite the economic recession,
Mrs. Berge said.
As for tire brands, NYS Discount sells “everything,” she said. The dealership participates
in the T3 dealer network of Michelin North America Inc.’s Tire Centers L.L.C. unit and Continental North America Inc.’s
Gold dealer program.
In addition to a new store, the company has launched a Web site Jason Berge designed—www.nystire.com—to
promote the business and plans to eventually offer online ordering. It also purchased a nitrogen inflation machine to begin
offering nitrogen tire fills at its Huntington Station location. NYS claims it’s the only shop to offer the service
in its area.
Noting the super-competitiveness of the local markets, Mrs. Berge said “there are a lot of stores
per square inch.”
NYS Discount competes by trying to live up to its name and offer competitive prices, especially
by selling a lot of private brand tires. “We give excellent service and discount prices. We meet other’s prices,”
she said, adding, “With the economy today, that’s what people are looking for. People are not spending their money
The dealership also has developed a sense of trust with its customers, Mrs. Berge said. “They
trust whatever (tire) I say will be OK for them.”
For the future, she is considering adding auto repair services,
custom wheels and “maybe do a little more” wholesaling out of the company’s warehouse building adjacent
to its Huntington Station store.
In the meantime, the dealership will continue to rely on word-of-mouth advertising
to supplement ads in small local magazines and continue its tradition of charitable contributions to the local community.
Mrs. Berge said she and her husband were active in supporting local organizations, including providing discounts to churches
and hospitals, donating T-shirts to the area high school and offering free tires for raffles.