Standing in a small conference room inside the Kelly-Springfield plant in Fayetteville, Jack Winterton, Goodyear's general manager for the Kelly brand, posed the question that perhaps everyone in the industry ponders periodically.
``Why don't we all get a couple thousand dollars retail for a set of tires?''
The Goodyear executive was only half-joking as he spoke to a small gathering of tire dealers and industry media from around the country. All were on hand for the launch of Kelly's Safari Signature sport-utility vehicle tire and to take part in a program that included a tour of the Fayetteville plant, dinner and a round of golf at the historic Pinehurst No. 2 course, site of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens.
His point was well taken. Tires, particularly Kelly-brand tires in this case, are well worth it, according to the message Goodyear had for its dealers.
Goodyear wants Kelly to attain the status of what Mr. Winterton termed a ``premium push brand for the independent tire dealer.'' And while Goodyear is pushing Kelly, Kelly in turn may be pushing Goodyear. It's been three years since Goodyear absorbed the subsidiary into its Akron operations. Now the tire maker would like to incorporate some of the market-driven concepts Kelly employed over the years.
The term ``Kelly Experience'' was bandied about often during the two-day get-together in North Carolina. The idea: improve relations with dealers.
Never a broad marketer of tires when it operated independently, Kelly concentrated on its dealer structure and was successful in areas such as product development, supply chain and dealer relations, Goodyear president and COO Robert Keegan said in a recent interview with Tire Business. He described Kelly as ``head and shoulders above the rest of the industry'' in terms of being closer to its dealer customers.
Mr. Keegan said at the time that he would like Goodyear to embrace some of the traits of the old Kelly-Springfield Tire Co., formerly based in Cumberland, Md. The company's most recent tire introduction in the middle of the Tar Heel State was a step in that direction. It certainly made an impression on those in attendance.
The gathering was what a Goodyear spokesman called a combination of top Kelly dealers, chosen basically at random. ``Anytime you do an event during the summer it's kind of tough'' to get a group of dealers together, the spokesman said. ``They're busy people. It's tough to get them away from their business.''
Fred Allen, president of Allen Tire Co. in Los Angeles, traveled the farthest among the nine dealers on hand. He said the trip was well worth the time and that Goodyear made an impression on him far beyond the mere perks of visiting a glamorous golf resort.
``Any time you can get top management and dealers together I think that's a positive experience,'' he said. ``The `Kelly experience' is really defined in relationships. Anything they can do to build and solidify relationships is going to have long-reaching and long-lasting benefits for Goodyear.''
Mr. Allen theorized that when Kelly was absorbed into Goodyear in 1999, a lot of its philosophies-especially those that played a role in whatever success the brand had-were somewhat lost in the shuffle.
A longtime Kelly dealer, Mr. Allen sees the good that can come from Goodyear reviving the Kelly experience. ``The Kelly experience is invaluable to Goodyear,'' he said. ``If they can adopt that type of relationship that Kelly had with its dealers, there's a world of good business that can be had.''
The catch word among dealers and Goodyear executives alike was ``relationships.'' Goodyear wants to build them; dealers see their necessity. Mr. Allen, for one, referred to it as ``an attitude'' that relationships are seen as important. He, for one, said he is happy with his relationship with Goodyear and Kelly, but noted others might need more prompting.
Jim Vogel, Goodyear's vice president of consumer tires, made a special trip to Fayetteville-down and back in a day-to deliver a pep talk about Goodyear, Kelly and the direction in which the company and brand are going.
``The best way to earn your business is to invest,'' he told the group. ``This is the heart of Kelly country. We've done plenty of investing.''
Several other Goodyear/Kelly executives took turns addressing the group. Each had a similar message, conveyed with different words. It wasn't so much what they said, but the fact they were there to say it in person, that seemed to make the biggest impression.
``It's a real positive message Goodyear put out to Kelly dealers,'' Mr. Allen said. ``They were saying, `We hear you and we need to build our relationships a little more.' It's very positive when you hear high-level Goodyear executives mentioning that. I'm very encouraged.''
Mr. Winterton spoke of the major transition Goodyear underwent by bringing Kelly and the Dunlop brand, acquired by the tire maker in a joint venture three years ago with Japan's Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd., into the fold. And he stressed that Goodyear is committed to the Kelly brand.
``And what better place to showcase it than at one of the finest plants in the world,'' he said. ``We want to encourage dealers to recognize the Kelly brand.''
In a presentation, Goodyear executives described the brand's customers as being in ``a Kelly frame of mind.'' These are practical, hardworking people who purchase practical, hard-working products. They don't need labels to validate themselves, the executives said.
A typical Kelly customer is an adult aged 25-54 (52 percent are female), married, college-educated professional with an annual income greater than $40,000.
As for the brand itself, dealers needed little arm-twisting concerning its value.
``For the dealers it's a very strong brand,'' Mr. Allen said. ``Any dealer that has Kelly recognizes the value that brand has. You can pretty much control your own destiny with that brand. Very few out there in the industry are like Kelly. The only other kind in the industry that come close to it would be maybe Cooper and Toyo.
``We get approached all the time about changing brands, but we don't see any reason to.''
On a Safari
The trip to Fayetteville and Pinehurst was not merely a chance to bond with dealers. There was also the matter of introducing the Kelly Safari Signature, billed as a premium ``on-road'' SUV tire. Hailed as Kelly's quietest SUV tire ever, the Safari Signature is designed for highway use, where the bulk of SUV driving occurs.
The tire is available in 15 P-metric sizes from P215/75R15100S to P265/70R17113S. It features an S speed rating, 55,000-mile limited treadwear warranty and comes with road hazard protection and a 30-day test drive-warranty. The tire has a UTQG rating of 540 AB.
The tire is currently available in sizes to meet demand for SUV owners needing their first set of replacement tires. Sizes for recently introduced SUVs, such as the Cadillac Escalade, for instance, will be added in a year or two when demand for them increases.
``We look at the age of the vehicles to determine sizes,'' said Kelly brand manager Mark McDonald, pointing out that all sizes were in production prior to the product launch and the tire opened up at a 99.5-percent fill rate.
``This is a launch that will be very successful with great fill rates,'' said Mr. Vogel, who noted the company's pet name for the Safari Signature is the ``Kelly Kelly'' because of its raised-white letter dual embossment of the brand, rather than the product name.
Dealers also got to experience the new tire on the road. Hot off the production presses, sets of Safari Signatures were fitted on a small fleet of SUVs from a local rental company-mounted by local dealer Bob Briggs & Sons-and used for the hour-long drive from Fayetteville to Pinehurst.
Next up for the Kelly line is a new street tuner tire-the Charger HPT-which Goodyear likely will debut at the Specialty Equipment Market Association/International Tire Expo in Las Vegas in early November.
Now, if they can just get a couple thousand dollars a set...