During his 42 years in the tire industry, Roy Littlefield has dedicated himself to lobbying for independent tire dealers, forming relationships with key legislators and leading the Tire Industry Association onto better financial footing. After seeing the association through almost half of its history, Littlefield announced his retirement as CEO in August and will leave the top spot on Jan. 1. Dick Gust, former TIA board member, 2005 association president and industry executive, has been tapped to replace him.
With his last SEMA as head of the association behind him, Littlefield reflected on the fond memories from over the years as he shows his zeal for the issues facing tire dealers today. Tire Review caught up with Littlefield before this year’s SEMA Show to hear some of his memories—both on and off Capitol Hill—from his 40+ years in the industry and what he feels are the top legislative issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years.
TR: This is your last SEMA Show as CEO of TIA. How does it feel?
RL: “It feels very weird after 42 years. It’s such a mixed bag. It’s very hard to walk away from something that you’ve been so committed to for so long that it’s just part of who you are. But, I think I’m going to stay on in some type of government affairs role as a part-time person. However, in any association, it’s important to have change and new ideas.”
TR: Looking back over your 42-year career in the tire industry, explain how the industry and the associations you’ve been involved with have changed over the years.
RL: “The industry has changed, and the associations have changed with it. I think the industry has become more professional and more advanced. The products are better. I think that is a reflection on the association, too. If you go back to the early days when the associations formed … it started with city associations and then they had a meeting and 500 dealers went, and they started the national group. They came from everywhere—livery stables, blacksmiths, drug stores—everybody was selling tires back then. And so when they got together, they recognized the need to have a more professional image and work together to protect themselves, and to speak in one voice to legislators, regulators, consumers and the tire makers. Over the years, we’ve had some pretty impressive people on our board of directors—they’re educated, focused on business growth and display professionalism in everything they do.
“When dealers come together, whether it’s in Vegas or the OTR Conference, they are very serious about their businesses. I think that the professionalism, the growth and the maturity of our industry is a reflection of the industry itself, and it’s very evident in an association like ours.
“Over the last one hundred years, there have been 14 people in my position between the two associations (National Tire Dealer and Retreaders Association and the International Tire and Rubber Association). When I was younger and came into the industry, people like Ed Wagner and Phil Freelander, who were such big names, they’d been in [their association positions] for so long, and now, I’ve been in [TIA] longer than either one of them.”
TR: What are a few legislative accomplishments that the industry has seen during your tenure?
RL: “Certainly, voluntary tire registration was huge back in 1982. We went to the volunteer system, and there are different arguments about how many tires are being registered right now. We think it’s very high. The USTMA says it’s low … under the law, there’s what’s called a third-party designee, and under that, the company [tire manufacturer] gives the dealer permission to keep their own records. When we look at our advisory council—the 50 largest retailers—they’re all registering tires 100%. The automobile dealers are registering tires 100%. The company stores are registering tires 100%.
“At the time that we went to the voluntary system, the fines were a thousand dollars a ticket. Now, it’s like $23,000 per violation, up to $107 million per location. So, they could literally put a dealer out of business.
“I think that as an industry, we can work together to promote voluntary tire registration. I think that we have a great opportunity with the task force we formed with USTMA to try to finally get the system right. This has been a mess since 1971. I think that by formalizing with NHTSA (National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration) third-party designee, and by recognizing that, we’re going to see a tremendous increase in the number of tires registered right off the bat.
“We also need to look at what technology is out there. Mistakes are made all the time, even when you’re trying to do it right. But, we have a chance right now as an industry to come together and really have a win-win for everybody.”
TR: Are there any other legislative landmarks over your time in the industry that have really affected dealers?
RL: “I think one of the big things that we worked on, and we were pretty successful on, was changing the Superfund. (Otherwise known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act, the Superfund provided a federal ‘Superfund’ to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites in the 1980s.) They specifically stated that tires, used oil and used batteries would not be declared hazardous waste. We had a real problem when landfills were starting to not accept tires. We got into a situation where we had 1,200 tire piles around the country. So, we came together as an industry and we lobbied for state funds [for scrap tires], and we worked together. I think 49 states have funds right now, and I think we’re down to under 50 piles left.”
TR: What are a few personal memories that you’ll never forget during your tenure in the industry? Who have been your mentors along the way and what have they taught you?
RL: “Well, I was involved with about five executive directors, and they all brought something different to the table. Phil Freelander was very passionate about the association and very passionate about government affairs. When he hired me in 1979, I was the first director of government affairs in the industry for the retail side. And he was a fighter. He had a reputation for that. Then, I worked for Ed Wagner, who was just the opposite. Ed was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met as was Marvin Bozarth, another executive director I worked for. Both Ed and Marvin just knew the industry so well. They were just walking encyclopedias of the industry. They were more ‘let’s try to work together,’ but if need be, they’d come in and fight.
“When Ross Kogel came, I can remember so many dealers telling me, when you send something to Ross, you get an answer right off the bat, and we’re not used to that … Ross was just a great person, and very upbeat in a tough time. He was there for the tough years with the recall and financial challenges.
