Little was known about Keiko Brockel when she was elevated to president of Nitto Tire USA Inc. last October. Taking over for Tomo Mizutani (who moved to president of Toyo Tire Holding of America Inc.), the former Nitto Canada president and COO of Nitto Tire USA was not well-known in the industry, even as she built a strong reputation as a top-notch manager, and as one of the highest ranking women in the North American tire business.
A third generation Japanese-American, Brockel has a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Southern California and earned her MBA from California State University-Long Beach. Prior to joining Nitto in 2008, she was vice president of finance and administration for Canon Business Solutions, and had several executive posts during 16 years with Xerox Corp.
Talk about how your operations and finance experience will come to bear in your new role.
“My background is in finance, planning and operations. Over the last five years, I have had the great privilege of working for and learning from Tomo (Mizutani) and a great staff of dedicated Nitto enthusiasts. We have focused on growing Nitto, not only in sales but also fortifying the organization. Our growth has been significant over the last decade. The skills and experience I bring forth will be put to good use as we continue strengthening Nitto’s organizational structure to support healthy and responsible growth, and position us well to face future challenges with confidence. One of the greatest challenges will be to sustain our growth while maintaining Nitto’s very unique corporate culture, which is truly Nitto’s secret weapon. We remind ourselves each day of how dynamic and fast moving our market is and how vital it is to stay nimble and proactive at all times.”
What do you see as the strengths of the Nitto brand and its products?
“Nitto’s products are our defining strength – they generate excitement and demand. Unique design and advanced manufacturing technology are the essence of our offerings, and protecting this will always be our top priority. We strive each day to be leaders in innovative marketing initiatives. We are proud of our brand and will continue to invest in maintaining a strong, dominant market presence. We will continue promoting our brand and elevating excitement and demand for our Grapplers, Motivo, NT421Q and all our products. We deliver what our fans want and our dealers appreciate this. We highly value our dealers and are diligent about extending exceptional customer service.”
Will your approach to the job and the market differ from that of your predecessor, and in what ways?
“On a macro-level, our goals and objectives will not change. We will continue to be ‘fueled by enthusiasts’ and be forward-thinking – this is the driving force behind our research and product development. State-of-the-art design and technology are the essence of Nitto products and that will always be our top priority. Furthermore, our approach will not change. Our corporate philosophy has always been to go out to the field, experience and learn first-hand what key elements are important to our fans, as part of Nitto’s research and product development process. Yes, my background and experience are more analytical and data-driven – we will use this to enhance our planning process – but it will never replace going to the field and bringing home the voice of our fans.”
What aspects of Nitto’s business do you expect to spend the most time on? In what areas do you feel Nitto needs to improve?
“Nitto is a life-style brand – a brand that people want and connect with. We must continue to develop new, exciting and innovative products, and maintain a strong brand presence in the market. We must always seek to identify future trends and be pioneers in product design and marketing. We are never satisfied and will always find ways to improve our products and further enhance the driving experience for our fans. In today’s ultra-competitive market, we have to be nimble and stand out amongst the crowd. Fortunately, we have an incredible established team that understands what is required to bring the right products to our fans, as well as how to promote our products and brand. I will continue to use my expertise in planning and operations in order to strengthen our organization to support our growth and prepare us for the future. I hope to expand our collaboration efforts with our dealers and focus on integrating and aligning our strategic growth plans so we can better support future requirements.”
Nitto has a rather small group of direct dealers – Discount Tire, TBC stores – and relies heavily on specialty retailers to reach consumers. Given this, what steps will Nitto take to grow its business going forward?
“Stay focused on our strengths – products specifically. The best thing we can do for our retail and wholesale dealers is to continue creating products that excite our fans and drive them into stores in search of our products by name. Nitto has built an enduring relationship with our fan base by providing them utility beyond our immediate products. Things such as customer service, entertainment and education are important deliverables that make us the brand of choice. A relationship isn’t built just on transactions. Nitto is well positioned as a technology leader within our industry, and without giving away too many details, I will just say that we will pass this benefit/advantage onto our dealers.”
Nitto is seen as a niche player – UHP and light truck. Do you feel that is a fair assessment and how can Nitto break out of that ‘mold’? Does it even have to?
“We will always be ‘fueled by enthusiasts’ – having a strong focus on the enthusiast base with our unique products as our core. We are no longer just a ‘niche – specialty player.’ Our products and size offerings have expanded. Our fans want the same enhanced driving experience with all the vehicles in his or her garage. We want to provide the same experience to their families and friends. The Motivo is an example of our success in bringing the Nitto experience not only to the enthusiast’s custom vehicle, but to all their vehicles. With the launch of our latest products, including the NT421Q, our product and size offerings have expanded, making the Nitto experience possible for a wider audience. However, Nitto’s essence is to always be unique and innovative. We do not imitate, so we will continue to take risks whether it is through our distinctive designs, new sizes, or innovative marketing strategies. This is our goal.”
