A Des Moines family business meets the road
Hilltop Tire Service has prospered for 85 years in Des Moines; now it’s time for a second location
Friday, February 08, 2013 7:00 AM
Hilltop Tire Service
2914 Hubbell Ave., Des Moines
8277 Birchwood Court, Johnston
Sooner or later, every successful business owner has to make the decision whether to spin his wheels or drive off in a new direction.
After 85 years at East 29th Street and Hubbell Avenue, the Holt family made the decision to expand their 85-year-old Hilltop Tire Service to a second location in Johnston.
The operation is headed up these days by brothers Martin and Doug Holt. They are the grandsons of Leonard Holt, who bought a dilapidated filling station in 1927 after deciding that he couldn’t support his family by selling vegetables from a 40-acre farm located nearby.
Since that time, the business has gone through a series of expansions at East 29th and Hubbell and its day-to-day business operations have varied from pumping gas, helping farmers make the switch from steel-cleated wheels to rubber tires for their tractors, running a retread operation and operating a hardware store.
The constant theme has been an unshakable religious faith customers might be aware of but encounter only if they want to buy new tires or brakes on a weekend. Since 1965, Hilltop Tire has been open Monday through Friday, only.
“Our profits haven’t suffered as a result,” Martin Holt said. His grandfather made the decision to shorten the workweek, leaving Saturdays for family and Sundays for worship.
Leonard Holt’s guiding hand still seems to steer the business.
The business Leonard Holt bought had fallen into disrepair and at first wasn’t much competition for two other filling stations located at the intersection, Martin Holt said.
In those days, Hubbell was the main route for commercial traffic entering Des Moines from Chicago.
Leonard couldn’t help noticing that one of the stations was a spot for the fellas to gather, smoke cigars and chat around a potbellied stove. There wasn’t a lot of trade, and he didn’t want to copy that business model.
Included in that flow of commerce were the delivery trucks of the Caldwell and Hartung company, hauling The Des Moines Register. The company was operating out of Prairie City at the time, and the owners wanted their drivers to be able to buy gasoline on an account.
That launched a fleet service line of business that continues to this day. It also led to a long-term association between the Holts and Firestones – the tire building family out of Akron, Ohio.
Leonard found out that Caldwell and Hartung assessed the condition of their truck tires twice a year and sent out bids for replacements. Leonard wrote a letter to Harvey Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., to inquire about the cost of truck tires. With the information in hand, he underbid the competition and won the Caldwell and Hartung tire business.
The truck fleet business was good, but Leonard’s business, at the time called Holt Service Station, prospered by serving area farmers.
Leonard hired a welder to cut the cleats off of steel-wheeled tractors so that rubber tires could be mounted on the existing rims. During World War II, he started a vulcanizing operation because of a shortage of rubber tires. When the demand for retreads eased after the war, he opened a hardware business in the shop, which was next door to the filling station.
Those were all sound business decisions, but his most significant decision was to keep his family involved in the business.
“We think it is a parent’s responsibility to train our children in business and values,” Martin Holt said.
The Holts are Plymouth Brethren. Their homes do not have televisions or radios. At one point, the children were removed from public schools and taught at home. The church started its own school. The family does not send their children to college.
“We believe a lot of poison can come from higher education,” Martin Holt said.
They begrudgingly adopted use of the Internet on a highly restricted basis. They believe it is a safe way to provide some college education through online courses. And it is an effective way to communicate with vendors and customers.
The tire store is not open after 5 p.m., because evenings are devoted to church activities. However, because the service technicians at both locations are not members of the Plymouth Brethren, special needs can be met after normal business hours.
Leonard’s sons worked at the filling station, as did their sons. Martin began managing the operation the year he graduated from high school because his father was in poor health. Leonard was still alive, and he oversaw Martin’s apprenticeship.
“The business landed on us, and we had a support team,” Martin said. “We were very young, but grandpa saw potential in us. He had faith in us.”
That faith in future generations is being played out with the expansion to Johnston, where Martin’s nephew, Wes, will run the business at 8277 Birchwood Court.
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