PLAYA CONCHAL, Costa Rica—Despite a difficult year in 2015 as a result of tough competition, global economic malaise and downward pricing pressure, Hankook Tire America Corp. and Korean parent Hankook Tire Co. Ltd. look to grow in 2016 and reach the objective of becoming the world's fifth largest tire maker by 2018.
Still, even with the dour economic conditions, Hankook in the U.S. achieved double-digit growth in 2015 as sales outpaced the market and demand for its products increased.
This pushed the company's U.S. market share to 4.3 percent from 4.1 percent in 2014 for passenger, light truck and performance consumer radials, an achievement Shawn Denlein, senior vice president of sales, called a milestone.
Hankook officials discussed the status of the company and plans for 2016 during the company's annual Partner's Day gathering attended by 87 key U.S. and Canadian tire dealers and distributors Feb. 3 at a resort in Playa Conchal.
Looking forward, Hankook's leadership made no promises regarding prospects for 2016. While the U.S. tire market is showing steady growth, the rest of the world is in a big recession, said Hankook President Hee-se Ahn, in an interview with Tire Business. “So naturally we will see more competition in this market especially.”
He added in his opening remarks that “while I cannot say that 2016 will be any easier than 2015 was, I know that with determination and hard work anything is possible.”
As Hankook strives to climb the rankings of the world's largest tire makers, its strategy to do so remains unchanged by the global economic and market conditions.
This includes, according to company executives, investing in increased production capability and research and development, introducing quality products, providing value to customers, gaining original equipment tire fitments and becoming a top tier tire brand.
But a true partnership with customers also is vital and can be the differentiator in the marketplace, Mr. Ahn told dealers. “It is Hankook's responsibility to support you so you can achieve your goals to grow and to succeed,” he said. “And in the same manner we rely on you.”
To reach its goals, Hankook is following a long-term strategy that begins with production capacity. The company has seven tire plants worldwide producing 100 million tires annually. By 2020, that total is projected to reach 130 million, Mr. Denlein said.
In the U.S., Hankook expects to open its first U.S. plant, in Clarksville, Tenn., in the fourth quarter with an annualized manufacturing capacity of 5.5 million passenger and light truck tires. A second phase already is planned that will increase capacity to 11 million units, Mr. Denlein said, with an overall investment of $800 million.
Beyond that the plant has space for two additional phases with a potential manufacturing output of 22 million units.
In Europe, Hankook is positioned as first tier “and my dream and vision in the United States is I want to achieve that goal again,” Mr. Ahn said.
“With quality products consumers have and continue to recognize the value and performance Hankook offers them and with our combined continued effort I am pretty sure and very confident that we can make Hankook a dominant player in the U.S. market again and Northern America.”
The Americas region accounts for 22.1 percent of Hankook's total global business, second only to Europe at 30.6 percent.
In 2016 Hankook will introduce two tires, Mr.Denlein said: the all-season Kinergy GT grand touring (H436) and the Winter I'Cept iZ2 (W616).
The Kinergy GT (H436) will replace the Optimo H426, which will remain in the OE sizes. It will be available in the second quarter. The OE version will have fitments on a number of vehicles, Mr. Denlein said including Hyundai, Honda Civic, Chevrolet, Volkswagen Passat and Beetle.
The Winter I'Cept is a studless tire that will be offered in 37 sizes from 13- to 18-inch rim diameters and 40-70 series aspect ratios. The company's testing shows a 5-percent improvement in snow traction. The tire will be available for ordering starting in March for the next winter season, Mr. Denlein said.
To aid in the development of winter tires, Hankook is developing a winter testing center in Ivalo, Finland, that is tentatively scheduled to open in early 2017.
“What we are doing is we are trying to put a tremendous amount of effort in terms of money and dollars and also a tremendous amount of effort in terms of manpower to create what we consider to be world-class products,” Mr. Denlein said.
