DALLAS-Independent dealers are more satisfied with their tire suppliers than two years ago, when the ``Tire Dealers' Bill of Rights'' was adopted by the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association. However, there's still plenty of room for improvement, judging from what dealers had to say at the NTDRA's annual ``Town Meeting'' session, Sept. 9. This year's lively open forum, which kicked off the NTDRA's Dallas convention and trade show found the association's elected officials at odds with some participants over how to get tire makers to ``level the playing field'' between dealers and big-spending competitors such as mass merchandisers, discount chains, warehouse clubs and the tire companies' own stores and national accounts programs.
Officials defended the association's current approach of surveying members as to how well their suppliers are living up to the precepts of the Tire Dealers' Bill of Rights and making each company aware of its perceived strengths and weaknesses when the NTDRA executive committee conducts its annual visitations.
Until now, the association has published the survey's findings only as they apply to the industry as a whole, keeping the evaluations of individual tire makers confidential and revealing them only to the companies themselves. Several of the dealers who spoke at the meeting would like these results made known in detail-at least to NTDRA's members, who, they point out, are paying for the study.
This year, for the first time since the survey was introduced in 1992, dealers got at least a partial look at how their individual suppliers measure up. But this was not enough to satisfy those who would prefer the NTDRA drop its previous pledge of confidentiality altogether.
One dealer, urging that the association ``hold the manufacturers' feet to the fire,'' said the NTDRA's leadership should not be afraid to make public the survey's findings, if necessary, to force tire makers to change their ways.
Another dealer suggested the association rank manufacturers and other suppliers based on dealer satisfaction, much in the same fashion that cars and tires are rated on the basis of consumer satisfaction.
Ranking manufacturers in this way, explained the dealer who suggested it, would pressure them into treating dealers more favorably. He predicted such a system would soon have tire makers fighting to be ranked No. 1 by dealers, just as football teams battle to be top-ranked in their divisions.
Responding to this suggestion, officials warned that ranking tire manufacturers in this fashion would infuriate them-bringing an end to the NTDRA's on-going dialogue with these companies, which has yielded at least some change for the better.
One member of the executive committee told fellow dealers at the meeting that were the association to publish such rankings, ``we (would) lose the participation and cooperation of companies that appear to be making progress'' in their relations with dealers.
Added another elected official: ``We don't want to put the gloves on and get in the ring with them (tire makers) or somebody's going to have a knockout punch.''
However, at least one dealer in the audience disagreed.
``I think our fellow tire dealers in California already have taken the manufacturers into the ring with their lawsuit against Goodyear,'' he said. ``The premise of those dealers is that they went into partnership with Goodyear and Goodyear left them out on a limb (by distributing its brand through Discount Tire of Arizona, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and other non-traditional channels).
``I think their efforts are to be commended,'' continued this same dealer, who predicted the beneficial results of the California dealers' lawsuit will ``ripple through our industry.''
``There has to be some way to get (the manufacturers') attention,'' he said, suggesting it may take a lawsuit to accomplish that feat. ``If this association wants to back its dealers, it may have to get in there (in the ring with manufacturers) and assist,'' he added.
During the session, members of the NTDRA's executive committee, which oversees the study and conducts the annual tire company visits, pointed to the results of the association's latest membership survey as evidence that progress is being made.
Among the questions always asked during the NTDRA's visits, one committee member said, is ``Do you, as a manufacturer, feel the Bill of Rights is of benefit to you? And if so, what are you doing about it?'' Most manufacturers answer ``yes.''
``We know for a fact that some of them are using it (the Bill of Rights) in their response to dealers,'' he said, adding that this is why the level of satisfaction expressed by the survey's dealer participants has increased from 3.20 to 3.42 over the last two years.
Still, he cautioned, getting every tire maker to change is not going to be ``an overnight job.''
Early in the meeting, consultant Wayne Jacobs, of Jacobs, Jenner & Kent, the Baltimore-based firm that tabulated the results, outlined the survey's findings.
He told the gathering these findings suggest dealers are ``marginally satisfied'' with their tire manufacturers' performance. However, there is ``considerable room for improvement'' in most of the 32 performance areas evaluated.
Nevertheless, ``it must also be said that (the survey shows) dealers very definitely notice(d) a positive attempt among manufacturers to answer their needs and wants,'' Mr. Jacobs added.
He said the most significant finding of the survey, in which 49 percent of the association's membership took part, is the improvement in the overall level of satisfaction reported by participants-which rose to 3.42 (on a scale of 1 to 5) from 3.20 theyear earlier.
While this difference in overall scores may appear slight, he said, it should be remembered that these numbers represent a ``weighted mean average'' for which it takes a considerable change to create even small variances in scores.
Dealers participating in the survey rated tire manufacturers highest in terms of:
Supplying products with a high level of quality;
Making themselves available to dealers when requested;
Providing timely credit for national account sales and co-op advertising allowances as well as prompt response to requests for supplies; and
Furnishing dealers with needed training.
On the other hand, survey participants gave manufacturers their lowest marks for:
Failing to give dealers a fair opportunity to compete against tire company-owned stores, discounters etc.;
Showing disloyalty to dealers by selling directly to end-users;
Not adequately compensating dealers for their participation in national account programs;
Failing to consider the dealer's need to make a profit; and
Not using the independent dealer as their first step in expanding.
Of these shortcomings, dealers were most critical of manufacturers for not supporting their ability to make a profit, Mr. Jacobs said.
For the first time, this year's survey results were broken down to provide an evaluation of the performance of two distinct groups of manufacturers:
Primary original equipment manufacturers by their brands (Bridgestone, Firestone, General, B.F. Goodrich, Goodyear, Michelin and Uniroyal); and
Other manufacturers (Continental, Cooper, Dayton, Dunlop, Falls/Mastercraft, Kelly-Springfield, Pirelli, Sumitomo, Toyo and Yokohama).
(See accompanying chart on page 21 for high and low scores of individual tire manufacturers.)
Also included in this year's survey for the first time were private brand tire marketers as well as suppliers of retread materials and equipment. (See separate article for ratings of retreading and repair materials and equipment suppliers.)
Mr. Jacobs said the overall scores of the three groups of tire suppliers suggest dealers are most satisfied doing business with private brand tire marketers, to whom they gave a 4.13 overall score, compared with a 3.54 for other manufacturers and only 2.98 in the case of the primary OE manufacturers.
This indicates, he said, that private branders are doing a ``considerably better job'' than manufacturers as a whole-and that other manufacturers are doing a ``somewhat better job'' than the primary OE manufacturers in meeting the needs of their dealer customers.
More than one dealer at the session rose to criticize those tire makers not present at the Dallas convention. This, they said, indicates an obvious lack of concern on the part of these companies for the welfare of independent tire dealers and calls into question the progress which the NTDRA leadership contends has been achieved.
Asked by the session's moderator, Arthur Miller, legal editor for the ABC network television program ``Good Morning America,'' if they were satisfied with the progress achieved to date, more than one dealer answered ``no.''
``I don't think we're making any real progress,'' said one dealer. ``You can't tell me we're making any progress when they don't even show up at our convention.''
The session ended with one participant urging fellow dealers to thank those tire makers present for their support and to ask other suppliers why they were absent from the convention.
More than two dozen tire makers had exhibits at the convention. Among those absent from this group were Goodyear, Michelin North America, Kelly-Springfield, Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp., General Tire, Yokohama Tire Corp. and Toyo Tire (U.S.A.).
Several of these companies, however, had a presence at the Dallas show either by hosting hospitality suites, off-site dealer meetings or by supporting the convention financially.