AKRON (Nov. 15, 2002)—If it were up to Tom Raben, consumers would continuously hear about how tires are the most well-constructed, safest products in the marketplace and how tire technicians are some of the most well-trained professionals of any industry.
He just may get his wish. Mr. Raben, newly installed president of the Tire Industry Association, wants to reverse two years' worth of negative publicity against the industry—thanks to recalls—and rebuild the industry's image. He said he believes people would gain a new respect for tires if the whole industry consistently trumpeted the quality of tires.
“We don't get the credit we deserve for the products and services that we have,” Mr. Raben said. “The Firestone recall, what's been said about it…doesn't speak truly for how good and great our products are. We see that as a challenge to try to turn that around.”
Indeed, changing a sullied image can be a daunting task, but Mr. Raben has demonstrated that he can lead an organization through challenges successfully. Formerly president of the International Tire & Rubber Association, Mr. Raben helped engineer ITRA's historic merger with the Tire Association of North America several months ago—a prospect that some considered impossible only a few years back.
In 1972 Mr. Raben's father, Henry “Butch” Raben, died unexpectedly, leaving Mr. Raben, then 26, responsible for managing Evansville, Ind.-based Raben Tire Co. Inc., a two-store dealership. Today, the company operates 29 outlets in the retail, commercial, retreading and wholesale segments, and reported $82.9 million in sales in 2001.
Mr. Raben takes over TIA's reins from Steve Disney at a time when the two associations have united fairly smoothly. Although the combined organization's financial situation is sound, it does expect to lose an estimated $100,000 in revenues due to the loss of 300 dues-paying members not renewing one of the two memberships they held in both TANA and ITRA.
Still, he's focused on some long-range initiatives he hopes will continue beyond his term with TIA—initiatives that Mr. Raben said will enhance tire dealers' profits and ability to do business.
Public relations. Governmental affairs. These are issues that TIA prioritized when it drew up its recently unveiled strategic plan, and Mr. Raben said the new association especially wants to make sure the tire industry has a strong voice in Washington, D.C.
Besides monitoring all federal legislation and regulations that affect the tire industry, TIA will work closely with state and local dealer associations on their legislative issues, he said. That cooperation will include educating members about the political process and TIA's specific efforts, as well as trying to recruit participation in the association's political action committee.
Mr. Raben noted that the new association's agenda is very ambitious. But then it needs to be since TIA is representing a broader membership base than its predecessor organizations. “We want to be relevant to all the segments of the industry,” he said.
He said he believes that much of TIA's relevance to dealers will be tempered by how successfully TIA can change perceptions of the tire industry by both politicians and consumers. As a result, one of the main goals in TIA's strategic plan is to develop an industry-wide public relations effort to educate consumers about tire safety and value. He said a public relations campaign should bring value to tires while killing their commodity image and regaining ground lost during the Firestone recall.
Recalling the ad campaign launched several years ago by the pork industry, Mr. Raben pointed out that pork is now perceived “as the other white meat” and consumers have no qualms about eating it. Similarly, he said the tire industry could change its image by emphasizing to consumers that few auto accidents are caused by tire defects. He cited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics indicating that out of 6.3 million car crashes each year, only 23,000—0.4 percent—are related to tire failures, and some of those failures are caused by negligence.
“We've got a fantastic product out here, and we need to be saying that it is and build some consumer confidence in what we're selling,” Mr. Raben explained. “When we do that, consumers will be willing to pay us a little more for what it's worth.”
Other challenges Mr. Raben will address as TIA president include enhancing member services and training programs. Many tire dealers have seen their insurance premiums rise 25-50 percent from only a year ago, and TIA wants to ease the financial burdens insurance poses to its members.
Mr. Raben said this reality caused the association to hire a consulting service—Battle Creek, Mich.-based Risk Assessment Management Services—with expertise in the tire industry to give dealers unbiased opinions of their insurance needs. That consultant is one of the exhibitors at this year's Specialty Equipment Market Association/International Tire Expo trade show in Las Vegas.
TIA also is rolling out, for passenger and light truck tires, a technician certification program similar to its current Commercial Tire Service Certification program. The new training program is designed to help techs accurately diagnose tire failures, and it may well become the precursor to developing an all-industry standard on tire repairs and critical functions.
