Raw materials costs are skyrocketing, and industrial and specialty tire manufacturers are no more exempt from their ravages than anyone else in the industry.
Morry Taylor Jr., CEO of Titan Tire Corp. and Titan International Inc., estimates that his total raw materials costs increased 30 to 36 percent between last August and May. ``That means a 15- to 18-percent increase in the price of your product if you just want to recover your costs,'' he said.
Jeff Waechter, director of aftermarket sales for Carlisle Tire & Wheel Co. in Aiken, S.C., said his company also is having a hard time keeping up with spiraling raw materials costs.
The problem, Mr. Waechter told Tire Business, goes beyond even the well-documented price hikes for natural and synthetic rubber, petroleum and natural gas. ``The problem is that obviously we compound our rubber with zinc oxide and other curing agents, which are also going up,'' he said. ``Metals are very important, so all the ingredients in the equation are getting expensive.''
In the case of raw materials increases, traditionally there are only two ways for product manufacturers to alleviate them: switch to less costly materials or pass the increases on to consumers.
One manufacturer that has led the way in material substitution is Goodyear, which in April announced that its new proprietary polymers allowed the company to replace more than 15 percent of the natural rubber in a tire with synthetic rubber.
Natural rubber now ranges around $1 a pound in world markets, whereas synthetic rubber-though also increasing in price-is rising in price much more modestly, thanks to worldwide production overcapacity. But Goodyear, according to a company spokesman, is something of a special case.
``We won't flip back and forth on a daily basis,'' he said. ``And you must remember, we make the synthetic rubber we use.''
A spokesman for Bridgestone/Firestone said raw material costs ``have affected the specialty tires the same as it has been affecting the consumer/commercial segments.''
The Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker continues ``to manage our inventories to offset the rising costs of raw materials in insuring the highest quality products,'' and has had to implement price hikes in all channels. BFS does not at this time, he added, have any incentive programs for specialty tire dealers.
Raw material price increases aren't even the major cost-of-business problems for Carlisle, according to Mr. Waechter.
``Where we're falling short is in the increases on equipment, transport and benefits,'' he said. ``Those are costs that are a little more difficult to get your arms around.''
The tire market is notoriously competitive, and even in a period of rampant cost increases most manufacturers are leery of hiking prices too sharply.
But in every market there's always a dissenter-and in the industrial tire market it's Morry Taylor. He believes it's insane for a tire maker not to make all the price increases it needs up front.
``The way I operate, I want you to tell me the facts, and tell me them now,'' he said. ``It's better to go in one time and have it done. Your customers' purchasing people will yell at you, and tell you what a so-and-so you are-that's their job, anyway. But they'll say, `You're a rotten so-and-so, and, by the way, we need more tires.' Because you're no good if you go out of business.''
When costs go up, one way out of the problem is to obtain more sales. But getting dealers enthusiastic about selling specialty tires-whose utility they sometimes don't fully understand-has been a problem for the specialty tire industry.
Dealer incentives are a common way to excite dealer interest, but some specialty tire makers don't see the sense in them, particularly when margins are being squeezed. ``If you don't have money, why would you offer incentives?'' Mr. Taylor said.
Although Carlisle traditionally sells its tires to wholesale distributors rather than dealers, the firm is just now launching its Carlisle Certified Dealer Program.
The program, according to Mr. Waechter, is designed both to increase Carlisle's visibility at the dealer level and educate dealers and consumers alike on the value of Carlisle's full line of specialty tires, including ATV, agricultural, industrial and lawn and garden tires.
``A lot of consumers don't know how to buy specialty tires,'' Mr. Waechter said. Therefore, Carlisle will offer training and informational materials at no charge to dealers who complete the company's approval process.
Among other things, the Carlisle Certified Dealer Program will stress the seasonality of the specialty tire market and the necessity of stocking the right tires at the right time, Mr. Waechter said.
The crux of the program is a Web site the company plans to put online this summer, listing all Carlisle Certified Dealers. ``We've had a strong response from distributors and the dealer community at large,'' Mr. Waechter said. About 500 dealers have signed on since Carlisle launched the program in mid-April; he expects there will be some 1,500 to 2,000 dealers on the Web site when it's launched, with an ultimate goal of 4,000.
Raw materials prices have also been going up in the solid polyurethane and polyurethane-filled tire markets, noted Bill Hory, international sales director for Arnco Inc., a manufacturer of large polyurethane-filled tires, and general manager for its associated brand Carefree Tires. The latter markets small, solid polyurethane tires for the lawn and garden and other markets.
Arnco and Carefree started receiving price increases about a year ago in polyurethanes and also in such important curatives as MDI, TDI and benzene, according to Mr. Hory.
``Any time petrochemical prices go up, you can bet prices will go up in the polyurethane industry,'' he said. ``It's not as simple as looking at oil prices, but they're a good indicator.''
Alternative factors also are at work in keeping polyurethane prices high, Mr. Hory said. ``There's plenty of supply, but the suppliers are maximizing their margins while they can, and there are only a few people we can go to (for polyurethane). Before 9/11, it was a buyer's market in polyurethane, but after 9/11, it was a seller's market, and suppliers have the upper hand.''
Although raw materials prices tend to be cyclical, Mr. Hory said, he does not expect the current raw materials pricing situation to change any time soon.
``This really affected our margins until we could raise prices, but once we did that, it was pretty easy,'' he said. ``I told our sales representatives, `If you can't raise prices in this environment, you can't raise them at any time.'''
Arnco hiked its prices an average of 15-25 percent, and Carefree an average of 15-20 percent, according to Mr. Hory. He had documentation from suppliers in case customers balked at the price hikes, but it turned out it was unnecessary-sales have actually increased since then.
Mr. Hory said he really isn't sure why sales have increased, except perhaps that customers are learning about the flat-proof properties of Arnco and Carefree tires. ``We make a flat-proof wheelbarrow tire,'' he said. ``When people pull their wheelbarrows out in springtime and find the tires are flat, they like an alternative where they won't have to worry about a flat ever again.''
Prices for Arnco and Carefree tires have gone up maybe $3 to $5, depending on the model, but that probably doesn't factor in to consumer buying choices, he said: ``Tires aren't something people buy every day.''
As for dealer incentives, Mr. Hory said Arnco and Carefree are using the company Web site to get the message out to dealers and customers, as well as a limited amount of advertising tied to local dealers. The main incentive, however, is ``bundling'' different sizes, types and colors of tires to dealers at a 5-percent discount, along with a display stand.
``We offer colored tires, which cost more than black tires, to dealers in a bundle at the same price as black tires,'' he said. ``We're really seeing a boom in sales for colored tires.''
Every increase in raw material prices is of influence on the net result, a spokesman for Vredestein Tyres North America Inc. told Tire Business. ``To switch immediately to a different raw material is impossible. Applications of new and/or cheaper materials is a continuous process.
``Part of our agreements with customers is marketing support to promote our specialty tire line,'' he said. ``More and more dealers are familiar with our product line due to efforts of our sales team.''
The spokesman said Vredestein customers-independant tire dealers-``are used to high quality levels of our products and appreciate their customers coming back and asking for our brand name.''