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Direct Tire founder Barry Steinberg dies at 75

Barry Steinberg
Barry SteinbergCourtesy of the Steinberg family

People who worked for Barry Steinberg knew he wasn’t the type to hold a grudge over a mistake. The founder of Direct Tire and Auto Service prided himself on his judgment of character, and he went out of his way to hire people recently released from state prisons.

But when Mr. Steinberg caught a staff member selling a woman an unnecessary brake job, that salesman didn’t get a second chance. He fired the worker on the spot. The value of that transaction, he recalled later, was nothing compared with the potential harm of driving away a customer. Mr. Steinberg said he offered to return the woman’s money, and she came back many times as a satisfied customer.

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“The best sale we make,” he said, “is no sale at all.”

Mr. Steinberg, whose playful advertising campaigns made him a well-known face of Boston retail, died April 27 of prostate cancer. The Boston resident was 75.

Mr. Steinberg and a friend opened Direct Tire’s flagship Watertown store in 1974 after a stint selling tires wholesale over the phone. Born in Port Chester, N.Y., Mr. Steinberg had moved to Boston shortly after a tour in the Army, serving in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

He soon bought out his cofounder, and he would build his first store into a chain of four locations, but he had an even larger presence in the business community both because of his outspoken advocacy for small businesses and his frequent appearances on billboards, television, and radio.

His advertising strategies included slogans such as “We’ll fix it so it brakes” and “We’ll brake, shock, and exhaust you.”

He enjoyed the visibility, and he felt that the campaigns helped the business (which he invariably pronounced “Dye-rect tire”) but Mr. Steinberg credited his success in business to the relationships he built with staff and customers.

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“The key to him is that he walked the walk and talked the talk,” said Barry Tatelman, a longtime friend of Mr. Steinberg and retired co-owner of Jordan’s Furniture. “He ran a good operation, and he believed in it, and his people believed in him.”

Mr. Tatelman, who spent years appearing alongside his brother, Eliot, in Jordan’s commercials, said Mr. Steinberg’s authenticity was the key to his pitch: “If you believe it, it comes across. People can usually figure that out.”

Mr. Steinberg built his company’s culture largely through the force of his personality, according to friends, co-workers, and family. He gave freely of his time, remembered names of everyone’s kids, and would even lend money or give pay advances to staff who were in financial trouble.

“When he sat down with somebody, he made them feel like the world was revolving around them,” said Bob Lane, the longtime general manager of Direct Tire who is taking over the company’s Watertown store after Mr. Steinberg’s death. ”He just gave 100 percent focus, not allowing any outside noise to get in the way of that.”

In return, Mr. Steinberg expected the people around him to meet his standards. Those who fell short knew about it right away. His corrections were direct, never personal, and made with confidence that his employees would be able to carry out his wishes.

“The level of confidence that he let everybody feel in themselves is why so many employees have been so successful with him over the decades,” Lane added. Mr. Steinberg also became focused on ensuring a supply of talent for his industry.

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Direct Tire was an enthusiastic participant in the state Department of Correction work release program, which connected Mr. Steinberg with some of his most valued employees, according to family members and Lane. Other causes included vocational education, which he believed should be expanded to meet the needs of his industry.

As his company grew over the years, Mr. Steinberg puzzled over how to scale the culture of the organization over a wider footprint, and he weighed each business expansion carefully. “You always take away business from one if you open another,” he once said of his stores.

In recent years, he had begun planning to step back from Direct Tire, arranging for Lane to take over the flagship store. Direct Tire announced other details of the transition following his death. Sullivan Tire and Auto Service will acquire two other stores in Medway and Peabody. A fourth location, in Norwood, will close.

Mr. Steinberg’s reach in the industry was made greater by his ability to network among retailers. He was recognized in 2005 by the business magazine Inc. for his efforts in putting together the National Retail Tire Network, a group of tire sellers from different regions who banded together to talk about strategy and negotiate bulk discounts.

He was also considered an innovator in customer service. Direct Tire would have its mechanics take a video of what they were fixing and why as a way of explaining to clients what they were paying for. And it was among the early adopters of Openbay, a Cambridge startup that runs an online marketplace for vehicle repair.

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“He was always way, way, way ahead of anyone I knew,” said Rob Infantino, founder of Openbay. “And he always approached things with an open mind. He never shot anything down on first glance. He always listened, learned.”

Infantino cold-called Mr. Steinberg when he was developing the idea for his company, and an initial conversation about the potential gave rise to a deep friendship. They continued to speak regularly until Mr. Steinberg’s death.

Like others who knew him, Infantino marveled at how someone as busy as Mr. Steinberg could be so generous with his time. Lane recalled how, after a decade with Direct Tire, it was Mr. Steinberg who helped him select rings and think through the arrangements for his wedding.

Mr. Steinberg’s children said he rarely took the stresses and demands of work home with him, but he did bring the same fatherly energy and enthusiasm to his family life. He was married for 41 years to Penny Steinberg. They each brought two children from prior marriages into their blended family.

He is survived by his wife, their children — Jason Steinberg of Queens, N.Y.; Matthew Steinberg of Palmer; Dan Nesson of Denver; and Sara Nesson of Santa Monica, Calif. — and six grandchildren. Mr. Steinberg is also survived by sister Judy Carlish of Hollywood, Fla.

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Memorial services were held privately.

“He was the most selfless, gracious guy,” said, Matthew Steinberg. “You walk in the room and he’s already trying to figure out what he can do for you.”

Barry Steinberg’s children all had their run starting on the bottom rung as workers at his stores. Though none felt the pull toward the automotive industry that he did, Mr. Steinberg was delighted to see each of them find a career that engaged them.

“Your work can be something that’s really special, and not just a punch in punch out kind of life,” said Matthew Steinberg, who is head brewer at Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Company in Framingham. “I had that lesson taught to me super early on.”

But as passionate as he was about his job, Mr. Steinberg relished being away from work. Family members recalled Mr. Steinberg relishing the ruckus wrought by a full house of children and grandchildren. He particularly enjoyed kicking back with a martini at the family lake house in Jaffrey, N.H., building tree forts, and taking boat rides.

“I actually think that he enjoyed the chaos better,” said his son Jason Steinberg. “Fireworks displays, being out on the boat flinging people on inner tubes. It was just who he was. He was so much fun.”







Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.