CHICAGO-Paul and Norman Werd know what it takes to survive in the increasingly competitive world of truck tire retreading. It takes hustle, creativity and flexibility for a medium-size, 160-tires-a-day retread shop to make it in today's tough business environment.
Tires to be retreaded by Werd & Schaefer Tire Co. Inc. don't sit around long. It's not uncommon for a load of casings to arrive at the south Chicago dealership one day and leave the next completely retreaded.
``We do it by hustle,'' said Vice President Norman Werd, 42, who manages the primarily retread operation with his father Paul. ``This was born out of necessity because of the casing shortage.''
A growing shortage of quality bias-ply medium truck tire casings is making life more difficult for Werd & Schaefer. The single-location dealership, which Norman Werd describes as a commercial fleet business specializing in retreading, caters to the intermodal tire industry-a user of primarily low-cost, bias-ply tires.
But with the medium truck tire market gradually moving to radials, fewer and fewer bias-ply tires are available for retreading.
Exacerbating this problem is the fact that those casings which are available often are of lesser quality, meaning they may not hold up for multiple retreadings, Norman Werd said.
``The integral part of intermodal is having caps and casings available at a moment's notice,'' he said. ``If we pick up 40 tires and have 15 junks, those have to be replaced. Sooner or later, if we have too many junks, we'll be out of tires.''
Most intermodal companies, he explained, demand the lowest prices possible on tires for their vehicles. But to oblige them price-wise, the tire companies can't afford to make a premium level bias-ply product. ``It's really the chicken or the egg as to who's at fault,'' he said.
Paul Werd, who at age 76 still checks every used tire that comes into the dealership before sending it to be recapped or scrapped, echoed his son's comments, calling the current casing shortage ``the worst since I've been in business.''
The president of Werd & Schaefer suggests many intermodal customers are their own worst enemies, in that they have done little to develop their own casing supply.
``They always buy the cheapest thing in terms of supply,'' he said. ``If they started with a better casing, they'd have a better chance of capping it.''
Availability of bias casings from Japan also has slowed as a result of Japan's shifting from bias to radial truck tires, the strengthening of the yen vs. the U.S. dollar, and the slumping Japanese economy.
Japanese retreaders also are recapping more of their bias-ply tires, he said, rather than exporting them.
Eventually, intermodal companies will have to shift to radials, Mr. Werd believes.
Werd & Schaefer was founded in 1947 by Ed Schaefer, who was managing the former Selig Tire Service, a commercial tire outlet west of downtown Chicago, and Mr. Werd, who was selling General-brand tires for a small dealership in the city, traveling by foot because he couldn't afford a car.
Mr. Schaefer approached Mr. Werd about joining him in buying Selig Tire, and in short order the two struck the deal, acquiring in the process some unused truck tire retreading equipment, which was soon put back into use.
In its infancy, Werd & Schaefer consisted of its owners and one employee. They later hired another employee-``a shop guy''-paying him more than themselves because of his knowledge of the business.
``We drew $60 a week and we paid him $75,'' Mr. Werd said.
That first year, Werd & Schaefer reported $88,000 in sales. Today, the numbers are $3.5 million and 30 employees at the unionized dealership.
In 1951, Werd & Schaefer moved to its present location in south Chicago. Three years later Mr. Schaefer left the business to start another dealership.
At one time, Werd & Schaefer boasted a passenger and light truck tire wholesale business, but has de-emphasized it in recent years. The firm gave up wholesaling around 1991. ``We were too spread personnel-wise and the gross profits were not there,'' Norm Werd said.
Nor does the company push new tires, although it stocks Sumitomo and Michelin truck tires and Hercules passenger tires, supplying them to fleet and other existing customers upon request.
``With the margins, overhead and percentage available profit-wise, it's better to concentrate on what we know best, which is retreading,'' Norm Werd said.
Werd & Schaefer offers both mold cure and precure (Bandag) retreading, of which mold cure accounts for 35 percent of tires retreaded and precure 65 percent.
The firm caters to customers in its local marketing area.
To ensure quick service and a smooth daily operation, the Werds meet each morning with key employees-General Manager Myles Hollowed, who's been with the firm 31 years, Shop Manager Richard Webb and Working Forman Rudolf Volel.
They are a big part of the business, Norm Werd said. ``We let them know when a big load has come in, or when a customer is out of tires, so they can make sure tires are turning fast enough. That takes flexibility.''
He also credited the ``guys in the shop,'' many of whom willingly stick around a couple of extra hours when necessary to complete a job. ``Turning around tires in 24 hours puts a lot of pressure on the production process,'' he said.