Customers who walk into Charles Calise's new business might do a double take or check the address to make sure they're in the right place.
The business is tire and auto repair, but it looks, feels and even smells more like a hip urban hotel lobby. Cushy chairs, 60-inch plasma TVs and sleek track lights fill the room.
Calise says that's exactly the idea behind Signature Tire & Auto Care. The business opened in early July in a converted U.S. Post Office building on West Kennedy Boulevard in South Tampa. Calise spent at least $2 million on the project, including the building purchase, renovation and equipment.
“I wanted to mimic the buttery and leathery feel of a classic car,” says Calise. “I didn't want it to feel uninviting.”
Calise's invitation to open the business stems from 2009, when he was laid off from a management position at Cott Beverages. Calise had run the marketing innovation department for the firm, a Tampa-based soft drink, juice and water bottling company. Calise worked in branding and marketing for several other firms before Cott.
The loss of his Cott Beverages job, though, provided opportunity. The traditional tire and auto repair way always bothered Calise, from dirty floors and uncomfortable chairs to messy bathrooms and hidden workspaces, where customers couldn't see what was happening to their cars.
Signature is Calise's solution. Tampa interior designer Chris Rossi designed the 12,000-square-foot facility. In addition to the TVs and chairs, the space includes a large window fronted by bar stools, where customers can now see the work being done on their cars. “We aren't hiding anything,” says Calise.
The facility also makes room for two varieties of customers: business people and people with children. On one end there's a business lounge with Wi-Fi, a computer and a printer. On the other end there's an enclosed playroom with a TV, Xbox and toys.
Calise realizes to make it long-term, Signature's service will have to match its lobby. So to that end, he spent roughly $200,000 on equipment, including $20,000 for a robotic, hands-free tire changer. That machine is one of several high-tech components in the shop.
Calise considered buying an existing tire and car repair shop. But he decided to launch his own business and business concept, so he can have more control of the brand.
The building, at the intersection of a high-traffic area, was the first step. He paid $1.44 million for it in December, according to Hillsborough County property records. Calise spent the first six months of 2011 in renovation and hiring mode. Signature has nine employees.
One plus in the startup process was Calise's concept was well received by banks — far from a sure thing in the current contentious lending environment. He sent his business plan to a group of national and community banks, and three institutions came back with financing offers. He settled on a SBA loan package through Lakewood Ranch-based Community Bank.
Calise says Community Bank, one of the fastest growing Gulf Coast-based community banks, shares his philosophy of doing it new and better. Calise says if the concept works, he will look to open other locations, maybe even franchise it someday.
“You have to not only be different, but relevant,” Calise says. “Everyone has the lowest price, but you have to offer more than that.”