Keeping Niagara families and farmers on the move for over 50 years
For the past 50 years, three generations of the Enns family have been quietly building a business that almost everyone in Niagara-on-the-Lake knows.
In 1971, Jake Enns and his wife Anne Marie, opened Enns Battery & Tire, tucked in behind their small bungalow on Four Mile Creek Road, just off Lakeshore Road.
Entering its sixth decade of operation, the family-owned company sells and services thousands of tires annually for area drivers and farmers.
By 1993, one of their sons, Rudy and his wife Dorothy, were ready to take over the business from his parents.
And now its Julieanne’s turn. At 28, she’s the youngest child of Rudy and Dorothy.
Each transition has been a little unexpected.
Jake was already working at Direct Winter Transport in St. Catharines as a carpenter when he married Anne Marie in 1954. They moved directly into their new house, just in front of what would become their burgeoning tire business 15 years later.
They met at the Red Brick Church (Niagara United Mennonite Church) on Niagara Stone Road. Both sang in the choir and, according to Anne Marie, “lived on love for the first few years.”
Both are German Mennonites. Jake arrived in Canada in 1948 from the Ukraine. Anne Marie, two years later, from Poland.
In the late 1960s, Direct Winter moved its operation to Hamilton and after a few months avoiding the relocation, Jake decided he didn’t want to move his young family from Virgil.
“He had a small side business repairing and rebuilding old batteries,” remembers Anne Marie, now 86, still living not far from their business on Creek Road. “He’d pick up scrap batteries, fill them with acid, balance them and sell them to farmers.”
But an acquaintance in the tire business gave him some good advice: “You know, Jake, cars have only one battery, but they need four tires.”
That single, unexpected sentence sparked the creation of Enns Battery & Tire. It began as a little backyard business with the tires stored in the basement of their house.
It was 1971. Son Rudy was 13, the second of four children — an older brother and two young sisters.
“I always thought Rudy would be a social worker,” says Anne Marie. “In a way, I guess he is.”
He attended Niagara District and helped at the tire shop when he could. Church was a big part of his life too, spending time singing as often as possible.
He was nearing his final year when he fell for Dorothy Wiens, a young almost-16-year-old acquaintance from church. Not surprisingly, Dorothy also sang in the choir.
“We were high school sweethearts,” smiles Dorothy at the memory. “Corny story.”
Rudy smiles, too. “I robbed the cradle.” He was 18.
But Dorothy was also determined. “I had a lot of things to do.” She attended the University of Toronto, achieved her chartered account designation and began working in Toronto.
Even when they were first married in 1984, they lived in Burlington. She commuted to Toronto. Rudy to Virgil, working for his father at Enns and his sideline business selling and installing first-generation car stereos and cellphones.
Fast-forward almost a decade. Jake and Anne Marie, who had done all the company’s bookkeeping, were ready to retire. They were building a new house that Anne Marie still lives in today. Jake died in 2012.
Rudy and Dorothy didn’t think they had the wherewithal to buy the business. “When we really took a look at it,” says Dorothy, the self-avowed family ‘Minister of Finance,’ we discovered we could afford it.”
Less than a month after the birth of their youngest child, Julieanne, in April 1993, they took over the business. Julieanne has two older siblings: Emily living locally and Jeremy, in Guelph.
The business has changed a lot in those almost 30 years.
“Let me tell you, selling a tire in 1993 is not like selling a tire now,” Dorothy says. “Over time you don’t notice the changes, but when you look back, whoa! This is craziness.”
Firstly, the sheer number of brands and sizes. “In 1993 there were fewer brands and only smaller sizes,” says Dorothy. “Today with multicar families, seasonal tires, and more brands, we just can’t hold our own inventory. So, one change is that our main suppliers deliver twice daily.”
Rudy points to a less obvious change. In the early days, Niagara farmland was mostly in tenderfruit. Over the years, much of that acreage has transitioned to grapes.
