That all sounds well and good, but Mr. O'Brien admitted he anticipates some difficulty in securing a market in the U.S., as the company must try to not only make dealers look past the "made in China" connotations but to pay for such a tire that — as a result of the technology built into it — comes in at a higher price point than most.
"Much of the concern revolves around introducing the performance indicators into a Chinese-made product. Most dealers see 'Chinese-made' as being marketed at bottom-tier pricing and question the benefit of having performance indicators in a tire that is so price sensitive," he said.
"Our tires, because of the quality and investment — not only in the performance indicators but also in the tire itself — tend to be at the high-end of Chinese pricing.
"Many retailers carrying Chinese tires want to price them strictly as an entry level product, and so price tends to be the only issue," he continued.
"However, we have had the experience in Canada that when Icon is placed side-by-side with other private label products (made in the U.S.) where the price was not the only concern, the Icon was very competitive. The Innovator usually outsold more established brands because of the added value the indicators brought the customer."
The Icon Tire story began in 2003 when Mr. O'Brien joined the tire industry as a founding member of Smart Tread L.L.C. At that time, Smart Tread had developed initial intellectual property related to tread depth indicators, Mr. O'Brien said, and was focusing efforts on changing the industry's 2/32nd-inch tire replacement standard.
"My job at that time was to manage a government relations program aimed at engaging with the Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other organizations and stakeholders dedicated to improving traffic and tire safety," he said.
"It was during this time that I was able to meet with representatives from major manufacturers to discuss how they might use current technology to put colored or visually obvious indicators in tires that might show up at 4/32nds rather than the use of wear bars currently used for 2/32nds indication.
"While major manufacturers were interested in some of the ideas introduced by Smart Tread, they were skeptical as to how the tires would work or how they would be accepted by the market," he added.
In 2005, Mr. O'Brien traveled to China in search of a Chinese tire maker willing to develop tires for a test market to support the concept. It was at this time he partnered with Shandong Linglong Tyre Co. Ltd., which he said expressed "a keen interest in our concepts" and "a willingness to work with me on developing a manufacturing process."
According to Mr. O'Brien, the next few years would see a shift in focus toward identifying performance loss as a result of worn tire tread.
"When consumers bought tires, they had certain expectations of how those tires would perform in certain conditions," he said. "For example, winter tires would give you added traction based upon the polymers and tread design used for that tire.
"However, as a tire wears at a certain point you would not have the benefits of the winter traction, but the tire would still be legally safe to use. So I developed a method for identifying performance loss and colored indicators that would inform the driver as to that loss depending on the tire's intended use."
Working with Shandong Linglong, Mr. O'Brien said he first had to figure out how to manufacture the tires in a way that would allow these colored indicators to be placed into them at consistent tread depths. After testing various means of extrusion, he developed an indicator capable of using the same insertion equipment as winter tire studs.
"By utilizing nylon plastic, we could accurately place colored indication at any tread depth depending on the need of the tire, and that indicator would wear as the tire wears with no impact on the tire's integrity," he said.
Work on the indicator was completed in 2008, and Mr. O'Brien launched the Icon Tire brand later that year. He spent most of late 2008 and early 2009 working on tire design and mold development.
But the launch of the brand was quickly put on hold.
"It was about that time that we started to hear rumors of potential Department of Commerce action on Chinese-made tires, and while we were excited to bring Icon to market, the timing placed additional barriers to the planned rollout," Mr. O'Brien said.
"We attempted to obtain a waiver on the 421 duty on the basis of new safety technology, but our efforts were denied.
"I decided to shelve Icon until we had a better understanding of how the tax would play out."
In late 2009, Mr. O'Brien and industry veteran Nick Hodel, former Northwest Tire Factory L.L.C. CEO, co-founded Tire Performance Indicators L.L.C. (TPI), a Brush Prairie, Wash.-based firm. TPI acquired licensing rights from Smart Tread to produce and market the company's performance indicators to other tire manufacturers.
Mr. O'Brien left the company in 2011 to refocus his efforts on the Icon Tire brand, but he noted that Mr. Hodel and TPI "continue to work with tire manufacturers to bring performance indicators to market with other brands."
With the tariffs on Chinese tires still in effect in 2011, Mr. O'Brien decided to invest in bringing a limited number of SUV tires under the Icon-brand name to Canada to establish a test market.
Tires were sold to independent retailers in the Toronto area with, he said, "exceptional results."
"We have been very pleased with the performance of the tires sold, and customers appreciate having visual feedback from the tire," Mr. O'Brien said.
The company recently hired former Hercules Tire & Rubber Co. veteran Rob Bezeau as vice president of international sales to handle introducing the brand in North America.
"Icon will start out as a regional brand in limited markets due to the constraints of our current offering," Mr. O'Brien said. "Ultimately, with the support of Linglong and the growth of distribution networks we look to have Icon available in every market in North America."
For wholesale distributors and retailers that partner with the brand through 2014, the company is offering the promise of long-term exclusive territories, deeply discounted pricing and marketing support, Mr. O'Brien said.
"Our product is new and limited in our current offering. To some that poses a risk," he said.
"However, as we grow, we look forward to working closely with our customers to develop products and marketing strategies that meet their future needs."
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6148.