By: DAVE DEWITTE on November 10, 2006

Nov. 10–Rob Bertling, the new owner of Tires Plus in Coralville, has never doubted the conventional business wisdom that you have to believe in yourself, and “keep the vision.”

“You stay the course, and no matter what comes you have to do that,” says the 37-year-old automobile fanatic, who met the previous owner through a mutual love of high performance Saleen Mustangs.

Even so, Bertling turned to an unlikely source of help, the Women’s Business Center of Iowa, when he had the chance to buy the retail tire and automotive service franchise from his former boss.

While the Women’s Business Center of Iowa was itself on the verge of closing last year, President Joni Thornton guided Bertling through preparation of a two-year business plan, financial projections, and a verbal presentation to lenders for financing.

“Joni took it out of my head and put it into words, to where it was presentable to the Tires Plus franchise, the tire distributors and the bankers,” Bertling said.

Bertling said Thornton even got him to control his usual habit of conversational rambling, so that bankers got the information they needed without the sales pitch.

The outcome was a loan that enabled Bertling in March to convert the opportunity into his longtime dream of owning an automotive business. He hopes to open at least one or two more Tires Plus stores in the future.

Thornton and the Women’s Business Center have taken the same advice — “believe in yourself” and “keep the vision” — to heart in recent months.

Struggling financially, the center closed its office at 136 36th St. Dr. NE in September.

Thornton, who’d overseen the center since 1998, had been paying some of the non-profit operation’s bills from her own pocket for years just to keep the doors open.

Thornton planned to find another job in the lending or startup assistance area. Eventually, she could not give up the center.

After seeing clients at her home for a month or two, Thornton reopened the center this month in a much smaller space at the APAC Building, 425 Second St. SE. She plans to redouble efforts to secure funds for the center from the state and federal government.

Thornton is working with two startups in Iowa City and two in Cedar Rapids, hoping they too will find the satisfaction that Bertling has found.

Bertling was impressed that Thornton could see the potential in his business ideas without even visiting the business he planned to buy.

“She goes by her instincts,” said Bertling, whose mother connected him with the center.

“Her compassion is wonderful.”

Despite its name, the center is not limited to assisting female entrepreneurs, a fact Thornton plans to emphasize more clearly in the future. She says the center got its start at a time when it was harder for entrepreneurial women to get lenders to take them seriously.

The center now answers its phone with “Business Center of Iowa,” a name it has registered with the state.

Bertling says that making a success of the Coralville Tires Plus, which has been trailing its peers in nearby cities, will help him leave behind a transient life of operating other people’s automotive businesses and settle down.

“When a customer comes in, I want them to feel they are entering my house,” he said. “I don’t even have ‘owner’ on my business card,” Bertling said. “I would rather have, ‘head of the house.'”