ANOKA, Minn.—Minnesota dealer Tom Wright is the sort of president who should put to rest any criticism that the Tire Association of North America is home to only the high and mighty of the tire sales and auto service business.
Mr. Wright, whose one-year term of office expires Nov. 3 at the close of TANA's convention in Las Vegas, isn't the stereotypical owner of a huge, multiple-store chain that some might expect the association's president to be.
The former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. veteran, who once was responsible for running 600 of that tire maker's company-owned stores, now is the proud owner of Wright Tire Service—a single-outlet retail operation in Anoka, a community of about 17,000 east of Minneapolis.
Wright Tire Service, which he founded 25 years ago after 13 years with Firestone, employs about 18 people, including Mr. Wright and three of his family members.
A typical work day finds him at the store's front counter, greeting customers and selling them tires and automotive service. Thus, when his association duties have called him away, as frequently happened during the past year, the store's remaining staff members understandably feel the pinch.
"It's the strain on the people that's probably the hardest to overcome." he said. But to the credit of the dealership's staff, Wright Tire Service recently wound up its fiscal year having increased sales and profits, despite Mr. Wright's absence.
Being TANA's president "takes a ton of time away from your own business. It seemed like I was on the road all the time at state and other association meetings," said Mr. Wright, who visited and spoke before some 20 to 25 such dealer gatherings around the country.
Mostly his purpose was to promote good will and secure the support of these groups, some of which were openly suspicious of the national association's motives in years past.
"I've bent over backwards to make sure they understand we have no intention of taking them over or doing anything except what is best for the independent tire dealer," Mr. Wright said.
"If it's best for the tire dealer, I say it's best for the industry. That's been my battle cry this past year."
Having had experience running both large and small tire retailing operations, TANA's president sees a lot of similarities there. "As a store supervisor, I used to be in charge of 20 percent of the Firestone stores in this country. But I learned that you run the stores one at a time.
"No matter whether you're Larry Morgan (of the Clearwater, Fla.-based Morgan Tire and Auto chain) and have 600 stores or Tom Wright with one store, you still run them just one store at a time.
"The problems I have are the same as Larry has in each one of his stores. The only advantage he has is the ability to put together an insurance program for his whole group of stores and other things to take advantage of economies of scale.
"But I can do the same thing," Mr. Wright said, "by tying into buying programs like those in the insurance field offered by the national and state associations."
During one of his trips on the road, Mr. Wright spoke at the Global Auto Aftermarket Symposium in Detroit. There he learned that $1,000 renewable annual scholarships are available for students wishing to enter the automotive aftermarket. He was part of a committee that reviewed the qualifications of more than 200 applicants, finally selecting 75 to receive scholarships. It's an opportunity TANA will exploit in years to come, he said.
Meanwhile, TANA's president somehow also found time to guide the Reston, Va.-based association through an impressive list of accomplishments—sometimes under difficult conditions.
Not the least of these was the unanticipated departure of TANA Executive Vice President David Poisson, who left in March for a job with R.R. Donnelly & Co., a Chicago-based commercial printing and information services firm.
Locating a replacement for TANA's well-regarded executive vice president was "probably the most trying thing I had to do all year," said Mr. Wright, who headed the search committee that interviewed more than 20 candidates before selecting the association's director of marketing, Ross Kogel, to fill the post.
During Mr. Wright's tenure, TANA also undertook the first democratic election of officers and board members in the association's 80-year history.
Electing TANA's officers and board members by membership-wide ballot, rather than following the previous practice of merely appointing them, was something Mr. Wright helped bring about two years earlier as chair of the task force that drew up the blueprint for this year's election.
At the same time, the task force also had called for streamlining TANA's board of directors from an unwieldy 80 members to 36, and its executive committee from 36 to just eight people—something else accomplished with this year's general election.
Among the year's achievements that most pleased Mr. Wright was implementing a TANA program that allows service personnel to receive training and certification in proper mounting and demounting of passenger and light truck tires without having to travel from their home service shops.
The program is based on a CD-ROM disk and a printed manual that trainees may study at their own pace. They then must pass a supervised written test in order to get certified.
The association's next step, he said, is to supply a curriculum for such training material to high schools and technical schools. "That, to me, is more important even than the scholarships we can offer—taking the training program to the high schools and tech schools and letting people there know about the employment opportunities offered by our industry."
A similar program designed to train workers who service large off-the-road tires also is under development. It should be ready for distribution sometime during the first half of 2001, he said.
Mr. Wright's term also saw the re-establishment of the association's government relations department, which was closed two years earlier for cost-cutting purposes.
The department's resurrection proved fortuitous.
Washington lobbyist Rebecca MacDicken was hired just in time for the association to join forces with a coalition of business groups to prevent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from imposing unfavorable ergonomics regulations.
Meanwhile, TANA and its cohorts also lobbied hard for elimination of the federal inheritance tax. They succeeded in gaining passage of such legislation but it later failed to garner enough Congressional support to override a presidential veto.
In August came the massive recall of Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, which Mr. Wright said placed a horrendous burden on both the crew of his primarily Firestone dealership and the association's administrative staff.
Public outcry over accidental deaths and injuries linked to allegedly unsafe tires and sport-utility vehicles led to a flood of potential legislation—all aimed at making tire and automotive manufacturers accountable and increasing the government's investigative powers in regard to product defects.
Realizing the industry faced the greatest regulatory threat in nearly 40 years, TANA sought additional help from the Washington-based agency of Ryan, Philips, Utrech and MacKinnon in a partially successful bid to prevent dealers and retreaders from being subjected to heavy fines and possible prison sentences should they knowingly sell dangerously defective tires.
Although unable to remove such provisions entirely, the effort did help persuade Congress to tone down the wording in the bill, thereby reducing the threat to dealers, TANA officials said.
In the meantime, the association also managed to sell out all the available exhibit space in its portion of the giant Automotive Industry Week show in Las Vegas.
With this whirlwind of activity all but behind him, TANA's outgoing president might be expected to feel relief now that his tempestuous term of office is drawing to a close. But quite the opposite is true, he told Tire Business.
"It's one of those times when you've got a lot of balls up in the air and feel you'd like to have another year at it," he said. "If I didn't have someone like Nick Hodell coming in right behind me, I'd feel like I'd have to stick around."