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After 50 years, business still rolls in

By GEORGE WILKENS | The Tampa Tribune

While many things have changed during the half-century Southern Tire Co. has operated on MacDill Avenue, the basic premise of the family business has not.

No one knows that better than third-generation owner-operator Troy Ragano, who works, lives, shops and dines in South Tampa.

"I see my customers every day, wherever I go," said the 47-year-old, who, at age 10, began working at the family business, sweeping, unloading trailers and changing tires. "I treat my customers the way I'd want to be treated; we're going to make sure you get served when you walk in that door."

His father, Tony, 71, adds, "I think that's how we've managed to stay here for 50 years. If you're honest, you're going to stay in business."

Like many family firms that survive both economic downturns as well as competition from big-budget corporations, Southern Tire started small and developed a base of loyal customers.

Fifty years ago this month, the humble retail operation opened at 3218 S. MacDill, making do in a former barbershop. In those early days, Tony, brother Joe and their father, Joe Sr., mounted tires in a carport on the property, relying upon rolling jacks and other basic tools.

"It was hard going," the elder Ragano, now retired, said of that period when the retail company only sold tires, a carryover from the West Tampa wholesale dealership Joe Sr. founded in 1954.

"There were days we'd put a zero down (in the books); that's it, go home," Tony recalls. His brother worked a second job to make ends meet. "We didn't have much money and we didn't run many ads," Tony said.

The business was expanded to include repairs, and soon friends — and friends of friends — were bringing in cars.

Over the years, the family bought adjoining property, improved the structure, added vehicle bays, hydraulic lifts and workers. Today's 10 employees include Duane Coffman and brother Gregg, manager and assistant manager, respectively, 35-year veterans who started while attending Robinson High.

John Blue, a nine-year veteran and Southern's air-conditioning specialist, was owner-operator of South Howard Automotive for two decades.

Troy took over in 1988 after graduating from the University of South Florida College of Business.

Today's full-service automotive facility employs computerized diagnostics for alignment and balancing, and other state-of-the-art equipment to facilitate repairs of domestic and imported vehicles. Services include routine maintenance, replacing anything from timing chains to water pumps and, of course, tires.

The principles remain the same, said Troy Ragano. "I want you to come back. If you don't need it, I'm not going to sell it to you."

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