Though not yet president of the Tire Industry Association, Larry Morgan already is working hard on a project he believes the tire industry urgently needs-raising the value of tires in the eyes of consumers.
If anyone knows the value of a tire, it's Mr. Morgan, former owner of Morgan Tire & Auto Inc. and current member of its board. He built Morgan Tire, formerly owned by longtime dealer Don Olson, into a retail giant of 549 stores in 25 states before selling majority ownership of the company to Bridgestone/Firestone in 2001.
When he takes the helm as TIA president in November, Mr. Morgan's focus will be lobbying Congress for legislation to create a funding mechanism that advances the industry's interests-specifically, to communicate to consumers the technological and safety value of tires.
TIA had announced shortly after its formation in 2002 that its long-term strategic plan included an industrywide public relations campaign to counter the beating the industry has taken from the media and plaintiffs' attorneys after the Firestone tire recall. Mr. Morgan told Tire Business that TIA has been working hard to get dealers, wholesalers and manufacturers all on the same page and work out the details of establishing that mechanism, known as a checkoff program.
``We have a draft document ready to go and send to Congress,'' Mr. Morgan said. ``We're just trying to work through all the challenges we're facing on this subject.''
Mr. Morgan said the industry must act immediately to improve its image. He said he believes the public's perception of tires has improved, but the Firestone recall still hasn't been forgotten.
``(The recall) did us a lot of harm (imagewise). That's why the time to strike is now,'' he said.
If Congress approves a checkoff, tire dealers could collect 50 cents per tire to go into a fund, which could easily generate $130 million to $140 million per year to be used for a public relations campaign, according to Mr. Morgan. An industrywide committee would oversee the fund and how the dollars are spent as well as further develop ideas on how to use the fund.
Possible expenditures include TV, radio and print advertising, educational programs at schools or research and development activities. Mr. Morgan envisions some of the money paying for displays in every tire store that illustrate tire quality and safety while emphasizing the owner's maintenance responsibility.
Handouts in warranty booklets discussing safety and maintenance also are an item he said would help get the message across.
Earlier this year, TIA had hired an attorney to recommend the best ways to conduct an industrywide PR campaign without raising the eyebrows of federal antitrust prosecutors, and a checkoff program was one of his suggestions. Mr. Morgan said that since then, he hasn't found anyone who opposes the idea, and TIA has spent an ``immense amount'' of time and effort to unite the industry behind it.
``We're at the point of how do we go about doing it and get everybody into buying into it,'' he explained. ``We really need a united industry effort to make this thing work. We can't go to Congress with split agendas. So we need to work it out among ourselves before we do it.
``TIA's trying to take a leadership position and to get all the elements of the industry together to accomplish this. We're not trying to dictate or mandate. We're just trying to be the facilitators, so to speak.''
Currently, TIA and the Rubber Manufacturers Association are working together on the details of such a legislative endeavor, and Mr. Morgan said he's confident a fund will be set up in the near future based on preliminary discussions with some government agencies that he described as ``encouraging.''
So far, the groups haven't determined what the message to consumers will be. But if some of the checkoff funds are used to hire public relations or advertising agencies, then the industry will rely on those professionals' expertise to develop the core message that everybody is responsible for maximizing tires' technical qualities, Mr. Morgan said.
``We all know that had the consumer been better educated, we would never have had a Firestone recall,'' he said. ``This wouldn't have happened. Air pressure was a big issue there.''
In his opinion, asking Congress to create a checkoff fund would be the quickest way to get an industrywide PR campaign going. He noted he isn't confident that anyone at TIA would ``live long enough to see the fruits'' of their labor if they tried a grassroots PR campaign instead, particularly since he said he believes tire dealers have done a ``horrible'' job at selling the technological aspects and maintenance requirements of tires.
``We're to a certain degree our own worst enemy,'' Mr. Morgan said, referring to tire dealers. ``We're out there constantly willing to discount, discount, discount, the moment the customer hiccups. We need to discipline ourselves a little bit as well.''
In an ideal world, he added, salespeople in every tire dealership would discuss with customers tire safety issues, technical quality issues and the amount of research and development that go into tire production.
``The ultimate result of that is people will think tires are worth more money,'' he said.