“We don't want to just talk about elevating the professionalism of our industry, we actually want to do it,” Mr. Raben said. “We want to help our members with some of those problems.”
He emphasized that his workers at Raben Tire think better of their skills because they are certified and that the same can be true for passenger and light truck tire service techs.
The passenger and light truck tire certification program will be held at TIA's training center in Louisville, Ky., beginning in 2003, Mr. Raben said, noting that TIA needs to promote the quality of its training programs for commercial and passenger tires to the public.
The other show
Back in May, TANA and ITRA hired ConvExx, manager of the Specialty Equipment Market Association show, to also manage the World Tire Expo. The next show is scheduled to be held March 27-29, 2003, at the new Louisville Convention Center in the city's downtown area.
ConvExx is headed by Chuck Schwartz, a former retreader who worked in that industry for 17 years prior to becoming a trade show manager, according to Mr. Raben. In addition, Gretchen Schrantz, ITRA's former convention and meeting director, is working with ConvExx to plan and produce the World Tire Expo.
“I think we're on our way to having a really good show,” Mr. Raben said of the Expo, noting that downtown Louisville is on the upswing and should present new entertainment opportunities for attendees.
Though the World Tire Expo's management team has changed, Mr. Raben said, don't expect major changes to the show's format. “I'm sure (Mr. Schwartz) has a few tricks up his sleeve as far as producing the show. The content of the show, the culture, is going to stay fairly close (to the past). We're going to have seminars and workshops, and the basic parts of the show are going to stay the same,” he said.
In the near future, TIA has no plans to merge the World Tire Expo with, say, the Mid-America Trucking Show or another transportation-related convention. But “that being said, we welcome change in any way that's going to benefit our members, so if the opportunity presents itself and it would be a good move, we're going to be open minded and take a look at it,” he said.
And just as before, the show, which currently is scheduled to be held every two years in the spring, could be held in other venues besides Louisville. However, TIA will keep the Expo somewhere within the eastern U.S. since many retreaders live within 600 miles of Louisville, Mr. Raben said.
The World Tire Expo, sponsored by the former ITRA, had experienced declining attendance for the past few years as the retreading industry consolidated. Mr. Raben acknowledged he would like a “good attendance” next year, but at the same time said he doesn't think that's the only indicator of a trade show's success.
“When we measure a trade show, I don't know if we necessarily measure the success of it by just the number of bodies in the aisle,” he said. “I mean, there are fewer retreaders today who represent more plants and more units per day produced than 10 years ago.”
Leaving a legacy
When he isn't taking care of TIA business, Mr. Raben co-manages Raben Tire with five of his brothers—Phil, Larry, Mark, James and Jon. All are principals who oversee different departments within the dealership, and Mr. Raben said all are involved in the company's decision-making process—and still manage to get along.
“We have differences of opinion on how certain business things should be done, but…I can't ever recall a day where we couldn't have gone out after any kind of meeting and sat down and enjoyed each other's company and had a drink,” he said.
Three of Mr. Raben's four sons also work for the dealership: Brian is in commercial sales; Nick and Kevin have been responsible for opening an outlet in Clarksville, Ind.
Married to Clara, Mr. Raben also has a young son, Chad, and a daughter, Schelly.
Raben Tire was founded in 1952 by Mr. Raben's father. The second oldest of 13 children, Mr. Raben grew up pestering his dad about helping out in the tire shop.
“I was a brat kid like every boss's son for awhile, I guess,” he said with a laugh. In 1966, while still in college, Mr. Raben began working full time at the dealership because of his dad's health problems. Butch Raben's death left Mr. Raben and his brother Phil responsible for running the business and providing for their younger siblings.
“It was a pretty scary time,” Mr. Raben said. “We made decisions even back then, but to some degree Pop was always in the background and he wasn't going to let you screw up too badly. It's scary as heck when you make decisions and you're not used to being without a safety net.”
At 56, Mr. Raben enjoys playing golf and working around the house. His association activities have kept him from finding time for community service, but he said he doesn't regret it because he believes TIA can accomplish lasting objectives that dealers can't do by themselves.
“I believe that this association can make a positive difference for this industry. It can make (the tire industry) a better place for my kids to do business in. I guess that's why I've been involved in it.”