“When the merger came (of the Tire Association of North America and the International Tire & Rubber Association), the financial situation on both sides was very dire. Both trade shows were not doing well. When you look at the 100-year history, that’s pretty much a theme up until recently. You know, there were always problems with the bottom line. And then at the end of the merger—the two groups should have always been together—they came together because of financial situations, it’ been great.”
TR: Do you have any interesting stories from your time on Capitol Hill?
RL: “I have special memories of people on Capitol Hill. I’ve gotten to be very close with some of the senators and congressmen over the years. You know, when I came to Washington for grad school, I walked into my senator’s office—it was Tom McIntyre from New Hampshire—and I asked if I could be a volunteer. I didn’t think about getting paid or anything like that. I just wanted to be there as part of my education. A couple of months later, they offered me a job at $10,500 a year. Oh my God… I almost fell off my chair. That was a lot of money in 1975.
“It was a great experience working there and people say, ‘Well, what did you do?’ I was at the bottom of the totem pole for almost everything except softball, which is a big deal on Capitol Hill. All the senators’ and house offices have teams. When my senator lost an election in 1978, I was a free agent, and I ended up on Barry Goldwater’s (five-term Senator from Arizona and the Republican nominee for U.S. President in 1964) team, and we actually won the Senate championship. I got to know Barry Goldwater a little bit, and he helped us on voluntary tire registration. He came out to the NTDRA Convention—I think it was in 1983.
“Another day, for voluntary tire registration, we had a group come down from New York because there were two Congressman on the committee in the House—[James] Scheuer (former U.S. Representative from New York) and [Richard] Ottinger (former House Representative from New York)—who were not supporting the bill. So, they called up Scheuer, and they went in there [his office], and he was actually home because he was going to have a hernia operation. But they got mad and said he better come in and talk with him, so he came in on crutches. He set his crutch down on the table and they’re all yelling at each other and I’m thinking, ‘This is awful.’ The great thing about grassroots is the legislators are reflective of who their constituents are. In the end, he became a co-sponsor of the bill and helped us get the bill out. When we went into Ottinger’s office, who was from a more upper-class suburb area, they tried the same thing, and he called security and had us removed by way of the Capitol Hill Police.
“Another one for the voluntary tire registration bill, Harley Orrin Staggers, the chairman of the House Commerce committee who was in his 16th term in Congress—did not like the bill. He wanted to get it out of committee. He was from West Virginia, and there was a dealer who knew him well and came in to talk to him. The two of them, since they grew up together, started talking about this girl in the class they both had a big crush on and how they couldn’t believe she ended up with the guy she did. They were talking for like five to 10 minutes, and then the Congressman asked, ‘What’s your issue?’ And he went from immediately opposing that bill to supporting it. It just shows how legislators are human, too, and it shows the importance of finding relationships between your members. You know, somebody knows somebody when you have 13,000 members.”
TR: What do you think are the top legislative challenges for dealers today both at the federal and state level?
RL: “One of them is the estate tax. We represent small dealers who have businesses that are passed down in the family. We thought we could get it repealed under Trump. It didn’t happen. Now the proposal going in is a much higher tax and almost a second tax put on it. This is a huge issue for tire dealers and small businesses. It becomes so expensive to pass your business down to your children, and it’s going to be prohibitive. You know, people don’t have the kind of cash to pay a tax like that, and so businesses get sold, and there are consolidations and mergers and everything else. That is a huge problem.
“I think another huge issue that is on the horizon is crumb rubber in athletic fields. We have been fighting bills in the last few years, and testified in several states in the Northeast, that would make rubber that goes into asphalt and athletic fields a hazardous waste. This is one of those issues that’s international. You’ve got tens of thousands of these fields now around the country … you’ve got crumb rubber used in playgrounds and everything else. If it would be declared a hazardous waste, and manufacturers would have to go and pick it up, you’re going to have lawsuits all over the place against the manufacturers.
“I think we have to do something about these Superfund sites. We’ve had bills over the years, and the problem is, there are so many of them. I’ve been in meetings with dealers who get dragged into a Superfund site, doing everything they were supposed to do. They had their tires hauled away by a licensed hauler that the EPA approved. Then, all of a sudden, it’s a hazardous waste site and everybody gets dragged into it. They have to either pay a lump sum up front and a fine or pay a percentage of the cleanup. I think it’s wrong. We, at one point, had dealers in 23 states involved in Superfund sites. I think that’s something that needs to be fixed.”
TR: On a personal note, what message do you want to tell the industry as you look toward retirement?
RL: “I want to thank everybody. All the past presidents, the members … you know in my 42 years, I’ve been to weddings, baptisms, funerals, everything. You know, you become part of their family. They become part of yours. They saw my kids grow up. I see their kids grow up. It is such a special kind of work because you have friends all over the country, all over the world, and everybody’s kind of pulling for each other. We want the industry to succeed. All of that is a part of who we are.
“But to see small businessmen succeed, to see them come together when they need to and make a difference in laws and training to save lives, to make the industry safer, those things matter a lot to me. I just thank everybody for giving me a chance.”