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Sam Winston, the Reluctant Tire Pitchman : Retailing: A familiar face from his TV commercials, the company's owner shuns the spotlight and declines interviews.


Car-crazy California is naturally the nation's biggest tire market, where hundreds of dealers vie for a chunk of the state's roughly $1.3 billion in annual replacement-tire sales. Yet even in this crowd, one man is more familiar than most.

He is Sam Winston, the chairman, majority owner and lead pitchman of Winston Tire Co., which operates 158 stores in California.

Winston has become a household name after years of starring in his company's TV commercials ("Put Sams on Your Car!"). His face also adorns Winston Tire's newspaper ads ("Sam Introduces His Brand-New Signature Tire!"), and his name is on most of the tires he sells.

Yet in spite of his high commercial profile, Sam Moore Winston, 50, avoids the spotlight for himself and his Burbank-based company, which is technically called Oliver & Winston Inc.--the late Ray Oliver was Sam's stepfather and the company's co-founder--but does business under the name Winston Tire.

Because it's closely held, financial information about Winston Tire is not publicly available. Winston and his executives routinely reject interviews with the media. He declined several such requests by The Times, and many of his ex-employees refused to talk about him publicly.

"He's a very private person," said Jean Craig, a principal of Kresser Craig Inc., Winston Tire's advertising agency since 1982. Winston "doesn't particularly like" being the TV spokesman for Winston Tire, but does it because he knows that "he's a recognized personality" who attracts "enormous attention and keeps their awareness high," Craig said.

Many of Winston's rivals know him only by his TV appearances but respect him nonetheless. "A good, clean competitor," said Don Carr, chief executive of 4day Tire Stores, an Irvine-based chain.

The portrait of Winston that emerges from interviews, public records and Winston Tire documents obtained by The Times shows that his company, founded in 1962, now garners about $120 million in annual revenue, probably making him the largest independent tire dealer in California.

For the past four years, in The Times' Consumer Trend Analysis survey of 6,000 respondents annually in Los Angeles and Orange counties, Winston Tire has ranked third behind Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. stores and the Price Club as the place where people last purchased tires. In 1990, 6.5% of the 2,000 who had bought tires in the previous year said they last bought them at Winston Tire. Goodyear was 10.6%, Price Club 8.3%.

But it is a position the Tennessee-born Winston is prepared to relinquish. In an internal memo in November, he said he had been talking since 1988 to "various companies" about buying Winston Tire. He did not mention any names or proposals.

Sources said the price under discussion with the potential buyers was upward of $40 million, a rich price considering Winston Tire's modest profitability.

The company's annual profits in the late 1980s were roughly $2 million to $3 million, or 2 to 3 cents per $1 of sales, according to one source who has seen company financial data. This is not unusual in an industry known for low profit margins. Still, the earnings indicated that Winston wanted a buyer to pay up to 20 times Winston Tire's profits--a hefty multiple.

Winston's memo said he does not plan to entertain any other purchase bids "for the next 2- to 3-year period." Selling the company would raise the question of whether he would be willing to remain associated with the new owners--and keep appearing in their ads.

Winston's competitors concede that those TV ads have been a crucial factor in Winston Tire's growth.

An executive at one Southern California tire chain said, "The basic reason for Winston's success is that he was one of the original tire dealers that used the electronic media for his message of quality at a good price.

"It's not that his values are any greater than mine or anyone else's," the competitor said, "but it's a perception that started a long time ago."

Associates say Winston is as casual, mild-mannered and unostentatious as he appears to be in his ads, even though his estimated 90% stake in Winston Tire is worth tens of millions of dollars. He and other Winston Tire executives often eschew ties at work, as well as fancy jewelry.

But Winston does not deprive himself of all the fruits of success. He owns a 1983 Rolls-Royce and formerly drove a Ferrari. He owns the property of at least three Winston Tire dealerships--in Van Nuys, Fullerton and Bakersfield--along with a million-dollar home in Rancho Santa Fe and a condominium in Beverly Hills, records show.

Winston enjoys big-game hunting, and he directs his tire empire from a headquarters office filled with the stuffed heads of bighorn sheep, bears and other animals he has brought back from Africa and other locales.

But it is Winston's fellow-next-door demeanor that his advertising firm tries to exploit.

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