LOUISVILLE, Ky.-Richard Schuelke is in the process of making his tire industry dream a reality. The president of International Earthmover Tire Sales Inc., exclusive importer of off-the-road tires made in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus, confidently predicts his new company ``will become at least as big as (Continental) General Tire.''
Several years ago, while attending a construction industry trade show in Las Vegas, Mr. Schuelke, then Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s marketing manager for earthmover tires, took special notice of a Soviet-made 240-ton end dump truck-the first on the market-equipped with 40.00-57 OTR tires, also made in the Soviet Union.
``I saw the opportunity,'' he said, ``because that size is in short supply worldwide. . . . I knew if we could find out where this tire was made, we could do big things.''
The subsequent upheaval in the Soviet Union-the breakup of the country into a number of independent republics and the collapse of the centrally planned economy-made that prospect dim at best.
In mid-1993, Mr. Schuelke left BFS and joined Tire Centers Inc., where he helped the dealership open what it called a ``mega-center'' outlet in Chicago.
In the course of business, he met a recent Russian immigrant, Alex Katsnelson, who had a hot-cap retread shop in Chicago that also performed section repairs on OTR tires. Mr. Schuelke related his memory of the Russian OTR tires and his pipe dream of locating the manufacturer and importing the tires to North America.
Mr. Katsnelson enlisted the aid of his father, a former minister of trade for Russia to the newly independent republic of Belarus. And as luck would have it, the former Soviet tire plant that produced the large OTR tires was located in what is now Belarus: Belarus Tire Works, better known as Belshina.
Even with the elder Katsnelson's contacts, it took another year to clear the bureaucratic hurdles and get permission to visit Belarus and talk with government and Belshina officials, Mr. Schuelke said.
And it took another four visits to structure a deal with the government-owned tire company, whereby the two men obtained exclusive rights to market Belshina's products in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand.
What Belshina got was a new lease on life.
According to Mr. Schuelke, the company, founded in 1972, had been one of the largest tire-making enterprises in Europe, with a complex of four plants that employed nearly 15,000 and produced more than 50 types of tires.
With the collapse of the communist economic structure, Belshina found itself without the necessary capital to purchase the raw materials it needed to remain in operation. The company Mr. Schuelke was negotiating with was intact but idle; the work force, largely unemployed.
When plans for TCI to back the enterprise fell through in mid-1994, Mr. Schuelke left the company and incorporated International Earthmover Tire Sales as an independent company, based in Arlington Heights, Ill. Alex Katsnelson is vice president.
Shortly thereafter, O.T.R. Tire Brokers in Huntley, Ill., agreed to provide the financial backing to get the project started and became International Earthmover's first dealer/distributor.
IE placed an order with Belshina for six of the giant 40.00-57 tires-each 14 feet tall and weighing 4 tons-and supplied the capital necessary to secure the raw materials. Belshina reopened its plant and recalled enough workers to fill the order, which was shipped from St. Petersburg destined for LTV Steel in Gary, Ind.
Mr. Schuelke said he travelled to Belarus to personally inspect the finished tires before they left the factory, so critical were these first products to the success of the entire venture.
Over the two years he actively pursued the project, Mr. Schuelke said many in the industry scoffed at him, not believing he could overcome the many obstacles to making his dream a reality. But the first six tires arrived at LTV Steel last September.
``Once we proved we could deliver, the orders started pouring in,'' Mr. Schuelke said. Belshina tires now are in service at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore, three major coal mines in West Virginia ``and every major mine in the copper and gold range of the western U.S.,'' he said.
Phoenix-based Fletcher's Cobre Tire has become a distributor of Belshina's 40.00-57 bias-ply tires, and International Earthmover continues to seek additional distributors for its OTR and farm tires.
As IE grows, it intends to expand its size range and bring an increasing amount of Belshina's capacity back on line. Eventually, the company expects to offer a full range of tires, Mr. Schuelke said, and should have the capacity to produce private brand lines for interested customers.
Early this year, the company concluded an agreement with a tire factory in another former Soviet republic, Ukraine. This operation, Tyre Ukraine, also had been the site of the rubber technology research institute for the entire Soviet Union, Mr. Schuelke said.
IE advanced its Ukrainian partner $300,000 to reopen its factory, which shipped its first tires in March, Mr. Schuelke said. He expressed particular excitement over a radial fertilizer tire, size 66x43.00LR25, which he said is an exclusive product of Tyre Ukraine.