By Paul Tennant The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
If you encounter a folksy, gregarious woman behind the counter at Independent Tire & Auto Inc. and ask for the owner, she'll smile and say, "You're speaking to her."
Mary Sullivan is a rarity, if not downright unique. There are numerous other tire shops in the Merrimack Valley and most if not all are run by men.
Sullivan has owned and operated Independent Tire & Auto for 15 years. No, she didn't inherit the business from her father or husband. Her father died when she was 10 and she's not married -- but she is engaged.
Sullivan, 48, born and brought up in Lawrence and now living in Methuen, has worked her way up in the industry.
Fresh out of St. Mary's High School, she was hired as a file clerk at Schlott Tire, a Lawrence company that's no longer in business but used to serve customers all the way up to Maine.
One of the sisters at St. Mary's arranged for her to get the job.
"You didn't say no to the nuns," she said with a laugh.
She was promoted to accounts receivable clerk and then began wholesaling tires to garages over the phone, she said.
Sullivan -- she has no connection with the gigantic Sullivan Tire chain -- credits Kurt Schlott, owner of Schlott Tire, with not only giving her a job, but teaching her the business.
"He taught me everything," she said.
Schlott must have had plenty of confidence in Sullivan, because when he opened a shop in Lowell, he picked her to manage it.
All was going well, she said -- until a chain bought out Schlott.
She and the new management, she said, did not see eye to eye.
For example, if the owner of a truck came in for new tires, she'd suggest he buy only three, put the perfectly good spare on one of the wheels and use one of the discarded tires as a spare.
She reasoned, why have a customer buy four new tires if he only needs three? Her bosses, she said, didn't like her approach.
Eventually, she decided she could no longer work for the chain, which has since gone out of business.
"I figured I'd make my move," she said. So not quite 15 years ago, she opened her own business on Merrimack Street in Lawrence.
She borrowed money from the Small Business Administration and her two brothers, she said.
Several banks, she added, turned her down -- and she thinks it was because she is a woman who dared to strike out on her own in a male-dominated business.
After five years in Lawrence, she moved to her present quarters at 20 Old Clark Road, right next to the Lawrence Municipal Airport.
Independent Tire has seven bays. Besides selling and installing tires, the shop does front end alignments, brake jobs, oil changes, exhaust system replacements and air conditioning recharges.
Sullivan employs two mechanics, a tire changer and an office clerk. She's looking to hire another tire changer, she said.
Sullivan said that as far as she knows, she's the only woman who owns and operates a tire business for miles around. The two mechanics and tire changer working for her are men.
She once hired a woman as a tire changer, she said.
"She lasted two days. She didn't like it," Sullivan said. "She had been in the Army and I figured if she could get through basic training, she could get through anything."
Perhaps there's a perception among women that they shouldn't be selling tires or fixing cars. Sullivan said women customers are more apt to challenge her recommendations than men.
So what has kept this feisty Irishwoman in the tire business?
"I enjoy what I do. I love my customers," she said. "I enjoy what I do because I know what I'm doing."
Several times during an interview with The Eagle-Tribune, employees came into Sullivan's office to check on how certain jobs were to be done.
She'd answer quickly and decisively, no nonsense. Nowadays she leaves the hands-on work to her workers, but this woman has changed and repaired tires, done lubrication jobs and changed oil.
Sullivan's experience as a tire business owner has not always been a bowl full of cherries -- or maybe we should say a hubcap full of lug nuts. Back in 2007, she had two employees that didn't get along.
She told the two of them to put their differences aside, but the animosity continued. She finally had to fire one of the two men, she said.
The dismissed worker, Robert Hassam Jr. of Lawrence, came back to the shop Nov. 14, 2007, and shot and wounded the employee he didn't like. He also fired three shots at Sullivan, she said.
This was the occasion when Kyzer, the North Andover police dog who died last December, showed his prowess.
Acting on the command of his handler, then-Sgt., now Lt. Charles Gray, Kyzer took down Hassam as he was coming out of the woods behind the airport.
"He bit him on the head," Sullivan recalled. Hassam ended up getting sent to Bridgewater State Hospital.
Sullivan took out a large newspaper ad thanking her loyal customers for staying with her in the aftermath of that trauma.
On Sept. 2, she and her staff will celebrate Independent Tire's 15th anniversary with an open house at the shop.
There will be plenty of food and fellowship, she said.