AKRON- Only a crystal ball gazer, and an astute one, at that, could have predicted the fluctuation within the retreading industry last year, as North America's largest tire retreaders added, subtracted and grew in ways that would give a handicapper fits. The consolidation that has typified the new-tire manufacturing industry's landscape over the last decade or so seems to have caught on within retreading, as well.
Several big-time retreaders-Southern Tire Mart Inc. of Columbia, Miss., and Phoenix-based Fletcher's Cobre Tire being prime examples-swallowed smaller players to dramatically bulk up their production.
Consequently, TIRE BUSINESS's ranking of the continent's largest retreaders in 1995-an annual number-crunching exercise based on rubber consumption -more closely resembled a horse race. The ``win, place and show'' posts, for the most part, remained constant as in the previous year, with Goodyear again topping the medium-truck listing, followed by Fort Smith, Ark.-based Treadco Inc. and Tire Centers Inc. of Akron.
On the strength of its acquisitions, Southern Tire shot all the way up from 10th in 1994 to fourth last year.
But the rest of the companies also jockeyed for positions, moving several notches up, down and, in some cases, off the charts.
About two-thirds of North America's medium-truck tire retreaders devoured more pounds of rubber in 1995 than the previous year, and boosted their output.
Most saw incremental increases, but the big gainers in that category were Southern Tire Mart, which jacked up its usage by nearly 40 percent, and Fletcher's Cobre Tire, with a 41-percent hike in consumption. Tire Centers Inc., which added three retread plants last year, boosted its tread rubber usage by 2.2 million pounds.
However, McGriff Treading Co. Inc., Cullman, Ala., which closed two retread plants during the year, saw the biggest drop in consumption, at 24.5 percent. And Modern Tire Service, a Dallas-based Bandag retreader, fell off the truck tire chart after being purchased by Southern Tire Mart.
Newcomers to the medium-truck retread ranking were Bob Sumerel Tire Co. Inc., Erlanger, Ky., Universal Tire Inc., Nashville, Tenn., and Parkhouse Tire Inc. in Bell Gardens, Calif. Akron's GCR Truck Tire Centers Inc. edged onto the passenger/light truck tire listing, and Fletcher's Cobre Tire, a first-timer on the off-road chart, weighed in prominently at No. 3 thanks to its January 1996 purchase of OTR tire retreader, Edwards-Warren Tire Co. of Conyers, Ga.
Unit production dropped for 40 percent of the passenger/LT retreaders surveyed. On the other hand, 60 percent of the off-road group increased production.
The majority of the surveyed companies noted they had already or planned to add new equipment to boost capacity or optimize efficiency. Forty percent of the medium-truck retreaders added plants-either through acquisition or new construction-to keep pace with demand.
In line with a trend toward more mold cure retreading in the U.S., a number of the top companies said they were either investigating that option, or adding molds to increase their mold cure capacity.
As tread rubber prices continued to skyrocket, few of the retreaders surveyed noted they were able to pass along all the costs to their customers. Most lamented they had to eat at least half of last year's price hikes.
While those old bugaboos-stiff price competition between new tires and retreads, the increased cost of doing business and dwindling profit margins-were continuing concerns for most companies, many see the advent of ``smart tires'' as a bright spot on the horizon.
These so-called tires with a brain, which a number of new-tire manufacturers are developing, contain active computer chips capable of recording inflation pressure, operating temperature, service history data etc. A boon to trucking fleets, they're being greeted with some anticipation by retreaders, as well.
``It will enable us to have correct, timely information for better evaluation and quality,'' wrote Thomas M. Duff, president and CEO of Southern Tire Mart.
Jimmy Pickel, Universal Tire president, observed that ``smart tires'' will provide ``quick and hopefully accurate information to use to reduce our customers' tire cost.''