The way Jay Nelson sees it, his company is making and marketing one of the tire industry's best-kept secrets even though it's in widespread use at two of the nation's largest tire installation chains.
Hold on let's back up the bus a bit.
When he started Excel Tire Gauge Inc. in 1997, Mr. Nelson knew his way around the import/export business and had sold a lot of different products, but his tire industry experience bordered on nada. Yet the owner and CEO of the Warwick-based company said he and Ricardo Britto, his partner in Brazil, hit upon something they believed could improve and streamline the lowly yet important task of inflating tiresand make it a lot safer.
The firm's Excel Tire Gauge digital air inflation equipment, designed by Mr. Britto, has gone through a multitude of tweaks since its debut some 14 years ago, but the product comes in one basic version that's packaged differently for Excel's two major customer bases: tire shops and the gas station/convenience store markets.
While multiple tire gauge units are installed in Discount Tire Co. Inc. outlets and Costco Wholesale Corp. tire centers nationwide, Mr. Nelson told Tire Business his company's latest focus is expanding its reach to smaller tire store operations where oftentimes the mindset is that an air chuck and pen gauge are considered good enough.
We market the Excel as fast, safe and accurate, he said. To obtain the proper tire inflation, we're faster than just clipping on a hose. Safer because it won't overinflate a tire, and the company claims its automatic high-precision units are calibrated to provide accuracy to within 0.5 psi.
In many shops a tire gauge will provide a tech with a guesstimate that's plus or minus 3 psi, Mr. Nelson said. With our unit, you pre-set the psi, put the hose chuck on the tire and the return air flow back from the tire shows on the gauge what the psi is in the tire based on the pre-set pressure.
It actually will deflate the tire, if necessary, to reach the proper psi.
The company also promotes the product for its eco-friendliness since maintaining proper inflation increases the life of a tire.
The brains of the Excel AL70 unitmade for tire installersfeatures circuit board, sensor and solenoid valve components. It can be programmed for nitrogen inflation and is able to be mounted to a wall. The similarly packaged SC09 and SC05 units for gas stations and convenience stores also can be used as self-contained air machines that can provide free air or function as a coin-operated inflation station.
According to its website, Excel has more than 50,000 machines installed worldwide. In addition to Discount Tire and Costco, other customers include Sheetz Inc., Shell New England, Cumberland Farms Inc., which set up units in its chain of more than 480 retail gas/convenience store locations, and other companies such as car rental agencies, trucking fleets and car dealerships.
Mr. Nelson said Costco and Discount Tirewhich both over the past five years have purchased hundreds of units originally set up two per outlet, but now you can't find a location that has only two. There are some Discounts with eight to 10 and most Costcos have six.
They're primarily used by tire technicians but, secondarily, in the past year some of those operations also have begun putting units outside for customer use.
They primarily put them on tire changing machines, he explained, then realized they can go on inflation cages and in other applications.
Costco, for instance, was reaching out to people, looking for something like this. They tested us against a number of other companies over the years and decided on us, he said. Discount Tire also was looking for a tire inflation solutionfor safety and accuracy. And what they didn't plan on was how much time improvement they would realize in their shops.
Mr. Nelson claimed use of the gauges increased productivity in Discount Tire stores, and he said the dealership reported that just one of its Excel units, based on its interior counter, inflated/calibrated 28,000 tires in a year.
Costco also was looking for accuracy and something that worked with nitrogen and, again, found our units increased their productivity, he said, adding that a local trucking company in Warwick claims it saves some eight minutes per rig using the Excel inflation equipment.
Calls to Costco for comment were not returned.
Excel also offersmostly for its gas/convenience store customersa Web-based monitoring service that keeps track of field-based units that have built-in SIMM cards, modems and cellular communications. They phone home to Excel every six hours and tell us what they're doing, Mr. Nelson said, noting, we can look at the board and tell if, for instance, a unit is down, or not being used much.
Refocusing on tire industry
Aside from its relationship with Costco and Discount Tire, Excel has begun targeting the overall tire industry because we haven't done that very well, Mr. Nelson admitted. Market awareness is key. Who's our biggest competitor? Ignorance. I don't mean that in a negative way. It's just a lack of understanding.
Once you get the product in someone's hands, he continued, the light bulb goes off and they say, 'Why didn't we have this before?' A lot of times, for a small shop, it's reinventing the wheel.
The list price for an Excel unit is $725, but the equipment costs a shop roughly $600, according to Mr. Nelson, who noted his company has begun working with other companies and distributors to broaden the product's availability.
Excel's biggest challenge, he said, is getting more market awareness while at the same time overcoming the lack of knowledge in the industry about electronic inflation and those people who do know about it but are naysayers who believe 'the pen gauge works fine.'
Beyond the product's safety and accuracy attributes, he said what's unique about Excel is the technical and warranty support we offernot that our warranties are challenged too often.
We're all about people support and the clients.
The company has at least two global competitorsVirginia-based PCL Air Technology and Haltech Engine Management Systemswhich market similar electronic tire inflation equipment. Mr. Nelson claims Excel's warranties and after-a-sale support are what makes the difference.
He met his partner Mr. Britto by chance when, years ago, both were groomsmen in a friend's wedding in Brazil. They've since become best friends. The company's factory in Brazil makes the electronics for the Excel units while everything else is made in its five-story Warwick plant/headquarters complex.
The U.S. is the company's biggest market, with approximately $4 million in sales, said Mr. Nelson, 50, who got his start in business working for a U.S. government-licensed customs brokerage firm that handled documentation for importers and exporters.
Later, he began selling productsincluding golf clubs, computers, shoes, lighting, electronics and dental equipmentin Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. That is, until that wedding, after which he went from having no tire industry experiencenone, to the point where now he readily acknowledges, I've learned a lot.