MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Don Helker has spent the past nine years shaping Del-Nat Tire Corp.'s organization in order to develop a "family" feel to it.
He said he's worked hard to create a place where dealers could do business with friends rather than an impersonal corporation.
Now, Mr. Helker, 57, has resigned from the private brand cooperative to relocate near his children and strengthen his own family ties. Formerly vice president of sales, Mr. Helker officially left Del-Nat March 30 and moved to Greenwood, S.C., near Atlanta, where he will assist his two grown children in operating three cash advance stores.
But don't count Mr. Helker out of the tire industry just yet.
He said he would still like to "mess around in the tire business in some way," but wasn't sure what opportunities he would pursue. Prodded a bit, the 35-year industry veteran admitted he might consider brokering some tires from his new home, or running a tire program for an off-shore company since "many don't have agents or contacts here." Or perhaps he could work with a company's private brand program.
The bottom line: You may leave the tire industry, but often the siren's call doesn't fade.
Mr. Helker—who, previous to his Del-Nat stint, had been a private brands manager for Goodyear's Kelly-Springfield Tire subsidiary—and his wife had been planning to relocate near their children for some time and had put their house up for sale last year. Before his departure from Del-Nat, he told Tire Business that he's looking forward to being close to his 2-year-old grandson and watching him grow up—something he missed with his own children because of constant business travel.
"Life's too short," Mr. Helker said. "When you're healthy, you don't know how long you're going to be healthy, and you just hope it stays that way. I think you should take advantage (of good health) if you can."
At its annual shareholders meeting, April 1-5 in Cancun, Mexico, the company announced that Mr. Helker's replacement is Dennis Cates, who becomes the group's vice president of marketing. With Del-Nat two years, he had been its North American sales manager.
Since his arrival at Del-Nat in 1992, Mr. Helker has seen the private brander grow from 20-some stockholder members to its current tally of 74. He is especially proud of how it has given personalized service to dealers.
"We have a one-on-one, close relationship with all of (our dealers), and I think that's more important and has led to increased business, more so than one single thing," he said.
But Del-Nat's road to growth and prosperity has had its rocky spots.
Del-Nat's single greatest challenge was what he calls the "Michelin debacle" of 1998—a supply crisis that occurred when Del-Nat's principal passenger and light truck tire supplier, Michelin North America Inc., dropped Del-Nat and three other private label tire firms to refocus on its multibrand strategy.
At the time, Del-Nat was Michelin's largest private brand customer.
Michelin's bombshell, coupled with a Fidelity Tire Manufacturing Co. reorganization, left Del-Nat in a quandary, according to Mr. Helker. He noted that Fidelity was the cooperative's largest supplier of agricultural, medium radial truck and bias light truck tires.
He vividly recalled when he and Del-Nat President Bob Gardner got word from Michelin. "Bob and I just sat in a room staring at each other in silence for, oh, five minutes or so."
Shell-shocked, the pair finally mouthed something like: "What are we going to do now?"
"I think people had written us off and said, `OK, Del-Nat's gone, they're history. They'll never be able to put this thing back together again,"' Mr. Helker said. "And we did. We put it together in a very short period of time."
Mr. Helker credited Del-Nat's rebound from its supply woes to signing a contract immediately with Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., which happened to be looking for new business at that time.
"I think that probably was one of the biggest keys of all to the success this company's had—the ability to react from a gigantic disappointment," he said.
The company also turned to another steady supplier, Yokohama Tire Corp., after Michelin pulled the plug.
He noted that at the time of Michelin's cancellation, Del-Nat had 208 SKUs of passenger and light truck tires by brand. By the end of 2001, the company expects to have 221 SKUs in just light truck tires, not by brand, he said—showing just how the company has grown without Michelin.
Del-Nat, formed in 1989 by the merger of private branders Delta Tire and National Tire, also is supplied, in addition to Yokohama, by Cheng Shin Rubber U.S.A., China Manufacturers Association, Denman Tire Corp., Alliance Tire Co. Ltd. and Toyo Tire (USA) Corp.
In the future, Mr. Helker said he sees private brand companies having to continue offering different incentives and services in order to survive.
"You're going to see even more brands fall to the wayside in the near future," he believes. "They have to. There's extra capacity in the industry and there's consolidation among independent tire dealers."
But he said tire manufacturers also will feel pressure because there will be fewer dealers and mass retailers with which to do business. The result, Mr. Helker said, will be that tire makers will have a more difficult time getting tire price hikes to stick.
As consolidation continues to be the industry's oft-spoken mantra, Del-Nat decided a couple years ago that it needed to be a bit more aggressive in the retail marketplace. So it slowly, quietly and selectively embarked on the dealership acquisition trail.
Last year Del-Nat made its first purchase: Indiana-based Dwight Fouts Tire Inc. That move "was a natural," Mr. Helker said, since Fouts Tire, with four stores, was already a Delta stockholder. However, he added that while the group will likely acquire other dealerships, it has vowed to not conflict with any members' territories and will expand in areas where Del-Nat does not have distribution. "We won't even look at (a dealership)," he said, "if another stockholder is there already."
Mr. Helker said he expects Del-Nat will continue to compete in the marketplace as long as it remains the closely knit organization it is now. The company is "financially strong," he said, partly because "we do things cautiously."
He said he'll miss fielding calls from dealers and helping meet their inventory needs.
And Del-Nat will miss him.
Mr. Gardner told Tire Business the group is "happy for Don. We wish him the best. He's done a very good job for us.
"Over the last three years, part of Don's basic responsibility has been the introduction of many fine new tire lines for our members—at least six in the last year and a half."
"You gotta like the independent tire dealer—which I do—and I understand their business," Mr. Helker said. "I know what their needs are. If you understand those things, then it's fun."