The No. 1 challenge these days among tire dealers, it seems, is recruiting qualified candidates to key positions in their dealerships, including technicians and service managers.
In fact, at a recent event I attended — a product launch for Federal Tire Co. in Redondo Beach, Calif. — Tom Hofmann of Freedom Tire Distributing in Corona, Calif., said the record-low unemployment rate (hovering around 4 percent throughout the last year) was both a blessing and a curse. While he was happy to see the nation's workforce gainfully employed, the lack of available bodies made it difficult for him, he said, to fill open positions.
Another factor is affecting employment these days: The retirement of baby boomers.
Last year, another longtime tire industry veteran, Steve Noggle of Canton, Ohio, ended a 54-year career in the business that saw him work at just about every industry job possible in the wholesale tire market.
For the last 25 years, Mr. Noggle operated Mighty Tire Wholesale in Canton. He built the business from a small shop with a handful of employees to a multi-million-dollar business with 35 employees.
With an end-game in site, Mr. Noggle, now 68, approached two of his business partners, William and John Ziegler of Massillon, Ohio-based Ziegler Tire & Supply Co., about buying him out.
Ziegler Tire, rated as the 19th largest commercial tire dealership in North America with $92.7 million in sales in 2017, has 17 commercial tire locations.
"It was time for me to move on," Mr. Noggle said about retirement. "I had 25 good years."
Mr. Noggle's story likely is similar to countless others across the U.S. — he began working at his dad's shop, Stockton Tires in Massillon, Ohio, at age 13.
Mr. Noggle, however, got there not by design but by choice, or at least making the wrong choice. He was suspended for five days from high school after being caught with cigarettes on school grounds.
Mr. Noggle, who calls himself "anti-establishment" back then, thought "My dad put me to work," he said. "That's how I started in the business."
He gave college a shot, but returned to the dealership, becoming a full-time employee in his early 20s.
"I did all facets of the business — the retreading end of it, especially," Mr. Noggle said. "I did a lot of truck tires, went into the truck tire service end of it. I did my first service call when I was 17 years old in Hartville, (Ohio)."
Mr. Noggle shifted into sales, working retail some, then almost exclusively wholesale, selling inventory to dealers.
When the recession hit in the 1970s, he said his dad's shop, which had opened in 1949 and was the largest wholesale distributor in the Stark County in 1979-80, began to struggle. His dad refused to lay people off, and by 1985, the bank foreclosed. Today, Discount Tire Outlet Tire Pros sits at that location.
Mr. Noggle's career weaved its way through several jobs afterward. In 1985, he joined Tyres International near Akron. He said the company was one of the first tire importers in the U.S., beginning a relationship with India-based CEAT Specialty Tires Ltd.
Three years later, a business opportunity brought him to wholesaler Stoney Hollow Tire, then located in Wheeling, W.Va.
In 1989, he joined the recently formed Tire Centers L.L.C. He spent three years there before realizing his dream of opening his own wholesale shop, partnering with tire veteran Barry Resnick, along with the Zieglers.
"I asked them, 'How would you like to inherit $5 million in new business?' " Mr. Noggle said, reminiscing about his initial conversation with the Zieglers.
On July 5, 1995, Mighty Tire Wholesale opened. "The rest," he said, "is history."
Today's struggle to replace the Mr. Noggles of the world — men and women who work in the industry throughout their entire career — isn't the only challenge.
Mr. Noggle highlighted several in the industry, including: the proliferation of radials, in an ever-expanding array of sizes; the influence of the online retailer; the expansion of tire retailers, including wholesale clubs and auto dealerships; and the frequency of wholesale delivery.
"It used to be wholesalers would deliver to dealers once or twice a week," he said. "Now with today, in retail, you have to have inventory. You have to deliver once or twice a day.
"And the guy in retail, he doesn't have to have the inventory they had to have in the 1970s and '80s. And everything is tied to certain (dealer) programs."
The one thing he said about Mighty Tire is that "whether it was a wheelbarrow tire or the largest OTR tire, we could get it quickly and have it to you in good time."
Baby boomers such as Mr. Noggle are retiring daily, taking with them not only their stories of days gone by, but also the institutional knowledge gleaned from a rewarding career in the tire business.
Perhaps someone will read Mr. Noggle's story and be motivated to begin a career in the tire industry. Or perhaps climb the career ladder.
It might help solve today's employment problem, one job at a time.
Mr. Detore is editor of Tire Business. He can be reached at [email protected].