CLEARWATER, Fla. (Aug. 5, 2002) — No woulda's, shoulda's or Brando-esque mumblings that he “coulda been a contenda.”
Contended, definitely. Contented? Hardly.
Young. Much too young to be called an elder statesman of the tire industry. But at 58, Larry Morgan has seen the tire business from the pinnacle. Over the years he's run two of the country's largest independent dealerships.
Now that he has decided to bow out of the day-to-day operations of his Morgan Tire & Auto (MTA) Inc., what next? Not likely he'll make like an NFL quarterback and head for Disney World, despite its relative proximity to his company's headquarters.
Instead, Mr. Morgan said he's planning to “give something back” to the industry he entered right out of college.
His rÃ&Copy;sumÃ&Copy; reads like a how-to up the corporate ladder.
Landed a job with Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. and stayed there for seven years, working with his mentor Don Olson, who left Firestone in 1972 to launch the dealership Mr. Morgan would years later purchase.
Meanwhile, Mr. Morgan headed for Manassas, Va., to lead Merchant's Inc., growing it from eight outlets into a strong regional chain with more than 100 stores.
After 19 years with that firm, he left to buy Olson Tire from his friend.
Over the course of 10 years, he built his Morgan Tire, acquisition by acquisition, into a national powerhouse with 549 stores in 25 states and more than 6,000 employees. When Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) purchased majority control—that is, 58 percent—of the dealership last summer, Mr. Morgan remained at the helm, rather than simply as a figurehead or absentee owner.
But after some ongoing soul searching, the man who still describes himself as an entrepreneur has decided it's time for a change of pace.
On July 8, BFS announced Mr. Morgan was relinquishing his positions as CEO and chairman of the dealership, but will remain on its board as chairman emeritus. His replacement is a 32-year BFS veteran, Stu Watterson, who becomes Morgan Tire's president and CEO and will oversee day-to-day operations.
He may be out of the day-to-day grind, but Mr. Morgan—with a 42-percent stake in it—doesn't hesitate to still call Morgan Tire “our company.”
“I'm going to stay involved with our franchise group,” he told Tire Business.
He plans to be “a sounding board and participate in all the meetings and help with major decisions. That's a real important part of the future of our company. We have to make sure there's continuity there and no breakdown in communications at any level.”
MTA's Tires Plus franchise program is beginning to grow again after a period of dormancy.
“There was a time we didn't sell franchises simply because we didn't disclose BFS's majority interest in the company, so consequently we couldn't legally go out and solicit and sell,” he explained. “But we've fired that operation back up again and have got a huge amount of interest and prospects. Our franchise review committee has been real busy.”
The program currently has about 75 franchisees with an additional 25 either recently committed or in the process of signing on.
But what's apparently nearer and dearer to his heart is getting enmeshed in “strategic issues” facing the newly named Tire Industry Association (TIA), which took wing July 1 following the merger of the International Tire & Rubber Association and the Tire Association of North America.
“If I have to accomplish one thing—and I know can't do it overnight—I want the satisfaction of knowing I can make a contribution to the industry,” he said.
“As I've been looking around other businesses, I'm appalled at what a terrible return all of us associated with the tire industry get for the products and services we deliver. If I can, I'll try to bring that to the attention of all the participants in our industry—tire makers, wholesalers, retailers, discount clubs, mass merchandisers, support suppliers—anybody and everybody.”
He said he's not interested in “material gain,” but rather to “start to tell the consumer” about “how proud we are of what we do.”
It's a lofty goal, he admitted. But if he can find a way “to sell our products for what they're worth so we can make a better return…I will have accomplished a lot. That's what I'm really going to try to do.”
Currently chairman of TIA's strategic planning committee, Mr. Morgan is in line to assume the association's presidency in November 2003.
“I think we can really produce value for our membership. Frankly, we want to get to the point where people will kill to be members of TIA,” he said. “And I believe we will accomplish that.”
