Career changes come in many forms, just as challenges do. When Manny Cicero took over as president of Denman Tire Corp. in May, he took on a very challenging career change.
Like all small specialty firms, Denman, based in tiny Leavittsburg, Ohio, battles much larger but less agile competitors for sales and share. The tiremaker has carved out a good place as a niche producer and is particularly strong in the small OTR and agricultural tire segments.
Cicero’s background, by contrast, has been in the medium truck and large OTR tire segments, first with Michelin North America, which gave him his tire industry start in 1978, and Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, where he served in a number of sales and marketing capacities, most notably as president of the then Bridgestone/Firestone Off-Road Tire Co.
A Colgate University graduate with an MBA from Vanderbilt University, Cicero, 50, took over from long-time Denman head Charles Wright, who retired in May.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Cicero in early June, just a few weeks into his new position with Denman.
Obviously, you’ve only been on the job for a short time, but give us your impressions of Denman, its products and where it is in the marketplace.
“I’m still learning as fast as I can. I knew Denman was a specialty tire manufacturer, but I really didn’t know what that meant. So, I’m still learning the specialty parts of our industry, which is every nook and cranny that is out of the mainstream.
“Denman tires, I do know, are high quality and handcrafted. They are made by people who’ve been here a long time and have a lot of pride in their work. That’s very encouraging to me. And, it means a lot to our customers.
“Our place in the industry, I think, is a bit threatened. Denman was a preeminent supplier of specialty tires. Today, there are a number of specialty tire companies that have popped up in recent years, as well as offshore manufacturers coming in that are providing a number of threats from a number of directions.”
That arena has become very crowded in the last couple of years. And the Asian manufacturers are only complicating it.
“And, again, those segments are all different. For instance, right now, in the small OTR segment, there is tremendous demand absorbing everything produced. So, we see opportunities there. And in the ag segment, as well. Light truck bias, light truck radial and some of the other segments are threatened right now.
“Complicating things is the fact that a great percentage of our business right now is not even Denman branded. We’re a specialty manufacturer making private brands for other people.”
Is that an area that you’re going to continue in, or are you going to shift more to the Denman brand?
“That’s a good question. We’re taking a very hard look at where the future of our business lies. Part of the issue is our manufacturing capacity. We have one factory here, and we have arrangements with a factory in Mexico and one in China, so probably a third of our product comes from outside the U.S.”
Are you looking to expand that possibly?
“A lot depends on our labor contract. If we can get a good, fair labor agreement our union contract expires in July, and we’re in negotiations now if we can get a reasonable settlement, I’d very much like to grow and expand our domestic portion.”
What has the dealer reaction been to your joining Denman?
“From what I can see, it’s been positive. I’m still trying to get out to meet all of our key dealers. The few I have met have been very positive. I think what I bring to Denman is more of a customer focus. Coming from the sales and marketing end of the business, I’m going to be more sensitive to our customers and their needs. Dealers who have either known me or are learning about me know that I care about their business and I am trying to understand it so that we can outperform our competitors and earn their business.”
Denman has been pretty quiet in the market over the last few years. How do you see that changing in the future?
“I don’t make any pretense that Denman is going to be up there with the major players in our industry. That’s not our goal. That would be foolish, and that would be suicide. We’re not looking to scream and shout. We’re looking to be a good, solid manufacturer of specialty tires and take advantage of the opportunities that the big boys don’t want or can’t handle. So, staying under the radar is probably a better idea for a company of our size versus trying to shout and be recognized.”
Denman’s strong suit has always been the small OTR and ag areas. Are you looking to expand Denman’s product lineup or extend into other market segments?
“I think so. It would be a logical market extension for us to expand into other channels and markets and lines. So, yes, I think that’s a safe assumption. But, again, we don’t want to go head-to-head with the big boys. We’ll look into areas that fit our capabilities, either through quick changes and small lots or small runs where it’s not worth the big boys’ time.”
Where do you see those opportunities laying?
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to evaluate right now. I have been with the big global companies for so long that I’m discovering areas of this industry I’ve never even heard of. There are just so many interesting pockets of opportunity. At least two or three times a week I hear of an opportunity. Some of them are wacky and off-the-wall, and some of them should be real solid and are worth pursuing. We’re pursuing two large opportunities right now in segments I never even thought of. They could be either a lark or really good business for us.
“We’re in a position to have some fun and stay under the radar. We have people come to us because they know we’re a specialty manufacturer, and they have an opportunity for us. We don’t need huge runs to consider something, like a Bridgestone, Michelin or Goodyear would need. Our factory is small; we’re used to quick changes, and, I think, therein lays our strength.”
In terms of growing sales and share with its core products, what can we expect to see from Denman in the coming year?
“You can expect to see us reach out to new customers. I received a tremendous amount of feedback when I came here from old customers, former customers, customers who had bought Denman in the past but got away from Denman for whatever reason. And, we received a lot of invitations to call on them, that they’d like to give us another try. So, we have a nice list of customers that we can start with and evaluate. We need to make sure they don’t conflict with our current distribution, of course, but I think we have big pockets of opportunity in just our current lines with customers we don’t currently sell to.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people who said they used to be Denman customers. Denman had a pretty good reputation in the past. For whatever reason, and there were many they described to me, they stopped buying from Denman. I’d like to get them back.
“We have a very small sales force, and they’re stretched pretty thin. But I think with some focus, and with the invitations we’ve already gotten, we’ll start seeing some presence.”
What do you see as the keys to Denman’s future success?
“Well, because of where we are, the age of our plant and our labor situation, we’re most likely not going to be the low-cost provider. So, our key is going to be better quality and better service. We want to look at and pick the right opportunities, especially those with limited competition. With the right opportunities, we can produce some very good products and make some hay in the market.
“From our standpoint, we’re going to have to out-service the offshore manufacturers and some of our direct competitors here. I think we’ve gotten away from some of that service over the past couple of years. That’s one area I think we can improve. Our current customers will see a dramatic difference. We’re not going to take anyone’s business for granted.”
Do you see Denman continuing with bias ply light truck and medium truck products, or are you going to move more into radial products?
“We do make radials here. But I think the bias ply tire segment is one of those niche opportunities that may become even more niche in the future as more people pull out. There is an opportunity there for us. The market may be shrinking, but the number of suppliers is shrinking even more. That’s one area we can develop into a healthy niche for some years to come.
“But, we are radial, and we have radialized. And, we have opportunities for further radialization as the situation dictates. Again, we’re not looking to compete with the big boys, so we have to pick our fights carefully.”