PANAMA CITY, Panama—The Chinese tire industry is undergoing a consolidation that likely will last until global tire demand and global tire capacity become more balanced, according to a speaker at the recent Latin American & Caribbean Tyre Expo in Panama City. This consolidation is happening as we speak and could result in some manufacturers, plants and brands disappearing, said Walt Weller, vice president of sales, China Manufacturers Alliance L.L.C., based in Monrovia, Calif., the U.S.-based marketing unit of China's Double Coin Holdings Ltd. "I don't know if there is going to be foreign companies that are going to come in and purchase Chinese manufacturers or if there will be Chinese manufacturers purchasing other Chinese manufacturers, but there is going to be a consolidation, and after that, there will be a restructuring of those survivors, " he said. In his speech before an audience of about 350 expo attendees, Mr. Weller said he expects to see Chinese tire makers put more emphasis on brand development alongside a continued focus on exports to support Chinese domestic production. The Chinese tire market consumed about 58 million radial truck tires in 2012, he said, while Chinese manufacturers produced 88 million tires, or about 55 percent of global radial truck tire production in units, according to data generated by steel wire supplier Bekaert Corp. China has installed capacity to produce 120 million radial truck tires annually—at 110 plants—which nearly matches the global demand of 144 million units. "So China all by itself represents 80 percent of the total global demand," he said. While his speech focused mainly on truck tires, Mr. Weller said Chinese tire makers also produced 226 million passenger tires in 2012 out of a total country capacity of 400 million tires. Looking at North America, Mr. Weller said Chinese-made truck tires have gained significant market position and stature since the mid-1990s. Back then, the Tier 1 truck tire brands of Michelin, Goodyear and Bridgestone represented 60 to 65 percent of the market in units, he said. Tier 2 truck tire makers, Firestone, BFGoodrich, Continental, General, Dunlop, Kelly and Toyo, represented a 25- to 30-percent share. The Tier 3 tire manufacturers held anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the market, Mr. Weller said, and included brands such as Cooper, Dayton, Hankook, Kumho and a few Chinese brands, including Double Coin. Today, that has changed. The major manufacturers have seen their unit market share erode to between 45 and 50 percent in North America, Mr. Weller said. Tire 2 manufacturers appeared to have maintained their market share, but this is due to brands such as Hankook and Kumho moving into the second tier, he added. The third tier now is made up almost exclusively of Chinese-made tires, representing 30 to 35 percent of the market, Mr. Weller said. This tier includes brands such as Cooper Roadmaster, Double Coin, Hercules, Sailun, GITI, Samson, Road One and another 20 to 30 manufacturers or brands sold in North America at the moment. "This isn't an evolution, this has been a revolution," he said. Mr. Weller said one of the reasons for this growth in Chinese-made truck tires is that profitability issues for tire dealers have driven the market away from the major manufacturers into Tier 3 products where the margins are more attractive. Since the mid 1990s, the quality of Chinese-made truck tires has improved substantially and the quality gap between the major brand segment and Tier 3-brand products has narrowed, Mr. Weller said. At the same time, end-users of truck tires are becoming skeptical about technology, he said. The major brands focus on being the leader in technology, Mr. Weller said, but end-users today want to know what the return on that investment is. "Is it necessary to have the latest and greatest in tire technology?" Mr. Weller asked. Perception of Chinese truck tires also is improving. "Chinese truck tires are becoming more and more accepted in the same way Japanese truck tires in the early '80s were not considered to be quality products," Mr. Weller said. "That image changed over the course of about 15 years. The same thing is happening with Chinese brands." The market is changing because customers have demonstrated a willingness to try alternatives to major brands, Mr. Weller said. This was pushed forward, in part, by the shortage of tires in 2010 and 2011 when the major brands went on allocation. "Fleets still remember that and it forced them to consider other alternatives to just keep their fleet running in many cases," Mr. Weller said.
"Another reason for the improvement in perception is the reality that major brands, in many cases, no longer offer the lowest cost for end users," Mr. Weller said. "If you do the math, including retreading, and make some assumptions on retreading, it's a stretch," he said. OEM acceptance of Chinese-made tires also is helping to change perceptions by their offering of these tires as standard equipment or options on their vehicles. OEMs are considered the standard of quality, Mr. Weller said. "If your tire is accepted by an OEM, it must be pretty good because they don't make those decisions and take those decisions lightly." Many Chinese manufacturers and brands also have adapted to the marketplaces in which they are participating, Mr. Weller said. Instead of pushing product into the market they have become more sensitive to the nuances of each market and are promoting to these customers in a specific way. A major indicator of truck tire quality is retreadability, and statistics show that Chinese-made truck tires have a "very acceptable retread rating," Mr. Weller said, citing statistics from a large North America retreader, which he did not name. There is a perception that Chinese tires don't retread, Mr. Weller said. "And I am here to tell you the statistics say different. When you actually look at statistics, the Chinese casing is every bit as retreadable as any of the other brands that are here. And these are not my numbers. These are numbers from one of our customers, who happens to be one of the largest retreaders in North America."