LEBANON, Ind.—Solideal Co. likes to tell its customers it produces tires ``from tree to tread,'' and that statement's actually not too far afield. The industrial tire manufacturer is literally tapping its own stock of rubber trees on a 1,000-acre plantation in Sri Lanka to produce latex for what currently is a tiny percentage of its products.
In fact, natural latex is Solideal's ``claim to fame.'' While some industrial tire makers use a small amount of natural rubber in their products, every tire Solideal makes is 100-percent natural—not synthetic—rubber.
Although the company purchases most of the chemicals and rubber it needs from other suppliers, Solideal executives envision the day when it will be the master of its own destiny, so to speak, supplying all its rubber needs from a network of plantations.
That won't happen anytime soon, they admit. But the company is calling the recent first shipment of a containerload of tires made from its own home-grown rubber a ``steppingstone to the future.''
Fifteen years ago, two Belgian gents had a dream to tap into the continually growing NHS (non-highway service) tire market by launching a venture that would harness the positive attributes and advantages natural rubber holds over its synthetic cousin.
Its chief selling point, Solideal claims, is a dramatic increase in tire life due to natural rubber's ability to more quickly dissipate the heat build-up that often leads solid industrial tires to crack and ``chunk'' and is the major cause of their failure.
The company guarantees its tires will last 30-percent longer than a synthetic rubber tire under the same conditions. And industrial tires labor in some of the harshest environments imaginable.
Natural rubber tires also exhibit better rolling resistance and deflection characteristics, the firm maintains.
Solideal was born from the sketch pad of engineer Pierre Pringiers, company president, who drew up plans for a factory and designed the machinery, materials, parts, rubber compounding and tires that would emerge from it. He then relied on his partner and sales guru, Philippe Danneels, managing director, to set up a worldwide distribution network.
In a conference call with Tire Business, Barry Cox, international sales manager for Solideal, and Al Harker, president of United Solideal Co. Inc., one of the parent firm's three U.S. distribution subsidiaries, discussed Solideal's steady development since its founding in 1984.
Its other U.S. distribution arms are: Solideal Industrial Tire in Charlotte, N.C., doing business as Industrial Tire Exchange, and Miami-based Southern Industrial Tire.
Solideal's growth closely parallels that of its principal customers: the manufacturers of such equipment as forklifts and skid-steers.
``As goes the material handling business,'' Mr. Harker said, ``so goes the tire business.''
``Our core business is in solid rubber tires,'' Mr. Cox said, noting that in 15 years the company has gone from offering about seven sizes of resilient tires—which are solids that have the profile and appearance of pneumatics—and 10 press-on sizes, to a full complement of sizes in every line.
Mr. Cox would not disclose the company's sales in North America, except to say they are substantially more than $50 million annually.
Mr. Harker explained that Solideal ``tries to identify niche businesses we feel are not getting the attention they should, then we go to market with different, unique types of products.
``And by no means are we considered the cheap guys on the block. We're not a price company. We make good, reliable products that people see value in.''
To be near its needed raw materials, Solideal has four manufacturing facilities in Sri Lanka, a pear-shaped island nation off the southeastern coast of India. Three of the factories produce solid and pneumatic tires, the other makes metal parts such as rims, wheels, hubs, molds and presses. The firm's Sri Lankan mixing plant processes about 180 tons of rubber daily.
``We're quite self-sufficient,'' said Mr. Cox, who works out of the company's research, design and development headquarters in Ghent, Belgium.
In Canada, Solideal owns Unitrac Inc., a small manufacturing company that makes solid press-on rubber tires and resilient tires.
Along with an ever-expanding pneumatic tire program covering NHS applications, Solideal is moving into production of tires for road graders and backhoes, and recently entered the rubber track business—a market segment Mr. Cox said is growing very rapidly.
Solideal's lines include ``Magnum'' press-ons and ``Hauler'' pneumatics.
``The assumption is our plantation will continue to grow,'' Mr. Harker said, ``and at some point we'll be completely independent'' from outside suppliers. Mr. Cox added that Solideal is not necessarily looking to buy other rubber estates, but rather to manage them for the owners and use their rubber production.
``Building tires is not a lot different than baking a cake,'' Mr. Harker said. ``The better the cook, the better the cake, and we feel that with Pierre Pringiers, who developed most of our rubber compounding, we have one of the best `cooks' in the industry.''
Mr. Harker said another big advantage the company has is that, with the exception of China, Solideal holds majority equity positions in its entire global distribution/marketing chain.
``The benefits are common goals, directions, procedures, policies and systems on a global basis, but very little hands-on management by the parent company,'' he said.
Mr. Harker said Solideal is ``very aggressive'' in the original equipment business. ``The OEs like to buy assembled product—the tire mounted on a wheel and ready to be bolted to the truck.''
He contends the company ``pioneered the one-stop-shop mentality'' by putting tire/wheel assembly shops close to OE manufacturers and making daily just-in-time deliveries possible.
Its OE customers include Nissan Forklift Corp., Kumatsu, Mitsubishi, Fiat, Jung Heinrich in Europe and Clark in Germany.
Based in Lebanon, Ind., just outside Indianapolis, United Solideal (formerly United Industrial Tire) and its two other distribution siblings stay close to customers through some 35 U.S. facilities. They act as local wholesale distribution and retail/commercial centers that sell to tire dealers and end-users.
Cities in which the firms operate major distribution sites include Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
Each commercial center offers foam-filling of pneumatic tires on a 24-hour turnaround basis, tire mounting and press-on services, and mobile service trucks that can handle press-ons—tires, normally used on forklifts, that are pressed onto a hub assembly, then locked with a steel band.
The centers carry a full inventory of wheels, resilient tires, press-ons, industrial and skid-steer pneumatics, and rubber tracks. They also carry a non-marking, all-white solid tire used in special applications, such as in the food preparation industry.
As the economy—and companies like Ford*Motor Co. and the building industries, big users of industrial tires—continue to boom, Solideal expects its growth to continue at a rapid pace, with more service centers opening to fill in the firm's distribution network.