Published on January 10, 2014

Tire makers concerned by unstable economy

John Baratta, Bridgestone Americas Inc. president, consumer tire replacement sales

AKRON (Jan. 10, 2014) — Tire manufacturers tend to agree that 2013 ended up being a difficult year for the industry, most notably because of the adjustments everyone had to make with the removal of the tariffs on Chinese-made passenger and light-truck tires and the low-price product coming in.

The unstable nature of the U.S. economy is still a concern for tire manufacturers, but many still saw some growth in 2013. Here's a look at where some tire makers see the upcoming year headed, based on a Tire Business survey and interviews.

"From an operational standpoint we did very well," said John Baratta, Bridgestone Americas Inc. president, consumer tire replacement sales.

"Our OE business was very strong and replacement had moderate growth. Both OE and replacement had significant growth in strategic and higher rim categories."

On Bridgestone's commercial side of the business, Matt Stevenson, vice president of marketing for the commercial marketing division, said "business was overall very sound, but there was some uncertainty related to economic conditions."

Bob Phoenix, vice president, automotive sales for American Kenda Rubber Industrial Co. Ltd.

Bob Phoenix, vice president, automotive sales for American Kenda Rubber Industrial Co. Ltd., had a similar sentiment.

"The economy is still a concern. We are seeing indicators that it is improving, but only at a slow rate," he said.

Tom McNamara, executive vice president, sales and marketing for GITI Tire (USA) Ltd., said the company was pleased with 2013 results "in spite of multiple market challenges, persistently higher unemployment rates in the U.S. and slow economic growth."

He added that "our national retail footprint has grown as a result of recognition of our product quality, our supply chain capabilities and our commitment to our dealers."

Tariffs' expiration

"A lot of the things that have been an issue for tire makers have really affected tire dealers just as much," said Rick Brennan, Falken Tire Corp. executive director of product strategy.

"2013 was a challenging year for Falken, as I think it was for everyone. But for us, Falken has been growing at a kind of a double-digit pace for the last seven or eight years," he said. "And so when the last couple years — and I will say specifically 2013 — was a bigger challenge because of the tariff coming off changed the vision of the marketplace a little bit."

Harry Choi, president and CEO of Kumho Tire U.S.A. L.L.C., said, "We are still not 100-percent recovered…. We are suffering a lot of the problems because the market price is going down, but I am sure we can overcome this problem."

Consumers are still trying to buy some cheaper products, he said, but Kumho is focusing on not just sticking price as the value, but looking for success in the company's product values.

Mr. Brennan said even with the pricing challenges, Falken's sales volume went well in 2013.

"We didn't lose ground as far as volume in the marketplace," he said. "We were about to maintain, but it came at a cost and that cost was price and profit…. Expectation of price levels of profit, even though we knew it was going to drop, it was even more severe than expectations for 2013."

Mr. Baratta said Bridgestone saw more consumer interest in "value tires due to the Chinese tariff expiration," but that was expected.

"Non-RMA imports increased record amounts, but we expect that to level off in 2014," he added.

Products and plants

Although pricing was an issue, tire manufacturers are still moving forward with new products as well as evaluating their manufacturing plants in the U.S. market.

Yokohama Rubber Co. Ltd. announced the building of a commercial tire plant in West Point, Miss., in April and broke ground at the site in September.

Takayuki Hamaya, Yokohama Tire Corp. chief operating officer, called the company's new plant "very significant because it's the first plant we're building in the U.S., and when it opens in October 2015, it will produce 1 million tires annually.

"The decision to build in the U.S. was a long-time dream for Yokohama. Now there are many new possibilities and this is just the beginning. We have enough space at the plant to expand. This offers us new capabilities and strategies."

Yokohama launched two ultra-high performance tires for its Advan line in 2013: Advan Sport V105 and Advan Neova AD08 R.

Mr. Hamaya said Yokohama plans to release new products in the consumer, commercial and OTR tire segments in 2014.

"At this point, we are looking at 2014 as a record year in terms of product launches," he added.

Kumho announced plans recently to restart work on the factory it plans to build in Macon, Ga.

"Kumho never wavered on our commitment," Mr. Choi said.

