WASHINGTON-Phil Friedlander has probably seen more change than a subway conductor. Still, the executive vice president of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association has tried to keep the NTDRA on track and changing with the times.
Admittedly, in his 40 years with the association that task hasn't become any easier. Especially since 1978, when he took charge of the NTDRA's administrative staff.
Run down a list of concerns facing independent tire dealers: declining profit margins, health care expenses, expanding distribution channels, (add your own here)-and it's easy to see how Mr. Friedlander might become agitated.
It comes, perhaps, from the frustration of trying to anticipate change, stay on top of it, yet try to remain all things to all dealers.
And if there's anything he prides himself on, it's ``always being there'' for the tire dealer....
``That's the cornerstone of this whole operation,'' he said. ``You gotta be right and you gotta be quick. That's been my basic philosophy and the philosophy of the people on this staff.''
Reached at the NTDRA's Washington headquarters, 65-year-old Philip P. Friedlander Jr. ``quietly'' observed his 40th anniversary with the organization June 23. No cards, no cakes, none of that sentimental stuff, thank you.
He obligingly spent some time on the phone with TIRE BUSINESS looking at the industry he's done more than merely observe.
And although his retirement is a short two years away, don't ask. There's just too much to be done yet to worry about a rocking chair.
Regrets? Like Sinatra, yeah, he's had a few.
``I regret that the distribution system is not better, that we've not been able to play as much a role on a consistent basis,'' Mr. Friedlander said. ``But hopefully, the `Independent Tire Dealers Bill of Rights' is bringing about some improvements there.''
He calls the Bill of Rights one of the NTDRA's ``most significant volunteer-driven programs, conceptually and otherwise.'' He emphasizes volunteer.
``No, I don't feel any real regrets. Everything isn't perfect, but we've done our damndest, made commitments and stuck with them. We in the association are consensus builders. That's a hard job.''
He considers himself ``the last surviving activist'' integrally involved with the creation of the nation's ``interstate defense highway system.'' Spurred by a group of industry people back in about 1955, it made an indelible impact on what had up until then been a simple distribution system.
In most cases, Mr. Friedlander said, tire manufacturers such as Goodyear, Firestone and General had dealt with single-outlet dealers. But as the U.S. highway system evolved and expanded, so did the tire makers' reach.
He thinks for a moment, then adds other factors he feels significantly changed the tire industry, and dealers' livelihoods, forever: the advent of the radial tire, which has cut the frequency that dealers see their tire-buying customers; the rise in popularity, beginning in the '60s, of private label tires; the more recent emergence of discount operations, warehouse clubs and mass merchandisers.
He also predicts that as more women become tire and automotive service buyers, the industry will again metamorphose, forcing it to realize ``without retail customers, it has no business.''
Unfortunately, he notes, the industry is too price-driven, which puts ``the squeeze'' on everyone.
Ironically, he advises dealers today that it's very hard for them ``to be all things to all people.'' The industry trend toward specialization will continue, especially in the commercial end, he said, and the natural trend is to focus on a specific area of business.
Mr. Friedlander feels not enough attention has been paid to the survival tendencies of the independent tire dealer as a small business owner.
``Find me the same kind of independent retail druggist, or corner grocery store,'' he challenges. ``The independent tire dealer has done pretty well.''
And no, he doesn't think the small tire dealership owner is a vanishing breed, despite premature obituaries to the contrary.
While maintaining that the NTDRA has made a ``significant effort'' in response to the changing industry, Mr. Friedlander believes ``the key is, do we make a difference? I think so.
``If you look, for example, at one of our newest member services, Expressline credit program, that's unique. There isn't anything like it in the country. So it does make a difference, if a dealer uses it.''
To protect and enhance are indispensable requisites for any trade association, especially in government affairs, which he considers one of the NTDRA's fortes.
``The dealer cannot do without someone like us staying with him in that whole area....Today, we're very involved in the scrap tire area, in (Environmental Protection Agency) and (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) issues,'' he declared. ``That's protection. In the last six months, we've lobbied on health care.
``Without us, (dealers) have got a lot of problems, particularly on the information end. For those who have participated and used our (services), yes, we have made a difference...I think they're in better shape.''
Mr. Friedlander sees training and certification, in both automotive and tire services, as a growing issue facing the industry. ``The confidence of the consumer in the future is going to require that, beyond just individual warranties.
``Trade associations are the instruments to bring some of that to bear.''
In the area of customer service, he urges dealers to have that special brand of ``one-upsmanship'' and attitude that ``the customer is not the enemy...Those who are successful follow that commitment to the customer.''
In this ``extremely complex industry,'' dealers also have to do a better job of marketing, Mr. Friedlander said, admitting his job also is ``far more complex than 10 to 12 years ago. You've got to drive those changes in the industry, and you can't always control it.''
Under his tenure, Mr. Friedlander proudly noted, the NTDRA has taken on more responsibilities, added major economies-of-scale services, but has only two more staffers now than when he took over in 1978, while its budget has tripled.
It's no secret the NTDRA chief has a ``driving'' personality. ``I'm an `A-personality,' '' he matter-of-factly states. ``I drive the association staff, the programs....But I feel I've been able to bring some creative ideas to the process.''
Is he too tough sometimes?
``I'm probably too tough on myself,'' he said quietly. ``I may not be diplomatic at times. I doubt if I'm considered a lovable bear.
``But I never break my word. And I never lie or compromise. That's a hallmark. That's what I am, and that's what people will tell you I am,'' he said, adding:
``I don't con people. I always play it straight.''