50 years old but still thinking young

  • Pete Gerry, owner of Pete’s Tire Barns, inside his business’ Athol distribution center. Recorder file photo

  • Pete's Tire Barns. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Dan Feeley powdercoats a wheel at Pete's Tire Barns in Orange Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Ed Warren retreads a tire at Pete’s Tire Barns in Orange Tuesday. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/10/2018 9:54:41 PM

ORANGE — A pile of ground coconut shells soaked up used engine oil on a concrete floor inside Pete’s Tire Barns’ East Main Street retread shop. Had it not been spilled, the oil would have heated the shop’s four-acre building, giving renewed life to a waste product. But accidents happen, so spent coconut shells were repurposed instead.

It should come as no surprise that Pete’s Tire Barns, which specializes in selling specialty tires and rejuvenating old ones, reuses waste products like engine oil and ground coconut shells. And it also shouldn’t be a surprise that on top of the 24-acre distribution center just down the road, 850 solar panels soak up enough sun to power daily operations in both buildings, and the business as a whole saves more than $1 million each year by recycling.

“We try to be environmentally aware, and we try not to stand still,” said Peter A. Gerry, 68, a lifetime Athol resident, sitting inside an office at the 114 New Athol Road distribution center.

He started Pete’s Tire Barns in 1968 across the county line at 18 years old to supply performance tires for his drag-racing buddies. Now, 50 years later, Pete’s Tire Barns employs 260 people at storefronts across New England, at the distribution center, and at two retread shops where old tires are given new life — the rubber is shaved down and replaced with new treads, the wheel hubs are sandblasted and powder coated with fresh paint.

It’s one of the largest independent commercial tire dealerships in the country.

“The business is growing, and the demand for products is coming from all over the world,” Gerry said, leading the way out of the office, past a kiosk displaying energy powered by the rooftop solar panels, and into a massive warehouse filled with towering stacks of tires.

A strong scent of new rubber permeated the space. Bright afternoon sunlight cascaded down from high windows, reflecting light into darkness off the floor. Overhead lights snapped on as Gerry walked, greeting employees by name, and an electric forklift slid silently past, carrying a shipment of recently retread tires ready to be delivered by a fleet of yellow trucks waiting outside.

“We have about 70,000 tires, and we stock some of about 32,000 items,” Gerry said, stopping in front of a stack of smooth, ridged tires. “This was made for a backhoe to go into a cemetery and dig graves. The tread doesn’t tear up the soil.”

Pete’s Tire Barns has made its name by supplying specialty rubber that other tire distributors don’t carry, such as 8,000-pound Cat 992 Loader tires worth $17,000 each. As a rule, Pete’s Tire Barns tries not to turn down customer requests because doing so would send them to competition.

“You’re not going to leave the hay out in the field, you’re going to buy a tire,” Gerry said. To that end, Pete’s Tire Barns has built a network of 19 facilities that deploy work crews from the Canadian border to New York to repair broken down equipment where it lies, with tires supplied by the distribution center.

A global perspective

While the bulk of Gerry’s business (with the exception of some online sales) is done in New England, his perspective is global. There’s a hunger crisis, he says back inside the office. More sustainable farmland is needed, and the only way that crisis will be solved is if everyone pitches in.

On a wall behind Gerry, the last line of his company’s business statement reflects those sentiments: “To be environmentally conscious, and to support our local communities.”

“It’s a way of life to recycle and reuse. We are retread-ers. We repaint the rims so you don’t have to throw them away and buy new ones. We use the rubber dust to make floor mats. We recycle all of our cardboard — Erving Paper Mill makes hospital supplies out of the white writing paper we send. We collect it from all of our stores, and it has saved dumpster fees,” Gerry said.

The savings are a byproduct, and they’re substantial. Small practices add up to big savings — $1,250,000 each year — keeping the business competitive.

“If you’re standing still in business today, you’re going out of business, because everything is moving so fast,” he continued. “And we’re dealing with a world market. Someone is making something differently someplace else in the world.”

On average each year, Pete’s Tire Barns recycles 360,000 pounds of polyurethane (sold for $1 a pound) and nearly 500,000 pounds of rubber (at $1,600 per trailer).

The New Athol Road distribution center, which is surrounded by birdhouses and fencing that allows for animal migration, is heated and cooled by six miles of geothermal piping, infrastructure that saves about $30,000 and eliminates the need for fossil fuels.

The retread shop is heated by used engine oil; electric forklifts eliminate pollutants; fleet service truck bodies are made from recyclable aluminum and aerodynamically designed to reduce fuel usage; wheel weights are made from environmentally friendly material in case they fall off; re-tread tires are built with solar energy; cardboard boxes are recycled and used again; plastic wrapping is sold at 12 cents per pound; and ground coconut shells are substituted for chemical absorbent products.

“We can’t fill the whole earth with trash, because when that goes into the landfill, it breaks down into the ground. It goes into the water table, and people are drinking that. We need to protect our planet for future generations. We’re leaving our kids in an awful mess if we don’t do that,” Gerry said.


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