That effort extends to research and development where Hankook will open its TechnoDome technical center later this year near Daejeon, South Korea. “This will be the leading technical center, we believe, in the industry,” Mr. Denlein said.
The futuristic Technodome will house more than 100 laboratories and employ 300-plus R&D professionals. “This will be our epicenter in terms of our R&D,” Mr. Denlein added. It's where the company will design and push forward to develop top-tier products.
One of Hankook's goals is to achieve Tier 1 status for its tires, an effort that dealers at the meeting welcomed.
“I love the brand and it's very good quality,” said Tony German, of Tony's Tire & Wheels in Waterford, N.Y.
Mark St. Aubin, vice president sales for the tire division of Allied Oil & Tire Co. in Omaha, Neb., also had nothing but positive words about the company's tires, especially its commercial lines, which he said will compete with any Tier 1 products. “Overall we sell by total cost of operation, and it (the Hankook tires) will perform with any of them,” he said.
OE fitments also play into Hankook's strategy to become a top-tier brand. The company has been concentrating on securing premium OE fitments, including with BMW A.G., Mercedes Benz A.G., Audi A.G., Volkswagen A.G. and Ford Motor Co.
But Hankook also wants to gain fitments with the Japanese car makers, which is important, Mr. Denlein said, because of their strong reputation among consumers for the quality of their vehicles.
In marketing, the company is focusing on “share of voice,” which Mr. Denlein explained is the company's overall media coverage in the U.S. compared with the competition.
The tire maker's share of voice increased to 6.72 percent in 2015, up from 1.8 percent in 2010.
“This helps ultimately, at the end of the day, to increase sales, which is what you are here for,” Mr. Denlein told dealers.
To gain a higher share of voice and build brand awareness and perception, Hankook employs a variety of approaches including digital marketing, public relations, sports marketing, retailer support, experiential marketing and media.
“The thing that is most important is that the message has to be clear and it has to be consistent,” Mr. Denlein said.
In 2016, Hankook will launch a website that he said will be more user friendly, have timely content and a dealer locater, among other updates.
The company also will continue to use social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to promote the company and brand. These media are everywhere, Mr. Denlein said, and “we feel Facebook and Twitter is a way of the future—even in the tire business.”
Mr. Denlein said Hankook will allocate more money to Facebook in 2016 because “we believe that Facebook is used to research brands now.... Twitter is more news oriented.”
Also in 2016, Hankook will support its Great Catch and Great Hit rebate program through the company's dedicated social media.
Hankook's marketing efforts include its sponsorship of 26 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams, which in 2015 included signage on four outfield walls. “The return on this investment is priceless,” Mr. Denlein said, noting the company received 4.8 billion online impressions and a media value of more than $104 million.
Also on tap is a second television commercial designed for the U.S. market. The company expects to begin working on the commercial starting in April.
Hankook is increasing its support of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a veteran assistance and advocacy group. The company will activate four mobile service office vehicle stops in 2016, up from two stops in 2015, and support two MLB military appreciation games.
In addition, it will sponsor the 2016 DAV San Diego 5K run and the DAV National Career Fair.
Hankook will continue to grow this corporate relationship sponsorship, Mr. Denlein said. “This just fits for us as a company.”
The Hankook executives did not address the firm's complementary Laufenn value brand during the business meeting with dealers, but in the interview with Tire Business Mr. Denlein said the company “has been really, really happy with the growth. All segments are growing, UHP, PCR, LTR.”
The company has implemented a retail strategy for Laufenn and already has in each region a good number of retailers carrying the product. Consumer feedback has been great, he added, and the dealers are happy with product.
Asked about the United Steelworkers petition with the U.S. International Trade Commission on placing tariffs or duties on medium truck and bus tires imported from China, Mr. Ahn said the news of this action came unexpectedly.
“So we have to prepare for that, what strategy we have to apply,” he said. “But basically I think we have the capacity to replace the Chinese-originated resources into the Korea plant. In the meantime, we can say we can be ready.”
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6131; Twitter: @TBDZ