ANOKA, Minn.—``Once you get the tire business in your blood, it's very hard to get it out.'' That's how Tom Wright feels, and he should know. His tire store, Wright Tire Service in Anoka, will celebrate its 25th anniversary early next year. He founded it as a labor of love after spending more than a decade with the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in a variety of supervisory positions, ending as division manager in Akron.
Mr. Wright's experience on both sides of the tire industry and his long tenure as a one-store independent tire dealer have given him the insight he needs to take over the presidency of the Tire Association of North America. His previous work for TANA—encompassing the usual trajectory of secretary, vice president and president-elect—has won him respect for his thoughtful, thorough approach to decision-making.
Jim Shook, Mr. Wright's immediate predecessor in the TANA presidency, described him as ``a very nice person'' and ``a very conscientious, very dedicated individual. When a problem comes up, he really looks at it closely and works to solve it.'' Regarding meetings he and Mr. Wright have attended together, Mr. Shook said, ``The two of us really think alike, and it's nice when we've been there together.''
As TANA president, Mr. Wright will preside over a major change in the association's operations and structure. Beginning July 1, 2000, TANA will slash its board to 36 members from 88, and its executive committee to six members from 18.
Also, beginning on that date, the association will begin the democratic election of its secretary—a key post whose incumbent automatically rises in the TANA ranks over a three-year period to vice president, president-elect and president. Whereas the board of directors always chose the secretary in previous years, now the TANA membership will nominate candidates for the position.
Mr. Wright, who recommended those changes last year as chairman of a special task force, said he would announce the details of the change at the annual TANA/Specialty Equipment Market Association/Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week convention and trade show, held in Las Vegas Nov. 2-5.
``It's a pretty straightforward situation,'' he said. ``The names of the people who get nominated will be sent in by the state organizations. Also, individuals can get nominated by collecting 25 member signatures and sending them to the nominating committee.''
TANA will publicize the change in the nominating process to ensure that association members will know to vote and, if they want, send in nominations.
``The big advantage of this is to open the voting up to the membership—to have free and open elections,'' Mr. Wright said. Nevertheless, the elected secretary will continue to move automatically into the association's higher positions. ``We wanted to maintain that continuity,'' he said.
Besides overseeing TANA's electoral changes, Mr. Wright said the biggest thing he would like to accomplish as the association's president is to help make TANA's already-strong training programs the best they can be. ``This will help our members who are not closely tied to any major tire company,'' he said.
One thing Mr. Wright recommended to Mr. Shook—``and he took the bull by the horns and did it,'' Mr. Wright said—was to convene the current officers to discuss ``a four- or five-year plan'' including all aspects of the association's operations, from finances to the role of TANA Executive Vice President David Poisson.
As a result, ``we believe the TANA train is back on track, and in the next three or four years we will try to make that train run faster,'' Mr. Wright said.
His own tire-industry train embarked in 1962 when, fresh out of Penn State University, the Pennsylvania native joined Firestone, which sent him to Minnesota as a store supervisor. Over the next 13 years, the company sent him to Akron, then Chicago, then Akron again, and was preparing to send him to upstate New York when, in his words, ``I decided I'd been moved around long enough.''
Opening their own tire dealerships, according to Mr. Wright, is something a lot of tire-industry veterans do if they don't get the jobs they want with major tire makers. ``Most independents have either worked for the majors, or else their fathers founded the business,'' he said.
Wright Tire's single location in Anoka, a northwestern suburb of Minneapolis, carries passenger, truck, light truck and farm tires, and provides a full line of automotive services ``except motor replacement,'' Mr. Wright said.
Its major tire lines are Firestone and Bridgestone, although the dealership also carries General, private brands such as Del-Nat and ``some of whatever people want,'' he said.
Owning a small independent tire dealership gives Mr. Wright first-hand knowledge of the problems such dealers face. When the old National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association reorganized into TANA, ``there was a perception that TANA would be run by the rubber companies, and that the dealer focus would be lost,'' he said.
This led to unrest among the state organizations, including one—the Georgia Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association—which re-signed its membership in the national association.
Mr. Shook and Mr. Wright strove to correct this misapprehension by meeting with the state directors earlier this year in Texas. ``We put everything we could on the table,'' Mr. Wright said. ``That meeting really opened lines of communication.''
Mr. Shook also traveled to many of the state conventions; Mr. Wright's schedule prevented him from doing the same, but he did join Mr. Shook at the Arizona show.
The Georgia association has since rejoined TANA. As for the other state organizations, Mr. Wright said: ``I think we got the miscommunication pretty well taken care of.''
He's enthusiastic about the programs TANA is setting up to benefit members, particularly those in training and ``meaningful membership services.''
TANA is working with Akron's Smithers Scientific Services to create a TANA certification program similar to that of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, covering tire and light mechanical service.
``This is a program tire dealers can take to their local high schools and technical schools,'' he said. ``The biggest problem in our industry right now is a lack of trained people.''
Also, the association is taking a close look at its membership services through a committee chaired by Steve Disney of Disney Tire & Rubber in Louisville, Ky. He served as TANA secretary under Mr. Shook and will be Mr. Wright's vice president.
The effort is a way to determine the effectiveness of the services TANA offers and what services it should offer but doesn't, according to Mr. Wright. This review includes looking into what other associations offer their members and whether TANA can work together with these groups.
``Several years ago, the NTDRA issued what it called the `Stern Report,' which said that if tire dealers were to be successful, they should make some strategic alliances,'' he said.
``We're trying to see if there are any other associations with whom we should be working.
``Many people with independent repair shops, for example, have the same problems we do.''
Both committees will review their efforts in Las Vegas. ``The TANA staff has put together an excellent existing benefits program,'' Mr. Disney said.
``We're trying to approach it from the tire dealer angle to think out of the box and create new programs. We've done the review part; we're getting to the creative part.''
Mr. Wright agrees with Mr. Disney that TANA offers many good benefits to independent dealers right now, and he would like to see dealers take full advantage of them, just as he does.
``I used management services to put together our employee handbook, and we use the credit card,'' he said.
Above all, Mr. Wright wants the message of his TANA presidency to be that the owner of a small, independent dealership is not alone. Sixty percent of TANA members, he noted, have fewer than 10 stores.
``While we constantly hear of consolidation among tire dealers, dozens of places are opening up that have only one or two locations,'' he said.
``There is still great hope for family-run businesses in our industry.''