AKRON—It's an indication of just how bad things had become.
After Montgomery Ward & Co. announced Dec. 28 that it was going to shutter all 250 of its stores—including 234 Wards Express Tire and Auto Centers—several major tire manufacturers that supply the Chicago-based retailer expressed little concern about lost sales.
At Wards, Michelin North America Inc. "had a presence with all our tire lines," said a spokeswoman for the Greenville, S.C.-based manufacturer of Michelin, Uniroyal and BFGoodrich brand tires. Michelin had expected Wards' sales of the three brands to represent about 1 percent of the tire maker's overall sales in 2001.
"We expect that since consumers really aren't going anywhere. The inventory as well as the business will be absorbed through other outlets," the spokeswoman told Tire Business.
A Goodyear spokesman would not reveal specifics about the Akron-based firm's sales at Wards, but said they were "not really significant." The retailer sold Goodyear, Dunlop and some private label tires, he said, and also carried Kelly-brand tires for several decades.
The closing of Wards is "sad to see," the spokesman added. "I hate to see a company like that go under."
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. had stopped shipping tires to Wards in August, a BFS spokeswoman said, noting Wards is now selling strictly from inventory.
BFS did a lot of business with Wards until the mid-1990s but cut back after Wards first filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1997, she said. The company emerged from that bankruptcy in 1999.
BFS manufactured the Firestone FR575 tire in 20 sizes specifically for sale at Wards, but the retailer did not sell any BFS associate brands, she said.
"In 2000, we sold a minimal amount of tires to them (Wards)," the spokeswoman said.
Wards also carried General tire brands. Officials from Continental General Tire Inc. did not return phone calls.
Some independent tire dealers already have gained business from former Wards customers.
Hamad Tire Co.'s location in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, has had a small increase in tire sales since a nearby Wards tire and auto center shut down, said Manager Charlie Jones.
Hamad has mounted about 20 sets of tires for customers who purchased tires at closeout prices at Wards but could not get them mounted, he said. But, even before the Dec. 28 an-nouncement, he was gaining customers from Wards.
"They (Wards) haven't had a lot of inventory in the last few months," Mr. Jones said. "Wards sent a lot of customers up to us."
He's also convinced that another tire and auto dealership will move into the Wards space and believes "someone big might move in there."
Leipold Tire Co., another independent tire dealership in Cuyahoga Falls, also has mounted a few sets of tires purchased at closeout prices by Wards' customers. But owner Dennis Leipold doesn't expect to gain a lot of business from Wards closing.
"This Wards never did well in Cuyahoga Falls," he said. "I don't think it (the closing) will be a big factor in our area."
Mr. Leipold said customers complained about Wards for years. "They (Wards) would advertise specials, but then the shop couldn't deliver the service," he said.
Meanwhile, Al Benoit, vice president for Baltimore-based Kimmel Automotive Inc., said he's sad to see Wards close—especially since he used to manage a number of auto centers for the soon-to-be-defunct retailer.
Wards has six stores in Kimmel Automotive's marketing areas of Maryland and Virginia.
For 13 years, starting in 1975, Mr. Benoit worked for Wards, watching it shift direction from being heavily into private brand tire sales to handling mostly flag brands.
"Over the years they had a niche" with the private labels, he said. "The last store I ran, 13 years ago, probably did $1.5 million in tire sales alone."
"I just feel they lost what their goals were, what they wanted to do," he added. "When they switched to Michelin and other major brands, I think that really hurt them. Then they were competing against everyone else—against Sears and NTB."
Eventually, Mr. Benoit said, Wards closed its New England and New York stores, including some he managed. Yet, as Wards fades from existence, he admits to mixed emotions including some sadness.
"But on the other hand, I'm glad—that's one less competitor," Mr. Benoit acknowledged. "It makes independent tire dealers like ourselves have a better chance to make things happen when a major closes down."
In late 1999, Wards opened a free-standing prototype tire and auto center in Hulen, Texas, and announced plans to build a second one in that state as part of a company-wide renovation program.
However, TB was unable to reach Wards officials for comment about the future of the tire and auto centers.
Managing Editor Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk contributed to this report.