A century ago, the tire industry barely existed. Fifty years later, it was one of the best-established of all businesses, with thousands of tire dealers and retreaders providing admirable, necessary services to their communities. Now, on the verge of a new millennium, 50-year veterans of the tire dealer and retreader industries have seen changes as sweeping as in any U.S. business.
First tubeless and then radial tires became the industry standard; the fortunes of passenger retreads rose and fell; inventory, marketing, tire and auto service all became computerized; government regulation—both environmental and workplace—became an increasingly heavy burden; and, most of all, small, family-owned tire stores and retread shops found their dominance threatened by large chains, tire company-owned stores and discount outlets.
Veteran dealers and retreaders—judging from those interviewed for this article—sometimes came into the industry through family businesses; sometimes through college recruiting and training programs offered by the major tire manufacturers; and sometimes came to it through totally unexpected ways.
But all can boast careers of hard work and solid achievement—and all played a significant role in creating the retreading and retail tire business that exists today.
``It's been an interesting life,'' said B.H. ``Tubby'' Hall, who was in charge of retreading and financial operations at Autosav Recapping Co. Inc., in Opp, Ala.
When Mr. Hall came to Opp in 1948, straight out of the University of Alabama, it was as a high-school science teacher and baseball coach, with no thoughts whatever of retreading. But he didn't count on befriending Henry Morgan, a local businessman, who founded Morgan Recapping in 1951 and invited Mr. Hall to join him in 1952.
``We had two dozen stores at our peak,'' Mr. Hall said. There were about 18 Autosav stores in the 1980s when Mr. Morgan sold the business to Alabama Farm Bureau, a farm insurance company which also sells tires and other goods to the farmers it insures.
Other tire dealers and retreaders started in the business through more traditional routes.
Some—like James Parkhouse, president of Parkhouse Tire in Belle Gardens, Calif.—simply founded their own businesses. Mr. Parkhouse started out in 1959 with a two-pump, full-service gas station that also sold passenger tires. By 1971, the operation had evolved into a full-fledged commercial tire business. ``It was a better fit for me,'' he said.
For some, the tire business was already a family business. Edward J. Wagner, retired managing director of the American Retreaders Association before it became the International Tire and Rubber Association, started in the business in 1936 at age 12, working with his uncle, John Loyko, at Royal Tire Co. in Cambridge, Mass.
In 1940, Mr. Loyko founded Fort Weston Tire Co. in Augusta, Maine, and Mr. Wagner went to work for him.
In the 1930s, slow speeds and low mileage were the rule for cars and tires, Mr. Wagner remembered. ``Speeds are now up to 75 mph in some areas, but then 35 to 40 mph was as fast as anyone went,'' he said. ``Passenger tires lasted maybe 10,000 to 12,000 miles, and truck tires about 35,000 to 40,000 miles.''
But because people didn't travel as far in those days, he added, tires lasted about the same length of time as they do today.
``Slow-speed tires also didn't carry the loads we demand today,'' he said. ``They were more retreadable, and more repairable.''
The father of Mel Huber, retired president and chairman of Huber Tire Co. in Jeffersonville, Ind., started a tire business in 1938 as a sideline and supply source for his trucking firm. When the younger Mr. Huber left the U.S. Army in 1954, he went to work in the tire side of the family business, and soon changed it from a wholesale to a retail operation that eventually boasted eight stores.
William B. ``Bill'' Thomas, one of the founders of the Big O tire organization, got his start in the tire business in 1945, doing tire repairs and retreading in Berkeley, Calif., under an OK Rubber Welders franchise.
With World War II still going on, ``retreading and repairs were a requirement because there were no new tires to sell—and there wouldn't be until 1947,'' after the war came to a close, he recalled.
Paul D. Werd, one of the founders of Werd & Schaeffer in Chicago, took a more circuitous route to becoming a tire dealer. That included a business degree from Northwestern University, a year of playing minor-league baseball, two years of working for a freight car leasing firm and nearly five with the U.S. Army during World War II.
In 1947, with his friend Ed Schaeffer, he founded Werd & Schaeffer after buying the inventory of Selig Tire Service, which Mr. Schaeffer had managed.
The operation was a success from the start, earning $88,000 its first year. But their first store—they didn't move to their present location until 1951—left something to be desired. ``A live chicken place was next door to us, and we had to do all the work outside,'' Mr. Werd said.
Joseph J. Kilcoyne was a consultant with Oliver Tire & Rubber Co., holding the title of vice president of marketing before he retired in 1992, and then director of member services for the ARA/ITRA before he retired last June.
He started his career as an engineer at AMF Corp., working in various company divisions ranging from tobacco processing machinery to the elevator systems for the Titan missile.
