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SRNA adding Falken tires, chasing OE Focus on distribution

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif.—As Sumitomo Rubber North America Inc. (SRNA) works to improve the position of its Falken Tire brand in North America, the company is attacking the challenge by tripling its U.S. marketing budget in 2016 and adding local manufacturing capabilities.

Another major area of focus for the company going forward is the development of compelling, high-quality products and the aggressive pursuit of OE fitments for those products, said SRNA President and CEO Richard Smallwood.

“I remember a lot of (dealers) for years saying, 'You need OE, you need OE,'” Mr. Smallwood said at Falken's recent dealer meeting in St. Louis. “We agree, but we were always very quiet about going after OE—we stayed away from it. Now we're aggressively going after OE.”

By 2019, the company hopes to corner at least 5 percent of OE market share in the U.S., he added.

The firm has already lined up OE fitments in Europe and Canada with brands like Jeep and Chrysler, but Rick Brennan, executive director of marketing for the Falken brand, said the company expects to add several U.S. fitments in 2016.

“Our goal is to get a rapid increase in OE fitments so that it starts to build all of the other things we want,” he said. “We can't just do one thing in the marketplace. We have to do four at the same time to build our awareness and make us more relevant, and we will do those things.”

The firm will be introducing multiple products for the consumer and commercial markets, with a dozen new lines scheduled to debut within the next 12 months. SRNA will launch four Falken-brand consumer tire lines and four medium truck/bus radial products in the first quarter of 2016, followed by another four consumer tires by the first quarter of 2017.

“The first step is to tell the people who make our tires exactly what we need, so we have expanded the product planning function at FTC,” Mr. Brennan said. “We have a head of product planning and marketing, and beneath that head of planning are three product managers. Each one of them focuses on a different product group to make sure that we know exactly the products we need, exactly what (dealers) want to sell to the customers you have and that we make it.”

Mr. Brennan said the Falken brand currently stands as the No. 4 UHP tire brand in the U.S., with a market share in that area of about 6.7 percent, but the company's overall market share is about half that number.

“When you look at passenger tires on passenger cars our market share is pretty high,” Mr. Brennan said. “It means we don't have much on anything else. For us to get past that 6-7 percent market share range, it means we've got to be really powerful, but we have other (areas) that are 1 percent or less.

“If we can concentrate on those and get them up to that passenger-tires-on-passenger-cars level, the brand will be really strong at that point.”

During its annual meeting, SRNA disclosed plans to roll out the WildPeak A/T3W all-terrain light truck, WildPeak M/T (its first-ever mud-terrain product), Sincera SN250 A/S performance touring and Azenis FK450 A/S ultra-high-performance tires in the coming months.

The WildPeak A/T3W will be available in 54 sizes, ranging from 15 to 20 inches in wheel diameter, along with a 55,000-mile treadwear warranty, Falken said. The company claimed the tire features the deepest tread depth in its category at 20/32nd-inch and will have 70-percent market coverage.

Features include an outer apex construction designed to protect the casing at the bead area; large center blocks for stability and on-road feel; and Falken's 3D Canyon Sipe technology for traction in wet, icy and snowy conditions. The firm added that every size qualifies for the Three Peak Mountain SnowFlake symbol, signifying it is designed for use in severe snow conditions.

Drew Howlett, product manager, light truck and SUV tires for SRNA, said the tire replaces the Falken WildPeak A/T, which has not performed well for the company due to wear issues.

“We know that Americans want good wear in an all-terrain tire,” he said. “We focused way too much on wear rate (with the A/T) and not enough on worn appearance and not enough on performance consistency throughout the life of the tire.... We definitely focused too much on the wrong area.”

At about 50 percent of the tire's usable tread life, the A/T model looked completely worn out, Mr. Howlett told dealers. The A/T3W addresses this problem, while improving worn performance and mileage.

In development for the last four years, the WildPeak M/T—which will be available in 25 sizes ranging from 15 to 20 inches in rim diameter—is the firm's first mud-terrain tire. Features include Falken's proprietary three-ply DuraSpec Sidewall Technology, developed to endure severe off-road conditions; an aggressive upper sidewall for additional traction at low air pressures; and a split block tread design for added flexibility.

On the performance touring end, Falken's new Sincera SN250 A/S, a replacement for its popular SN211 A/S, will offer 86 percent market coverage with 54 sizes ranging from 14 to 18 inches in rim diameter. The tire will come with an 80,000-mile treadwear warranty in T-rated sizes and a 75,000-mile warranty in H- and V-rated sizes.

Among its features, the tire uses Falken's proprietary Dynamic Range Technology to ensure maximum grip at a wider range of operating temperatures, the company said. Strategically placed tread blocks help to balance harmonics for a quiet ride, while 3D Canyon sipes add more gripping edges for snow traction.

Lastly, the Azenis FK450 A/S UHP tire, designed for premium sports coupes and sedans, will be offered in 48 sizes with rim diameters of 16 to 20 inches. Falken said the tire offers 68-percent luxury sport vehicle coverage and comes with a 50,000-mile treadwear warranty.

Features of the tire include Falken's Tension Control Technology, which the company said serves to balance handling, high-speed stability and all-weather traction; slightly rounded sculpted-rib edges for prevention of rain groove wandering and enhanced straight line stability; high-dispersion silica for enhanced rubber pliability; and Falken's 3D Canyon Sipe technology.

Falken's new commercial truck tires coming in 2016 will include a line-haul steer, line-haul drive, regional steer all-position and open-shoulder drive tire. Mr. Smallwood told dealers the company will be aggressively going after the medium truck business in North America in 2016.

Improved distribution is another key focus for the company, and its first priority is to increase its in-store share with existing distribution, Mr. Smallwood said.

“In some cases, especially with our national retailers, we have very strong in-store share already. We always would like to have a little bit more, but we're very strong there.

“We have many regional retailers and regional wholesalers where our in-store share isn't what we'd like it to be, so we want to increase our share there. But then we definitely do need to add distribution in some markets, too.”

Mr. Smallwood acknowledged the Falken brand currently has weak distribution in the Midwest and Northeast U.S. regions along with Canada—with the lack of light truck offerings playing a significant role in both markets—but the company hopes to rectify that.

“The new product lines we're launching will help significantly with that,” he said. “We needed an all-terrain (tire) that was very good in the winter conditions and we didn't have that. When we launched our ZE950 back in 2014 that helped because it had very good, true all-season performance, but those areas were heavily impacted by our weakness in light truck and winter product. That's all being changed now.”

Mr. Smallwood added that the ability to provide dealers with a strong, full range of products is an advantage in itself.

“Right now if (dealers) bring in Falken, they don't really have to drop somebody to bring us in, but sometimes they'd like to,” he said. “A lot of times they might be mad at another manufacturer, but they can't drop that other manufacturer because we can only give them the high-performance product.

“Once we can supply them the light truck, the touring tire and the high-performance tire, then they can say goodbye to that supplier they might be unhappy with.”

To reach this reporter: wschertz@crain.com; 330-865-6148; Twitter: @Will_Schertz

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