AKRON (Aug. 20, 2002) - Every few years another generation of tire dealers begins to take over the reins of the industry, replacing those who came before. Quite like the products they represent and sell, each new generation seems to get better and more advanced. The industry, likewise, has just kept rolling along.
And like the tires it markets, the industry is becoming more and more complex, as are the problems and concerns tire dealers face. First and foremost is image. As marketers say, image is everything, and in the tire industry it's become even more than that.
The recent wave of recalls and lawsuits has created an aura of public distrust of tires.
“Plaintiffs' attorneys have certainly proven that fact,” said Ross Kogel, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association (TIA). “It's not been a fact, but an ongoing theme. Plaintiffs' attorneys, in many ways in their PR efforts, are attempting to taint the jury pool.”
In other words, while the tire industry is fighting to regain public trust and re-establish a good image, outside interests are doing their best to sully it.
So with the industry reeling, who ya' gonna call? Not Ghostbusters. Our superheroes in this case are the X-men (and women). Specifically those of Generation X who, more and more, are taking the industry's reins out of the capable hands of the baby boomers.
This is a good fit, since if there's one group that takes more heat than tires for its inability to function properly, it's today's 20- and 30-somethings. Generation X has a reputation for slacking. Undeserved? Most likely, but a reputation nonetheless.
“Everybody wants to get paid to stay home,” said Thomas J. Auger, former president of VIP Discount Auto Center in Lewiston, Maine, who recently left the company his family had once owned. “Work four days a week and take home the big money. Everybody wants to have a good time.”
None other than Mr. Kogel, himself a Gen X-er, understands that perception, but says it's unfair, if only because it is just a label.
“I tend not to put people in holes…the observations tend to be wrong,” he said. “People in older generations tend to stay in their jobs longer. They are older. Younger folks are still trying to find their perfect job. I don't know whether that's an age-specific or generation-specific thing.”
At age 30, Mr. Kogel plays a huge role in an industry run primarily by people nearly twice his age. But they don't seem to have a problem with his leadership. Likewise, he sees no reason why the industry can not only survive, but thrive and prosper under the guidance of his peers.
After all, it survived, thrived and prospered under the guidance of every prior generation, and most likely did so with a host of young up-and-comers at the helm.
“I'm comfortable with the hands it's going to be in,” Mr. Kogel said. “Every generation has its different styles, its different ways of doing things. Rather than being concerned with the hands of one to another, it's an opportunity…to get out there and change the business.”
Right now one of the main concerns in the industry is not that the next generation is taking control, but that it isn't. Mr. Kogel, who himself eschewed the family business and wound up back in the tire industry inadvertently, pointed toward lack of family succession as a potential problem.
TIA President Steve Disney also sees that as a problem, but not one the industry hasn't faced before.
“I've certainly seen that. Not necessarily in the recent past, but more over several decades,” he said. “I don't think that's pertinent to now. That always will be a problem. Children are always going to have other interests and other motivations. They're not going to default to automobiles as an interesting thing to build a career around. On the other hand, if you look at the tuner trend, there is a focal point for a certain group of youth.”
Today's young dealers are faced with an entirely different set of concerns than their forefathers: recalls, insurance, more complex vehicles and products.
As Mr. Auger pointed out, with all the modern engine systems and computers in cars, selling auto service is more complex today than it was in his father's day.
“You open the hood and it's full,” he said. “You can't see anything but engine and all these parts. In the old days, you'd just go and get those spark plugs, check the timing, and even I could do it back then. But now you've got to be schooled properly.”
Mr. Disney, at 46 not exactly a graybeard, believes the industry is in good hands, regardless of how old those hands are. “I've spoken to many state, regional and provincial associations. I'm always quite impressed with the number of young people who attend,” he said. “They have an interest in the industry and improving the future of the industry. They maybe don't have networking established and some of the social connections, but that can come over time.”