The company is looking forward to the new factory that will start production by 2016, he said, noting that the plant will produce approximately 3 million tires a year initially, with expansion plans of up to "10 million tires I hope very soon."

Kumho focused on OE fitments in 2013 and will continue those efforts going into 2014. Mr. Choi said the company is supplying tires to 35 vehicle makers and that this is a great way to "prove our technology" and "that's why we are focused on the OE fitments."

He said Kumho plans to launch a variety of tires in 2014. These include the Ecsta PS91, a premium UHP summer tire; PA71, a grand touring UHP all-season; TA31, a HP touring all season; TA11, broadline touring all season; KL33, performance all season; and AT51, all terrain.

For Kenda, Mr. Phoenix said 2013 showed strong sales for its Kenetica touring tire, while its Vezda Eco low-rolling-resistance tire began to gain traction. Launching its Klever M/T mud tire exceeded the company's expectations, he added.

"Kenda plans to launch two new patterns in 2014; one is a new CUV/SUV tire. We will also launch a new UHP tire."

Commercially, Mr. Stevenson said the launch of Bridgestone's Firestone Eco line of products in 2013 was successful.

"Also in 2013, we saw continued success with the Ecopia line, the Bridgestone brand of eco-friendly tires and also the re-launch of our Dayton line of truck tires."

Rick Brennan, Falken Tire Corp. executive director of product strategy

Looking to 2014

Tire makers are forecasting that 2014 will exhibit many of the same conditions as 2013 — but maybe to a less-severe degree.

"We're not going to see a huge recovery back to the days of 2006," Mr. Brennan said.

"It's still going to be a similar challenge as it was in 2013. There may be some easing of the pressure and the growth of the low-priced tires coming into the marketplace because it's kind of starting to equalize a little bit."

Overall, he said, there is not going to be a huge change in the marketplace.

Mr. McNamara said low-cost radial tire manufacturers "entering the market and disrupting market harmonies" may be an issue for the industry in 2014.

"As an industry, we must continue to ensure responsibility and ethics for manufacturing of quality tires for the North American consumer at a reasonable price," he added.

Mr. Hamaya said in the consumer segment, "We expect increased demand, but also increased competition.

"There are many low-cost imports, which are impacting everyone in the market."

He said Yokohama believes its strategy is "poised to succeed…. We expect to improve upon our success in 2013. The market will still be challenging, but we are in a good position."

Mr. Hamaya said he thinks demand in the commercial tire business will continue to improve throughout the year. "The competition will increase, too, because everybody sees the opportunities," he added. "OTR will come back…but not in 2014. It will take a couple more years."

The firm has several new products scheduled to launch in all three segments, he said, "and we are committed to continued growth in the U.S."

Mr. Baratta said Bridgestone expects continued increases in the OE and replacement markets "with more first replacement sales as the economy continues to improve, and given the increases the industry has seen in new vehicle sales over the last several years."

In the commercial segment, Mr. Stevenson said Bridgestone expects "very moderate growth in 2014."

Mr. Choi said Kumho started to see success toward the second half of 2013 and expects to see that trend continue into 2014.

Mr. Phoenix sees the economy "improving slightly and we are once again optimistic about our continued growth in the U.S. replacement market in 2014."

Mr. Barratta pointed out that after two years of mild winters, the 2013 winter has been more traditional, which has "been great for the Blizzak (winter tire) sales and bodes well for 2014 sales.

"We feel primed because we have a new Bridgestone Blizzak tire coming online, as well."

Mr. Stevenson said the areas of concern going into 2014 include "the slow growth of the economy and the impact of health care on small businesses. And as always, we will be keeping an eye on the competitive landscape."

Mr. Brennan said one of Falken's focuses for 2014 will be on its dealers and their needs.

One of the challenges dealers had in 2013, he said, has been pricing in the marketplace, and some of these challenges have impacted the dealers' ability to "withstand the pressure of lost profit in the marketplace, so we're taking efforts in 2014 to help on the educational point of view, help on face-to-face, interfacing with not just the dealer principles, but the counter people to focus more on education" and what the impact of some of the decisions can have.

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To reach this reporter: jkarpus@crain.com; 330-865-6143.

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