BOWLING GREEN, Ky.—After more than a half-century in the business, including his nearly 10 years as president of the American Retreaders Association, Paul Clark has seen the last of retread production at his Kentucky Tire Exchange, a family-owned dealership in Bowling Green now run by his son, Mike. Earlier this month, Mike Clark, who sits on the board of the same dealer group, now known as the International Tire and Rubber Association, closed the dealership's Bandag retread shop—a decision with which his father is in complete—albeit reluctant—agreement.
Kentucky Tire Exchange will continue to provide its commercial accounts with truck retreads and related services, but will source them from Bob Sumerel Tire Co. Inc. in Erlanger, Ky., some 180 miles away.
``We're still selling retreads and doing a great job right now,'' said the elder Mr. Clark, who estimates that retreading accounted for about a third of the company's total sales in 1996.
He explained that Sumerel Tire keeps a van parked at Kentucky Tire Exchange into which workers place retreadable casings for processing. Someone from Sumerel Tire regularly stops by to pick up the loaded van and leave behind an empty one ready to accept additional casings. ``It's very efficient and we're doing fine so far,'' he said.
It wasn't a question of not wanting to continue retreading, but of economics, said the elder Mr. Clark, who served as ARA president from 1969 to '78.
``We can contract (to buy) retreads cheaper than we can manufacture them,'' said the 80-year-old, who still drops by the dealership for two or three hours nearly every day.
``I walk over to that shop and it makes me sick,'' he told TIRE BUSINESS. ``But I told (Mike) a year ago he'd better be thinking about closing it—the way things were going.''
Due to changes in the trucking industry and other conditions beyond the company's control, volume had dwindled to the point that it was no longer sufficient on a year-around basis to cover shop equipment and payroll expenses, Mr. Clark said.
Typically, the dealership's retreading operations would ``go like wildfire'' for six or seven months of the year then taper off in winter. And during slower months, when volume was low, retreading was simply a losing proposition, he lamented.
Bandag Inc., which supplied the company's retreading equipment and materials for nearly 25 years, ``did everything they could to help us,'' Mr. Clark said. ``But we're located in an area where there just aren't enough big trucking accounts anymore to keep production up.''
The market in and around Bowling Green never was large enough in itself to support the dealership's operations. So the company had to seek out retreading accounts from as far away as 100 miles in order to keep the plant operating profitably, he said.
``We'd pick up a new account and do a good job with it, only to have somebody come along—including other Bandag dealers—and undercut our prices,'' he said.
Trucking industry consolidation was just as big a problem, according to Mr. Clark. Many of the firm's former trucking company accounts have been gobbled up by bigger outfits that get their retreading done in larger cities far from Bowling Green.
Ryder Truck Rental Inc., for example, now supplies and services many of the vehicles used by former Kentucky Tire Exchange retread customers; and Ryder has most of its retreading done in Nashville, where its headquarters are located.
Even the company that hauls away the dealership's trash can no longer be considered a customer of Kentucky Tire Exchange, he said. ``They sold out to a bigger outfit, and so their tires are now coming from national accounts.''
His advice to anyone thinking of entering the retreading business is to find a location where there are plenty of trucking companies to generate a demand for retreads. Then put in a plant with enough capacity to be profitable.
Mr. Clark, who got his start in retreading before the outbreak of World War II and served in the U.S. Army's retreading operations during that war, was among the few retreaders present nearly 40 years ago when the Central States Retreaders' Association, the forerunner of the ARA and ITRA, agreed to sponsor the first Louisville Retreaders Conference in 1958.
He has since attended nearly every such event—now known as the ``ITRA World Tire Conference & Exhibition.'' But this year, neither Mr. Clark nor his wife felt up to making the trip to Louisville.
Neverthless, he put in an appearance on the final day of the show, April 19. Though his son had promised to bring back plenty of literature, ``I'm always anxious to find out what's new,'' Mr. Clark said.