CHARLOTTE, N.C.-Neil Rayson imports tires from Poland for farm vehicles. If taking on Goodyear and Firestone isn't enough of a challenge, his small firm also has endured recessions and natural disasters. King's Road Tires (KRT) even survived the Great Flood of '93, which wiped out thousands of square miles of crops in the Midwest-and put a hold on demand for tractor tires.
``When a guy has three feet of water in his field, the last thing he's thinking about is buying tires,'' Mr. Rayson said in an interview at his Charlotte office.
A London native who moved to North Carolina in the late 1980s, Mr. Rayson has carved out his niche as the sole U.S. distributor of Stomil agricultural tires, which are used on farm tractors.
Mr. Rayson realizes that he's bucking tradition by trying to sell tires made in a former Communist state to American farmers.
``A lot of people have the misconception that the Polish people are living in the Dark Ages,'' he said. ``They tend to be more highly educated than we are....The only thing they have been lacking up to now is money.''
All that is changing quickly.
Stomil's clean, efficient manufacturing plants use state-of-the-art technology from England and Germany.
``You could eat a meal off the floor of their factories,'' Mr. Rayson said.
His biggest challenge is persuading American customers to give the tires a test drive. He said intense competition from American tire makers means Stomil tires are a real bargain, since he has to price them below comparable domestic products. As a result, Stomil tires cost less for the same quality.
``If they didn't, our customers wouldn't even give us a try,'' he said.
Stomil, based in Olsztyn, Poland, is a leading European manufacturer of radial farm tires. In the United States, its tires compete with Goodyear, Firestone and Armstrong brand radials.
While Stomil has a thin slice of the American market, Mr. Rayson believes its share will grow as more farmers understand the benefits of radials.
European farmers, he said, use radial tires on their tractors for the same reasons they put them on their private automobiles: fuel efficiency, better handling and longer life.
``The only thing that matters is the tire's performance,'' Mr. Rayson said. ``We do not offer a cheaper version of our radials. We only sell premium tires.
``There is no magic to it,'' he said. ``We've got a good product, and it is competitively priced.''
Mr. Rayson and his partner chose Charlotte as their headquarters for the same reasons many companies come to North Carolina's largest city: It has a large convenient airport and a reputation as a growing financial center.
North Carolina also was ideal because the port at Wilmington has a direct route to Poland. KRT maintains a large tire warehouse in Whiteville, about 40 miles west of Wilmington.
KRT also operates a warehouse in Houston to service Midwestern distributors.
Mr. Rayson would not reveal the company's sales, but said business has grown steadily for the past several years. He supplies tires to large distributors in most regions of the country, particularly the farm-belt states of the Midwest.
``Our business has been built slowly, like building a wall brick by brick,'' he said. ``Our philosophy is to get what we can and hold on to it. We try to increase our sales through our existing dealerships, rather than going after new ones like the larger manufacturers tend to do.''
Mr. Rayson is a business writer for the Associated Press.