Five years ago Barry Steinberg, 59, and Craig Sumerel, 38, both successful tire retailers, ran into each other in the lobby at Pirelli. They traded war stories, griped a bit, and realized that they had so much in common that they ought to talk more regularly. That chance encounter has grown into the National Retail Tire Network, a 12-member peer group that meets for two days three times a year. "We have 275 locations, sell 3 million tires a year, employ 5,000 people, and have revenue of $500 million," says Steinberg (above right). Some manufacturers have offered the group a bulk discount, and the Tire Industry Association's PAC coordinator spoke at a recent meeting after a presentation on a new trend: filling tires with nitrogen instead of air. Group members, who hail from far-flung markets, could never command as much attention on their own. Besides the recognition, members gladly pay $1,200 in annual dues to be less isolated. "I can call up a competitor down the street, but we're guarded with one another," Steinberg says. In the peer group, everything's out in the open, even financials.

Donna Fenn