AKRON-Eugene Culler, Goodyear's new executive vice president for North American tires, has a small sign in his office that reads: ``Did you talk to a customer today?'' It's a simple statement that tells a lot about what Mr. Culler believes it will take for the tire maker to continue to thrive in the highly competitive North American replacement tire market.
``It's very easy to get isolated in an ivory tower,'' he said during a recent interview at Goodyear's Akron headquarters. ``You've got to talk to customers.''
Mr. Culler has attempted to do a lot of communicating with dealers since rejoining the company last May from Goodyear Canada, where he served as president from 1991 to the middle of 1995. Prior to that, he held the same position he has now with Goodyear in the U.S. for three years.
His top priority has been to make sure the channels of communication between dealers and company are open, clear and two-way.
``I really believe strongly that the dealer must have ownership of whatever we do together to enhance our joint proposition both in product and service to the consumer,'' Mr. Culler said. ``And to have ownership you have to be part of the development.''
That has meant more exposure to and for Goodyear's dealer council, which has developed into an effective two-way dialogue between dealers and company, he said.
Goodyear and council members work together to analyze the company's products, determine consumers' tire needs and discuss ways of more effectively moving tires off dealers' shelves and onto customers' wheels.
``Dealers touch the customer for us,'' Mr. Culler said. ``So we're constantly working together with them to make sure the products are right.''
He termed this relationship a ``partnership proposition from Banbury to wheel, as opposed to just out selling tires to dealers.''
One difference he's noticed in Goodyear since returning to the U.S. has been the result of the company's Total Quality Culture program initiated in 1991. A byproduct of that effort has been that Goodyear now has better marketing data and more facts than before due to improved research and processes.
the past,'' said Mr. Culler, 57, who spent his early career with the company mainly in its international operations in Latin America and Europe.
Another change has been in the acceleration of product cycles, which have become much shorter.
``You can't wait five, six or 10 years to put in a product to be at the leading edge,'' he said.
Since returning to the U.S., Mr. Culler has been busy in a number of areas. He has strived to reacquaint himself with the marketplace, noting a lot has happened since he left in 1991.
He's met with dealers around the country to get a ``pulse'' on the market and learn their views.
He's made sure Goodyear continues to develop a reservoir of new products to keep the cycle of tire introductions ongoing. And he's tried to get maximum exposure and visibility in the field.
One of his first jobs has been to oversee the decentralization of Goodyear's 26 former sales districts into nine field business regions, each headed by a general business manager. Mr. Culler managed a similar reorganization in Canada in 1992-94.
The nine business units place Goodyear closer to its customers and enables them to respond to dealer needs without a long-approval chain back to the headquarters, he said.
Mr. Culler said he is aware of many dealers' strong negative reactions toward Goodyear's recent efforts to broaden its distribution base beyond the traditional dealer network. Those moves, which included signing mass merchandisers Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and tire discounter, Discount Tire Co. of Scottsdale, Ariz., prompted lawsuits by two groups of disgruntled dealers in California and Texas.
He would not discuss these ongoing cases, but said he thought the company's bond and liaison with dealers was ``very strong.''
The initial dealer fear that these new distribution channels would take business away from them has not been borne out, he said, adding the traditional dealer network continues to retail 80 percent of the company's replacement tires.
He cited the success and interest in the Blue Ribbon Dealer Expansion Program, announced at Goodyear's 1995 dealer meeting, as an example of dealers' bullishness toward the company.
Eighty dealers have signed up for the program in which Goodyear provides financial support to purchase competitive dealerships.
``Our dealer channel is for the most part very loyal to us and we need to return that loyalty by putting our corporate resources at their disposal,'' he said.
At the company's 1996 dealer meeting in Las Vegas, Feb. 5-8, Goodyear will focus on value-added learning, Mr. Culler said. The meeting will feature a general session with time allotted for individual consultation and workshops emphasizing improvement in dealer skills.
Goodyear also will share more data than ever on factors driving the market and what the company and dealers need to do together to enhance their joint efforts.
In 1995, Mr. Culler said most Goodyear dealers experienced a ``cracker jack'' year, with the exception of a few small geographic pockets primarily in the Northeast. ``People tell me business is outstanding, particularly after a fairly slow first half,'' he said.
As for 1996, he predicted aggressive growth for Goodyear in the replacement market across all replacement lines. And he thinks the company can achieve the goal, set by Chairman Stanley Gault, of growing at twice the industry rate.
How will this be done?
By introducing new products, expanding present distribution, enticing new dealers to join the Goodyear family, continuing a strong position with original equipment makers and keeping wheel positions in the replacement market, Mr. Culler said.