Who is the Nitto consumer and why?
“To us, the ‘Nitto consumer’ is someone who is looking for not just a tire, but something that will enhance their overall driving experience. This can mean many things depending on the type of consumer. Some might value high-performance and excitement, and for others it might be comfort and confidence. Tires are commonly viewed as a commodity product, but we create products that delight and create a sense of excitement for our customers, and turn them into Nitto fans. The learned consumer will seek our product for their quality and performance, but we also create a “mood lift” through the prestige of our brand.”
In reaching out to consumers, Nitto has been strong in social media vs. more traditional promotion. We have seen a Nitto TV spot run on a regional sports channel in Northern California. Does that point to Nitto taking a stronger approach to the consumer market?
“Yes, it is true that Nitto is strong in the realms of digital consumer marketing and social media. And it has been one of our primary marketing initiatives throughout the past several years. Even though our marketing philosophy does not specifically call for digital marketing, we strive to invest ourselves in winning channels/segments within the consumer marketing landscape. The recent Nitto TV spots on regional sports channels are due to the fact that, despite the overall decline in broadcast TV advertising ROI, sports programming remains an upward trend in terms of viewership and following. General broadcast TV has been impacted by new media (i.e. streaming video services), but sports programming has yet to see a viable substitute.”
Nitto talks about how passionate its customers are. What other initiatives is Nitto working on to reach consumers on a one-to-one basis?
“Reaching our fans on a one-to-one basis entails going back to our roots. Nitto found its place within a coveted market segment, and gained loyal following by engaging with Nitto fans at events, races and other public gatherings in an intimate level. We will continue to increase our dedication in this field. We will also leverage our exceptional consumer relations strategy to ensure that all our fans receive an excellent brand experience before, during, and after their purchase.”
In terms of product development, what kinds of passenger and light truck tires is Nitto working on for the near future? Do you see Nitto’s product offering becoming more broad in the future?
“We have recently launched Motivo and 421Q and we will continue expanding our Grappler series offerings.”
From a growth standpoint, where does Nitto see itself in three years? Five years?
“We’re excited. Nitto’s future looks bright. The foundation cemented through continual innovative initiatives and new product and size offerings will allow for steady and sustainable growth in the next three to five years. While Motivo and NT421Q have expanded Nitto’s reach into the UHP and CUV segment, we will also continue reinforcing our position in the light truck market through product and size expansion of our Grappler series. We have a few surprises on the way, but I can’t speak to them at this time. Nitto thrives because of our fan’s loyalty; just look to our 6.5 million Facebook fans. We will continue to deliver thoughtful and engaging products, promotions, content and focus on connecting with them on a relevant and personal level.”
What are some of the headwind issues Nitto faces near-term and what steps are you taking to address them?
“The most pressing issue we face today is that our demand continues to exceed our supply. The good news is that we started construction of our Phase 4 expansion at our White, Ga., factory this year. This added capacity will become available in 2015.”
Talk about passion, both from within Nitto as well as how it interacts with consumers?
“There is a saying that a brand is simply a manifestation of an organization/company’s day-to-day activities behind the scene. Nitto’s brand mantra is ‘Fueled by Enthusiasts.’ Not only do we cater to the enthusiasts, but our employees are also enthusiasts. Passion is part of our DNA, which Tomo instilled in the company from the beginning. I’ve witnessed how his passion for enhancing the driving experience brought the brand and its products to life, and captured the attention of an uncompromising and demanding fan base. We are passionate about our immediate industry as well as the automotive industry. Our employees are ‘fueled’ to create change and excitement within the tire realm. Taking this into consideration, our interaction with our fans is authentic – we engage as one enthusiast to another.
“The best way I can explain the passion surrounding the Nitto brand is by comparing it with the previous companies I have worked for. Prior to joining Nitto, I worked for Canon and Xerox. Both companies are recognized globally for their great product quality and technology. Nitto is also recognized for its great product quality and technology, but the difference is that Nitto products generate an emotional appeal because of their unique design and Nitto’s drive to become a part of our fan’s inner community. This is evidenced by the postings we receive from our fans. We have fans expressing their passion by getting a tattoo of our Mud Grappler on their arm, shaving our Invo tread pattern on their head, designing their Grappler-inspired wedding bands. Another example is award winning country music group Florida Georgia Line, which released the song ‘This is How We Roll,’ mentioning Nitto (‘Up on them 37 Nittos’) in their lyrics. This is very special. We don’t take anything for granted. Instead, we are motivated to continue finding innovative ways to engage our fans and inspire passion.”