TRIADELPHIA, W.Va.-The name has changed, but the players-and pretty much everything else-remains the same. After nine months of negotiations, on July 28 William J. ``Joe'' Steger Jr., president of Private Brands Limited (PBL), purchased the firm's tire-related assets from the wholly owned subsidiary of Western Auto Supply Co.
In turn, he and PBL's officers formed a new corporation, Independent Tire Sales Inc., which will continue to market private brands from the 38,600-sq.-ft. former PBL office/warehouse complex in Triadelphia, outside Wheeling, W.Va.
You might say the inevitable has finally happened.
From the day in 1974 when he helped establish PBL as the wholesale division for Western Auto's Tire America subsidiary, Mr. Steger coveted the operation. He had begun with Tire America as a tire changer following a stint in the Navy, and eventually worked his way up to managing a store for the chain before rolling out PBL with the Stratton private brand.
``Western Auto is really in the retail business-totally, 100-percent dedicated to retail-and we (PBL) were wholesalers,'' he explained. ``The wholesale division wasn't in their long-term game plan. So the timing was right: They had an interest in selling it, and we in buying it.''
In 1981, PBL began importing the Swedish-made Gislaved brand and five years later added the Tribune brand, made in South Korea by Hankook Tire Manufacturing Co. Ltd.
This month Independent Tire Sales plans to unveil the new Academy private brand, a full line manufactured by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s Dayton Tire unit.
While he wouldn't say how big PBL's business has been, Mr. Steger called its volumes ``sizeable,'' with 125 accounts spread throughout the U.S., from Maine to California, some direct-bill by tire makers, others handled by PBL.
By agreement with Western Auto, Mr. Steger could not reveal the price for the acquisition, which included all tire molds, marketing rights, and the names of all PBL's tire brands. The only thing not purchased from the retailer is a custom wheel line Western Auto will continue to market under the Private Brands Limited name.
Independent Tire's other officers are Mike LaHood, vice president of sales, who had been with PBL 23 years; Bruce Mills, vice president of operations, with PBL 21 years; and Judy Strasser, a 15-year PBL veteran who will continue to handle order entry and sec-retarial responsibilities.
Although the company will continue to focus on wholesaling only tires, ``We'll be very aggressive in that,'' Mr. Steger promised.
``I think (the buy-out) will really give us an opportunity to sell a lot of the people (PBL) wasn't able to sell before, where we may have been viewed as a competitor'' because PBL was part of the same Western Auto corporate family along with Tire America and NTW (National Tire Warehouse), all owned by Sears, Roebuck and Co.
``If Tire America had 15 locations in Chicago, that made it pretty tough for us to sell another retailer there,'' he continued. ``. . . The real excitement for us is, due to the separation from our parent company, this should open a lot of new doors for us. . . .''
The company will continue to offer distributors a variety of tire-buying programs that include shipments of full-container loads, LTL (less-than truckloads), as well as full containers from Korea.
``We have some lines specifically for wholesalers,'' Mr. Steger said, some broad-based lines that might appeal more to retailers, and lines ``we can ship LTL that may appeal to large wholesalers, so they can drop-ship to their customers in smaller quantities.''
Rather than ``put all our eggs in one basket,'' he said the company has spread out its manufacturer and customer bases. Yet, as has been the case for years in the private brand business, three things are still critical to success, he added: service, product quality and competitive pricing.
And while the private label market is still lucrative-``and I think it always will be,'' Mr. Steger said-he, like many other private branders, is increasingly concerned about tire manufacturers' growing emphasis on their own house brands.
The price spread between house and private brands ``is down,'' he noted. ``It still exists, but it's not what it should be,'' largely due to what he termed tire makers' ``greed for marketshare.''
But he doesn't plan to let that interfere with expanding his business.
The company's goal is opening distribution ``where we don't have a lot of business,'' particularly in the West, including California, Arizona and New Mexico.
``Our business with the manufacturers is very uncomplicated,'' he added. ``We simply get them to build the best possible tire they can build at the lowest acquisition price. Then (we) do all the marketing and sales.''