Mr. Kilcoyne's involvement with retreading began in 1971, when AMF bought Voit Rubber Co. and turned it into its Tire Equipment Division. He was transferred to that division, eventually becoming its vice president and general manager, and continuing in that position when Goodyear bought the division. He retired from Goodyear in 1986, and afterward worked for Oliver.
Just as AMF's purchase of Voit changed Mr. Kilcoyne's life, so AMF's Orbitread machine changed the retreading industry, Mr. Kilcoyne said. ``The Orbitread represented the first automation of the retreading industry, and it marked the first such use of strip rubber.''
Harold Vischer entered Firestone's ``College Class'' training program in 1937, straight out of the University of Toledo—much like Mr. Wagner, whom Firestone recruited from Boston University some time later.
In June 1961, Mr. Vischer was sales manager in Firestone's Omaha district, overseeing 16 company stores and five retread shops, when he left after a dispute with the division manager.
That October, Mr. Vischer was in Chicago meeting with an executive search service when Roy Carver, who had founded Bandag Inc. a year and a half before, called and asked him to stop by Bandag's headquarters in Muscatine, Iowa, on the way home to Omaha.
``Mr. Carver had kept calling me all those months,'' Mr. Vischer said. ``I'd had my credit manager get a credit rating for Bandag, and it was terrible—the company had a $140,000 negative net worth. But Mr. Carver was the most persistent man I ever knew, and I'd been out of a job more than three months.
``On my way to Muscatine, I wrote out a list of 13 or 14 things I had to have to go with them. I told him, `You can't afford me—not that I'm that expensive, but you have a negative net worth!' As it turned out, that's the best thing I could have told him, for you never told Roy Carver, `You can't do that.' He'd always find a way to do it."
Serving the industry
Most of the men interviewed have served the industry through executive positions in various industry groups, particularly in the ARA and the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association, the forerunners of ITRA and the Tire Association of North America.
Of all the challenges the tire associations have faced over the years, Mr. Wagner said, perhaps their proudest moment was when they beat back what could have been a particularly ruinous requirement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In the 1970s, NHTSA wanted to place passenger retreads under the coverage of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 109, which sets minimum safety standards for new passenger tires. FMVSS 109, among other things, sets mandatory tire tests which, retreaders argued, were redundant for passenger retreads because the tires had already been tested when new.
``This represented a duplication of effort and a serious financial burden,'' Mr. Wagner said.
Finally, a federal judge in Chicago—John Paul Stevens, who later was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court—found for the retreaders.
``We worked very closely with the government after that, setting up retread testing under FMVSS 117,'' Mr. Wagner said. ``We did so well with that project they decided they didn't need federal standards for truck retreads.''
When asked about the most important changes they've seen in the industry during their tenure in it, the interviewees consistently gave the same answers: the advent of tubeless and radial tires, the decline of the passenger retread, industry consolidation and the spectacular growth of high technology.
The figures speak for themselves, said Mr. Kilcoyne, quoting the results of a recent telephone interview with retreaders.
``As of July 1999, there were 1,167 retreading plants in the U.S., and that's a big drop,'' he said. And, as opposed to the hegemony of single-plant small retreaders 30 or 40 years ago, today 61 retreading companies—or 6.9 percent of the total retreading companies in the U.S.—control 346 retread plants, or 29.6 percent of the total.
``On the other hand, if you look at the sale of tread rubber, there's more being sold today than in the '70s,'' Mr. Kilcoyne said.
The larger retreaders also are steadily becoming more high-tech, using techniques like holography and ultrasonic testing of casings. ``But it's still a competitive business,'' he said. ``A lot of people say they're not making much money.''
More sophisticated technology and tighter specifications already are making a huge difference to tire dealers and retreaders, Mr. Wagner said.
``It's not unusual for radial truck tires now to get 200,000 miles from the original tread, and some go as high as 300,000,'' he said.
``The design specifications for tires and wheels, especially for steering axle tires, are getting more and more exacting, with specific treads for specific purposes,'' he added.
Mr. Thomas remembered the difficulties radial tires presented to tire dealers and retreaders when U.S. tire makers first tried their hand at them in the 1970s.
``American tire makers had a tough time learning how to make radials,'' he said.
``Retreaders didn't have the basic casing to work with, so they weren't turning out a safe product. It wasn't the retreading process itself, it was the basic casing.''
Soon, however, U.S. tire manufacturers were turning out excellent radials, and foreign manufacturers were importing even more, at lower and lower prices.
This in turn spelled the essential end of the passenger retread business, according to the interviewees.
Paul Werd remembered how it used to be at Werd & Schaeffer, pre-radial.
``On Saturdays, we were giving out numbers like they do at a deli,'' he said. ``But with the advent of belted and radial tires, that business drifted away.''
The growth of chain stores and giant retailers saddened Mr. Huber. ``It used to be a guy in his own little community could make a good living if he had a little store that served the community,'' he said. ``The Wal-Marts changed that for all kinds of retail businesses....''