Returning the favor
With a 37-plus-year history as a tire guy, Mr. Morgan said he now wants to “try to return the favor to the industry that did great things for me.”
Still, boosting margins always has been and will continue to be a daunting task.
“Every year we sell hundreds of millions of tires in this country,” he said. The industry needs to get every sales person to “just allocate a minute and a half of their communication time to convince the customer they're buying a very highly technological, quality product, that the safety of their family relies on it, and they're getting it at a tremendous value.
“We have to get everyone talking positive about the product, and we must make customers feel good about their purchase.”
Perhaps his philosophy has rubbed off on MTA's sales staff. Mr. Morgan said his margins on tires have improved every year “for a long, long, long time.” However, he can still recall “when my whole marketing strategy was to look at my nearest competitor in the marketplace, and my goal was to be a few pennies less on every product line.”
BFS takes over 100-percent ownership of MTA in 2008. Mr. Morgan sees himself remaining with the dealership at least until then. “I'm not using the 'retirement' word,” he said. “That's definitely not what I'm doing now.” He's also current board chairman of the Tire Alliance Groupe (TAG), the dealership buying entity of which Morgan Tire is the biggest member.
Despite the buyout by the tire maker, he still considers himself an “independent” tire dealer—“absolutely,” he said without hesitation. And, he added, BFS “has no intention of combining our stores with theirs or meshing our management teams together. They want us to retain separate operations and be a totally different brand and concept.”
That doesn't mean his life is just all tires all the time.
“I've always had a lot of interests outside the tire business,” he said. Over the years he has helped form a bank, owned several golf courses, and during an interview in 1997 with Tire Business ackowledged that he could probably make a good living in commercial real estate.
But his focus has begun to shift to his children, twins Lauren and Brett. His son is finishing up college and working part-time as a radio producer for Clear Channel Communications. Mr. Morgan would like to help him get started in some business venture, yet unknown.
“One of my decisions in selling my business was so (Brett) could do what he wanted to do—not what dad wanted him to do. Not that he wouldn't want it, but it's such a huge business and it's unfair to try to push him into it. He has to be his own man.”
Initially, he admitted, there was some concern on the part of MTA employees about the acquisition by Nashville, Tenn.-based BFS. But the tire maker “made it so perfectly clear to my people that they weren't going to reduce their pay, change benefits…. They've lived up to every commitment they've made.”
“I know my people are very happy and…are seeing positives out of the relationship.”
And economically, he noted, “I couldn't have been treated better. There are certainly no regrets there.”
Taking into account the growth MTA has sustained in the last decade, Mr. Morgan believes he has accomplished what he set out to do, though “I had…my sights on a few more acquisitions. But, frankly, the (Firestone tire) recall slowed down our growth once BFS got majority interest. And their desire to grow has been temporarily tabled.
“But that's always been my strong suit. I did it at Merchants and Morgan Tire. Am I proud of what we accomplished? Absolutely. I'm probably more proud I've got a whole team that can keep it going, because in addition to growing the business, I think I grew an awful lot of highly talented, motivated, capable people. That's what enabled us to grow, and they've taught that philosophy to others.”
As a leader, he said he's always tried to be “real compassionate” with his employees and will definitely miss the day-to-day interaction with them.
As for watching someone else run the business he's built—that's got to be tough, right?
“Uh…” A big pause. “We'll see,” he said, laughing. “I've known Stu Watterson for a long, long time,” and that now makes the transition somewhat easier.
Before hanging up the phone, he couldn't resist getting back to his self-described mission as a kind of industry ambassador/potential front man. “I think I may be the logical person to spread the news because there's nothing in it for me anymore to say what's on my mind.
“I can look at the situation from an independent perspective and say, 'Hey folks, come on, there's a better way out there. You deserve it.'
Despite his enthusiasm about seeing to it that his industry gets more respect—and, of course, better margins—he knows “one person alone can't do it. Everybody's got to participate if it's ever going to happen.
“I know it's a big challenge, but if we don't try, we'll never get it done.”