QUINCY, Ill. (Feb. 21, 2002)—Figuratively speaking, Titan International Inc. has been through some tough times akin to calamities of biblical proportion.
One positive: The Quincy-based tire and wheel maker hasn't experienced any plague of locusts…at least not yet. But it has weathered economic famine brought on by a 40-month strike—the longest in the history of the rubber industry—as well as its current state of severe overcapacity aggravated by a fallow economy.
So it's not really a stretch for the company's always outspoken president and CEO, Maurice “Morry” Taylor Jr., to wax biblical when describing Titan's struggles amidst a deluge of problems: “It was like we were in that 40-day flood in the Bible,” he told Tire Business.
“It's like we've been on Noah's Ark. Wasn't a lot of food around so we ate some of the animals. Now it's not raining, the sun's out and we've got to go and do some work. That's what it boils down to.”
As the company attempts to edge past a number of festering problems left over from several years of labor strife, Mr. Taylor said Titan is now “trying to expand as fast as we can.”
He called Tire Business from Texas, where he was talking tires, wheels and contracts with military officials at the U.S. Army's Fort Hood base.
That expansion is being spawned by “increases in all product offerings,” he said, as well as a continuation of the company's custom branding efforts with Caterpillar Inc. Titan supplies Caterpillar with Cat-brand tires for use on skid steers, telescopic handlers and backhoes.
Titan also has a similar contract for skid steer and telescopic handler tires—now being rolled out—with equipment maker Gehl Co. And Mr. Taylor said his company is days away from launching a batch of new tires destined for telescopic handlers, forklifts and vibrator rollers made by Ingersoll-Rand Co. that will bear I-R's brand.
Although a couple years ago Mr. Taylor joked that he wanted to be Caterpillar's “slave,” it's actually John Deere & Co. that gets the brunt of Titan's current production.
“My biggest production capacity in tires is totally with the aftermarket,” he said, noting that his business with “Mother Deere”—as he refers to the tractor and equipment manufacturer—is larger than with Caterpillar. That's “mainly because I don't make all that big OTR stuff” used on some Cat equipment.
He claimed that while the “big boys”—meaning the agricultural and off-road tire divisions of Goodyear, Michelin North America Inc. and Bridgestone/Firestone—aren't coming out with a lot of new ag and OTR products, Titan is “because this is our market—it's what we focus on.” He added: “Our forecast is to take market share. We should be able to do that, but I don't think the market will grow.”
Titan doesn't “target anyone” to steal away share, he said. “We just go after the business, like with our Caterpillar program. We're the only (tire maker) doing Cat branding. They get our premium tires.”
Mr. Taylor sees the farm and construction segments continuing to constrict this year, which may help Titan because he also believes that the plethora of part numbers—tire sizes and specifications—will increase. “That will hurt the big guys because their systems are not as flexible as ours are to handle that.”
“The only way you're going to get business out there is to come up with new products or take business away from someone,” he continued. “The only way to take it is to give (customers) more value…and I think we can do that.”
Still, Mr. Taylor admitted, “I'm so happy 2001 is gone.”
Buffeted by the strikes, sluggish economy and a 45-percent downturn in the agricultural business, he said he's “still standing. Wounded, but standing.”
While its financial results won't be released until Feb. 28, he said it's no secret Titan is “going to take a big hit in the fourth quarter” of 2001.
But in January, on the wheel side, Titan had its best month for orders since 1997—which was its best year ever—while the company's tire business saw its best numbers since the strikes began in May 1998.
Titan posted a net loss of $9.5 million in the third quarter ended last Sept. 30 on sales of $100.5 million—down 16 percent from 2000. For the nine-month period, Titan lost a net $13.3 million on sales of $356.9 million. On the plus side, however, the company secured two military deals, including a $45 million wheel pact with the U.S. Army—Titan's largest military contract ever.
“This is the first time since before the strike that our capacity is greater than our sales,” Mr. Taylor acknowledged. “That's why we're going out and hustling.
“On the aftermarket side, you can't blame dealers…. You have to earn your way back. The big thing with them is to turn around and supply them.”
Independent dealerships that handle Titan products include Nebraska's T.O. Haas Tire Co.; Bauer Built Inc. in Durand, Wis.; Dunlap & Kyle in Batesville, Miss.; Remington Tire Distributors of Edmonton, Alberta; Gallagher Tire in Pennylvania; and California's Western States Tire.
Currently, Titan's plant in Des Moines, Iowa, is the company's “big hog,” as Mr. Taylor called it, producing light construction tires for backhoes and telescopic handlers as well as ag tires. Its newest factory, in Brownsville, Texas, is producing small implement and industrial tires. That plant “still has a long way to go, but it's doing leaps and bounds better than it was a year ago.”
By the end of this year, he said, Brownsville should be running at about one-third of the capacity he expects it to hit in the next four years.
Meanwhile, Titan's Natchez, Miss., tire facility has been mothballed. Mr. Taylor said if Brownsville progresses on schedule and markets pick up, he could bring Natchez back online, but that is perhaps at least a year away. “Things have to really pick up first.”
The industry is wallowing in “excess excess capacity,” he reiterated, claiming Titan “now has more capacity today in light construction tires than Goodyear and Bridgestone/Firestone combined.”
Since 1999, Titan has been making its low sidewall (LSW) tire-wheel system specifically for Caterpillar skid-steers, backhoes and telescopic handlers. Mr. Taylor reported that the LSW program is “going good.”
His company has procured an $80,000 contract with the U.S. military to develop an LSW “run-flat” system for the Marines' LAV (Land Assault Vehicle), and is testing some tires on those vehicles, which resemble a small tank and are being used in Afghanistan by U.S. peacekeeping forces.
All told, Titan has 11 wheel contracts with the military. During his visit to Fort Hood, Mr. Taylor discussed with officials how the LSW technology could be used on military trucks, such as the Humvee. “I like the military,” he said, “because it's cash upfront.”
However, the company is “spending a lot of our energies strictly on the aftermarket,” Mr. Taylor. “We're going to build that business from California all the way across the country. I've got the product now—the wheels, the tires. Prior to 1998, we couldn't make enough tires. Then the strike came and boom.
“We bought from Goodyear…. I lost a hell of a lot of money to hold onto my accounts, and I think people appreciated it. But we didn't stop.”
Every week, he said, Titan is picking up the pace, “getting stronger and stronger.”
So when will the firm be profitable again?
“I told everyone on the street: There's no excuse to not be in the black by the end of the first quarter. We took all our hits in the last year.”
In light of continuing adjustments—such as recalling more workers who had been on strike—“we should have everything straightened out by the end of February,” he predicted.