MEMPHIS, Tenn.-For the past 12 years, Bob Gardner has worked to build Del-Nat Tire Corp. into a profitable co-operative that helps tire dealers compete through multiple private brand offerings.
This year's Specialty Equipment Market Association/International Tire Expo-where Del-Nat holds an annual shareholders meeting-is serving as Mr. Gardner's swan song, so to speak, as he will retire as president of the group Jan. 1. He has been invited by Del-Nat to attend an incentive trip next summer, but the Oct. 29 company meeting prior to the ITE's kick-off was Mr. Gardner's last formal meeting with the co-op.
Mr. Gardner's replacement will be Dan Hunter, former vice president of sales for commercial and consumer products at Yokohama Tire Corp. He joined Del-Nat Oct. 1 and currently is working with Mr. Gardner through a transitional period.
It has been a year of change for Del-Nat. Last spring Don Helker-who was vice president of sales and, along with Mr. Gardner, helped mold what the company is today-left after nine years.
In 1989, Mr. Gardner helped merge the Delta and National buying groups to form Del-Nat, and he said he has enjoyed riding through the challenges of the private brand business-an industry that although giant in overall sales is ``still small enough that you know everybody.''
``It's really an industry of relationships,'' he said. ``You know a lot of people and really have a warm feeling about a lot of people.''
The 58-year-old Mr. Gardner, who has worked in the tire industry for his entire career, hasn't made any decisions yet on whether or not he would return to the industry in a different capacity. He said business consulting is a very real possibility, but he isn't sure he'll do anything beyond enjoying his family and his golden years.
Mr. Gardner told Tire Business he feels the co-op has reached a strong enough position for him to feel comfortable leaving at this juncture.
Del-Nat in 2001 has had its ``best year ever in both profits and sales.'' He declined to release sales numbers other than to say the company has seen sales increases for four years in a row and has posted ``well in excess'' of $200 million in revenue.
Prior to Del-Nat's founding, Mr. Gardner served as president of National Tire Corp., with which he had become associated in 1976 while handling private brand accounts for Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. Since Del-Nat's founding, the co-op has expanded to include 75 shareholders and to supply 1,100 SKUs.
Mr. Gardner said he's surprised at how quickly Del-Nat has grown.
``You always have visions, and in the beginning I had definite goals of what I've wanted to reach and what I wanted to do,'' he said. ``I didn't think I'd get there that fast. I really believe in our concept 120 percent. With some new leadership coming in, there's no reason the company won't double again in another 10 years. The opportunity is just ripe out there.''
Looking back, he said the greatest challenge he faced was in the 1980s during his time as National Tire Corp.'s president, when Firestone exited the private brand business while the industry overall was tight on supply. That test prepared him for a similar problem Del-Nat faced in 1998 when Michelin North America Inc. suddenly pulled the plug on its private brands supply relationship with the co-op. Mr. Gardner recalled that Michelin's unexpected move was an eye-opening experience for Del-Nat that reinforced its philosophy to have four or five different tire suppliers.
``That was a big turning point,'' he said. ``We were caught in that mystique that Michelin has the best name out there. We found out a lot different when we went with Cooper (Tire & Rubber Co.) and Yokohama. We found out that Michelin isn't the only supplier out there, and the other ones are very happy to see their product out there.
``Our breadth of line grew tremendously,'' he added. ``Michelin always held us back on the quantity of tires, the extra sizes they didn't want to produce.''
Although there are fewer private brands today than at Del-Nat's inception, Mr. Gardner said he believes the co-op can grow under his successor, Mr. Hunter. He noted that the co-op has had more inquiries from dealers in the past six months than in a long time, and he believes many dealers are becoming disenchanted with manufacturer brand programs even though they're not dropping those programs.
``(Dealers) are at the point where they're saying, `I've got enough, and I'm not going any further. I know my business, and I can't lose any more control over it.' ''