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LAS VEGAS—Nitto Tire U.S.A. Inc., in the midst of a drive to double the brand's sales to $1 billion by 2016, is expanding into Latin America, in part because of the exposure the company has gained there through Facebook, where it recently surpassed 2.5 million fans worldwide.

While Nitto has invested no money in the region and has not distributed its tires there, it discovered it has a following in Latin America after getting feedback through the social media site and from feedback at the past two Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade shows.

"The product, it's out there," said Martha Garcia, director of global strategic planning for Nitto. "It shows up and it's not an officially authorized product, so we were missing out on a huge opportunity. Definitely there is excitement. We definitely have enthusiasts there.

"There is demand, so it would be foolish of us not to follow that call."

Even before hearing about it on Facebook, the company was getting inquiries and interest from Latin America attendees at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, said James Nieves, the tire maker's Latin America sales manager. The interest "at SEMA, I think, initiated the attention toward Latin America, and Facebook kind of confirmed most of those inquiries" that Nitto got at SEMA.

Nitto is into the second year of a four-year plan laid out by its parent company, Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. Ltd. of Japan, to double the company's sales—a program that will be managed by Nitto in the U.S. under the leadership of President Tomo Mizutani.

Mr. Mizutani gained the support of Toyo President and CEO Kenji Nakakura to build the team in the U.S. because of its proximity to Latin America, language and accessibility, Ms. Garcia said. The goal is to ensure that the integrity of the brand is filtered down to Latin America.

"We want to make sure that it is one brand message, one identity," she said, "and we don't want to dilute that in any way."

To facilitate Nitto's expansion into Latin America, which includes Central America, the company has established a team of employees in the U.S. that includes Ms. Garcia and Mr. Nieves, who joined the company in July from Al Dobowi Group, where he was general manager, Latin America and Caribbean markets. Also part of the effort is Yuki Yakushijin, project manager, global strategy, who came to Nitto in May from American Life Insurance Co., where she was senior business analyst, global distribution planning and Asia strategy.

Also on the team is Efrain Viveros, manager-technical department, North America and Latin America markets, and Nomoto Kosaku, general manager Nitto business, Osaka, Japan, who supports Nitto product development efforts.

Mr. Nieves has extensive experience in Latin America and the Caribbean and is fluent in Spanish.

"We are creating a new department and it is very exciting for all three of us," Mr. Nieves. "It is very exciting for me because I have the opportunity once more to come in and develop a very good quality, a very exciting brand into Latin America and help develop a new department. So we are starting from scratch."

Mr. Garcia said Nitto already has in place a few distributors in Latin America, "but they are very small."

The plan is to start shipping Nitto product beginning March 1, focusing first on Brazil and Chile then Paraguay.

"We basically want to start or concentrate on the first three (countries) and then go from there and expand into the others," Mr. Nieves said.

As for marketing the brand in Latin America, the company will follow the same formula as in the U.S.—focusing on grassroots events and offering point-of-sale materials. In addition, Nitto will continue to develop its websites to be more amenable to Latin American audiences.

"Our challenge, like in the (U.S.), though is going to be getting to the masses," Ms. Garcia said. "And we are proceeding with our idea of Nitto, a Japanese brand reborn in America, and there is a lot of excitement in Latin America about American-made product.

"And there is high respect for Japanese technology and product. So we have those advantages, and we're going to build on that."

To reach this reporter: dzielasko@ crain.com; 330-865-6131.

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