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Any company with major expansion plans could opt for a franchising model, effectively renting their business to entrepreneurs for a specified period. There are major advantages to that approach, including retaining complete creative control over a brand while expanding its footprint. But one Canadian automotive service company, Fountain Tire, charted a different path—and in doing so, figured out how to stay locally relevant while working to build a national reputation. Founded as a double-bay garage in 1956 in Wainwright, Alta., the core of Fountain Tire’s expansion strategy involves something not every company is willing to do: relinquish a bit of control for the sake of adaptability.

Instead of franchising new locations, Fountain Tire operates on a partnership model, where the operator of a given location gets a 50% stake. The idea is that a sense of accountability is a powerful motivator to drive high levels of performance across its network of 160-plus stores from B.C. to Ontario. And while it isn’t a national brand quite yet, CEO Jason Herle is confident that a partnership model is the right vehicle for getting there.

“We believe partnerships are the best tool to satisfy customers, communities and stakeholders alike,” he says. “Our local 50% owners can tailor their experience to what their particular market needs. It’s a personalized, collaborative approach to getting the job done. In return, we can offer consistent pricing across our stores, expertise and coaching in various disciplines, and a corporate banking program for our partners. Our partners are part of a larger network while staying deeply rooted in their communities.”

For instance, Fountain Tire locations in urban versus rural centres can have radically different needs. In rural areas, a location might extend its services beyond conventional automotive service and cater to agricultural vehicles like tractors and graders. Employees in those regions are trained accordingly. Meanwhile, Fountain Tire tends to focus on passenger vehicles and light truck tires in urban locations.

It’s also about the little things—how you answer the phone, whether or not you serve coffee, and the freedom to offer occasional services gratis to loyal customers. “It’s freedom within a framework,” says Herle. “The stores look a certain way, for instance. But between a small farming community and downtown Edmonton, our managers have the flexibility to offer exactly what their customers need.”

The approach is not without its challenges—particularly when it comes to finding and nurturing the right leadership. Hiring means finding a balance between the right skill set, entrepreneurial drive and an alignment with the firm’s values and community-focused ethos. “While finding qualified leaders who share our vision is one of our biggest challenges, it’s also what makes our model so effective,” says Herle. “When we find the right partners, even if it takes time to do so, the impact on our business and the communities we serve is profound.”

Herle has his sights set on driving what was once a scrappy one-garage business into a national brand. It won’t be an even road, but there’s something to be said for the idea that success isn’t just about geographical coverage. Staying in the game in the long run, for Fountain Tire, means getting entrenched in local communities and understanding their needs on the ground—not just from high up in a corporate office.

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