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Published on April 26, 1999

FORD, KWIK-FIT A POWERFUL COMBO

It's not a concern—yet. But should Ford Motor Co. get aggressive in tires and automotive service in North America, like it seems to be doing in Europe, tire dealers here could face a formidable new competitor. Ford President and CEO Jacques Nasser has aggressive plans to expand in the automotive service arena. He wants the automaker to become the world's leading supplier of consumer automotive products and services.

Ford has an uphill fight to reach such a lofty plateau, but it took a huge step in that direction with its recently announced plans to acquire Kwik-Fit Holdings P.L.C., Europe's largest independent tire dealership, for $1.6 billion.

Kwik-Fit operates more than 1,600 outlets across the continent, along with 171 mobile tire service vans and 92 car tune-up vans in the British Isles.

It's known for rapid installation of tires, tire-related products, brakes and exhausts.

Kwik-Fit stores are open 363 days a year, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, with slightly shorter hours on weekends.

The planned acquisition of Kwik-Fit gives Ford access to other nameplates and customers its auto dealerships normally don't see, the company said.

Those customers happen to be the same ones independent tire dealers cater to—that is, owners of automobiles four years or older.

Ford said it currently has no plans to bring the Kwik-Fit name or concept to North America.

But that could change if the acquisition proves successful.

Independent tire dealers historically have competed successfully with automobile dealerships for tire sales and service.

Even Ford's new Around-the-Wheel initiative in North America, aimed at increasing sales of tires, wheels and services at its auto dealerships, doesn't seem to worry tire dealers.

When it comes to tires, most traditional auto dealerships don't want to stock the necessary sku's and lack expertise in selling them, tire dealers often point out.

But this could be different.

In Kwik-Fit, Ford is buying a successful independent tire dealership that offers fast, convenient, affordable service and even has its own private brand, Centaur.

Ford is retaining the dealership's architect, Tom Farmer, who started the chain in 1971 as a single auto-repair outlet in Edinburgh, Scotland, and built it into an $825 million a year powerhouse.

Mr. Farmer, who lived for a time in the U.S., will continue to serve as the chain's chairman and CEO and has long considered expanding into North America.

Backed by Ford's financial might and Mr. Farmer's understanding of the tire and automotive service business, it's not hard to imagine the automaker seeking another ``quick fit'' in North America.

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