MEMPHIS, Tenn.-Even though TBC Corp. doesn't offer a Fulda brand, sport-utility vehicle tire in North America, the company thinks its Fulda high-performance passenger line may benefit from the fallout of the Firestone tire recall.
``With the issues that are going on right now between a (certain) car maker and a tire maker, safety is going to be a bigger issue,'' said Ken Fischer, Fulda sales manager for TBC Corp. in a not-so-veiled reference to the hyper-chronicled Ford Motor Co.-Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. soap opera. ``We're going to see high-performance tires on more mom-and-pop type vehicles. I think we're going to see that spread into more and more American cars.''
Mr. Fischer, who expects the Fulda brand to benefit from that potential spread, said such popular car models as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord already have taken steps in that direction. He said he expects most domestic makes and models to make similar moves in the near future, which would be good news for tire dealers.
As a way to boost profits, Mr. Fischer referred to dealers ``selling up,'' or putting higher performance tires on cars than they had for original equipment tires. ``(Safety) is a good issue for retailers to sell,'' he said.
It may become a better issue as women increasingly become more responsible for tire purchases. Mr. Fischer estimated women make up at least half of the tire-buying market and said they are more concerned than men with safety-therefore making them more likely to buy performance tires.
Fulda-brand tires are made by Germany's Gummiwerke Fulda G.m.b.H., a wholly owned subsidiary of Goodyear. TBC sells the brand exclusively in North America offering the Z- and W-rated Extremo, T-, H-, W- and V-rated Attiro/Assuro high performance passenger tires and the H-rated Rotego performance snow tire.
TBC's marketing strategy for Fulda involves targeting dealers as much as consumers. With exclusive distributors in various markets, Mr. Fischer said TBC wants to spread that territorial exclusivity to such dealers as TBC's Big O Tires Inc. and Tire Kingdom Inc. subsidiaries, as well as a few select independent dealers. He compared that approach to Starbuck's Coffee, the only place one can get that particular cup of joe.
``If you're in St. Louis, you could only buy Fulda at Dobbs (Tire and Auto Inc. stores); if you're in Florida, you could only get them at Tire Kingdom locations,'' he explained.
Regardless of who sells the Fulda brand, or where it is, Mr. Fischer said TBC is not overly concerned with the ``tuner'' market. He said the company looks to aim its Fulda products at consumers driving 2- or 3-year-old cars in need of replacements for OE tires, rather than those driving older vehicles in the tuner market. Without wheel packages, he said, TBC doesn't see hitting the tuner market with Fulda tires as a profitable venture.
``The cosmetic market is becoming extremely cluttered, we feel, with a multitude of brands at various quality levels,'' Mr. Fischer said. ``This is not a real high-performance market. It's really a `look' market. Your opportunities to make profits are quite low.''
On that note, he said the Fulda brand is doing well, ``growing every year...well ahead of the average high-performance group''-although he would not quantify that with any hard data.
TBC is being cautious about its approach to the light truck tire market-an area in which the Fulda brand currently doesn't have any offerings. Mr. Fischer said there is a ``strong possibility'' the Fulda brand will enter that market in the future, perhaps at some time in the next two years. He attributed the tentative approach to the combination of the volatile SUV market and rising gas prices.
``The thing we have to be careful about right now is the buying habits of the American; will they change because of the price of gasoline?'' Mr. Fischer said. ``There's no question the SUV market has been roaring since 1995 or `96. But as we know, all markets change.''