“Farmers have always been important customers for us,” he says. “As a general rule, a hundred acres in peaches takes 100 tires. A hundred acres of grapes takes 20. That’s a big change for us.”
Dorothy makes it clear that education and safety have become much more important goals in recent years. “Look at free retorquing. That’s when you come back to us, 50 to 100 kilometres after tire installation, to make sure the new tires are on good and tight. That’s really important to us.”
Like many small businesses in smaller communities, marketing is a challenge, particularly letting newcomers know the company exists.
A few years ago, they had an idea. Big city marketers would call it guerilla marketing — unusual events designed so customers remember the company in an unaccustomed way.
“Rudy and I were out driving one day and were shocked by the amount of new residential building underway.”
“How do we get to these people?” they wondered. “So, we made up a little card and we bought a whole bunch of little potted tulips. And we went door to door, to introduce ourselves, giving out ‘Welcome to the community’ tulips.”
Like the generation before, at about the same age as their predecessors, Rudy and Dorothy are now ready to retire.
“We’ve had organic growth,” says Rudy. “It’s been good. It’s time.”
But he’s concerned about the poor success rates of third-generation businesses.
They are hesitant to pass the company legacy on to Julieanne. But family meetings and some outside advice have convinced them the time is right.
Julieanne attended Colonel John Butler School, on East West Line, Eden College and then went off to Laurier University for a business degree.
Disillusioned, she left Laurier and came home for the summer of 2014, wondering what to do next.
“My mother said: ‘Go and sit over there and get to work. Post invoices. Paperwork stuff.’”
According to Dorothy, Julieanne was incredibly shy, but exceptionally hardworking. “She started working at Abe Epps farm when she was 13.”
“Lo and behold, my daughter, who was so shy, is now front line here, talking to people. And people love her. She’s sharp and organized. She has blossomed. Who knew?”
Julieanne seems a little surprised at how she has come to love the business.
“We would sometimes be here after school. There was a big, fenced area in the back that was full of tires. Towers of tires. The funnest playground. Not always the best idea — we got a couple of extra cuts — but it was so much fun.”
When she unexpectedly began working in the office, Julieanne learned by absorbing everything that was going on. “I would just listen to everyone around me.”
As she grew more confident, she was invited by major suppliers to attend product and sales conventions all over North America.
“That was pretty helpful. It was pretty cool.” Her effervescence sounds more like Generation Y than tire-speak.
But she’s quickly back to business.
She acknowledges there aren’t many women in the tire business. “When I go to those supplier events, there are very few women. It is mostly male dominated. But I don’t really mind. I can hold my own. It’s another element of the challenge.”
And she likes the business.
“When I was younger, I didn’t think I would. I didn’t realize how much into cars I was. Starting here came very easily for me. There’s a bit of pride in the family business. It’s something my grandpa started. To be able to carry on his legacy, that means a lot to me.”
While the transition isn’t complete, it’s well underway.
“Julieanne has gradually assumed more and more leadership,” says Dorothy. “We listen to her a lot and we defer a lot of the decisions to her.”
In fact, there is already a handshake photo of the three hanging on Dorothy’s office wall, celebrating the transition.
It’s not surprising that Julieanne is mulling through ways to advance the company under her leadership.
“We’re pretty maxed out now,” she says, obviously not wanting to close any doors yet. “But we may not need to change. I think we’re doing pretty well.”
Enns employs 10 people. “Part of the transition challenge is that some of our people are nearing retirement. We’ll need to deal with that.”
“And I won’t likely be able to do both the jobs my mother and father do. So, I’ll have to deal with that.”
But she’ll have lots of help and support.
Every Monday Julieanne’s grandmother, Anne Marie, as the family matriarch, prepares and serves a full meat-and-potatoes dinner for any of her four children’s families (including eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren) who can make it to her home in Virgil. It’s been going on for years.
You just know this extended four-generation family is ready to support Julieanne any way it can.