FORT SMITH, Ark.—Nearing its six-month birthday, Goodyear's Wingfoot Commercial Tire Systems L.L.C. has passed the point where it may have needed a "wing and a prayer" to take flight.
When it took to the air Nov. 1, Wingfoot was billed as the "world's largest truck tire service network," bringing the tire maker's company-owned and Brad Ragan commercial sites together in a joint venture with Treadco Inc.'s commercial and retreading units.
That accomplished, Wingfoot's almost-half-year report card has a number of incompletes, but some passing grades as well.
John R. "Bob" Meyers, former Treadco president and CEO who's now Wingfoot's chairman and chief executive, is about over his pre-flight jitters and has found a "lot of pleasant surprises" while helping meld the three similar yet still somewhat different organizations.
During a conference call from Wingfoot's (and Treadco's) headquarters in Fort Smith, he and Wingfoot President Michael R. Thomann told Tire Business the venture has had the benefit of being able to solicit ideas from employees in all three entities as it tries to settle on a definitive way to go to market and improve services for customers.
A pessimist might say it's got to be tough making that work, but Mr. Thomann believes "it's fortunate that we have three groups coming together, looking at customer needs from three different viewpoints...." And it's "interesting because there wasn't a lot of overlap even on the customer base" among the operations.
Currently, Wingfoot operates about 180 sites in 41 states and has three new locations under construction. The project furthest along will open in Laredo, Texas, followed by commercial outlets in Joplin, Mo., and Garner, N.C., a Raleigh suburb.
Admittedly, Mr. Thomann said, one of the biggest challenges in combining three distinct operations on "different pages," so to speak, is settling on a common operating system.
"We're taking the strengths of the Goodyear business management system and the old Treadco system and calling it the Wingfoot system," Mr. Meyers said. The end-of-year goal for Wingfoot, which already has begun the conversion process, is to get every outlet's management functions—such as billing, payroll, cost-accounting, general ledger and payables—blended together.
"When finished with the transition," he continued, "the Wingfoot operating system won't look identical to any one of the three systems we had—we're trying to take the best of all three."
Wingfoot also is part of Goodyear's Truckwise commercial dealer organization and, Mr. Thomann acknowledged, "actually fills a pretty large part of that distribution."
He described Truckwise as a "customer-driven initiative because it answers the things customers want—and that's basically to get themselves out of the tire business and have somebody else handle that on a day-to-day basis, all the way from inception until the last time you retread that tire."
Goodyear's Next-Tred retreading system was integrated into Wingfoot at its debut, but only Treadco locations had to convert from the Oliver Rubber Co. system they were using.
In February, Potosi, Mo.-based Purcell Tire & Rubber Co. closed a deal with Wingfoot and acquired two former Treadco facilities—a retread plant and commercial tire center in Las Vegas, and a commercial site in St. Louis. However, Mr. Thomann said Wingfoot has no similar deals pending to sell holdings to other independent dealers where market coverage may overlap.
"Our intention at this point is to move forward and grow from here. We have no intention of selling any additional locations."
On the other hand, Mr. Meyers said the company is studying markets "where it makes sense for us to expand into—that will largely be customer driven, for customers who want us to service 100 percent of their fleets, for instance."
Not wishing to tip off competitors to future expansion plans, he would only say Wingfoot is "attracted to markets where we don't currently have a presence." With 180 sites around the U.S., there are still quite a few markets where Wingfoot doesn't have distribution, and the company will be evaluating those opportunities over the next several months.
Introducing uniform Wingfoot signage to all existing sites, though, is a task that will occur over time and could take a few years to accomplish, Mr. Meyers said. Easy things—such as invoices and business cards—will roll out quickly, as will signs on new Wingfoot service trucks.
While the company goes to market with a focus on Goodyear's "G-3" brand strategy—Goodyear, Kelly and Dunlop—he said Wingfoot will "supplement Goodyear brands where it's prudent and necessary to fill voids in the lineup in order to service our customers in the best fashion." And, Mr. Thomann added, "a number of portions of this organization were multi-branded previous to this joint venture, so this is not a new way of looking at the world."
Asked how Goodyear answers concerns of independent dealers that, with so-called "controlled distribution" systems such as Wingfoot, their tire supplier is increasingly encroaching on their territories, Mr. Thomann noted that "company-owned distribution is not something that's new within Goodyear." The tire maker's commercial tire and service centers have been operating for at least 25 years, and the company has had an ownership in the Brad Ragan organization since 1985.
"I think what's somewhat different is we now have an organization that's truly national in scope," he said, "and can service customers' needs wherever they are. Not that that's in competition with other Goodyear distribution, but it really enhances the whole distribution network."