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Editor's Notebook

State of the Union: Industry Strong, Future Challenges Can Be Overcome

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Mr. Chairman and ladies and gentlemen…The state of our industry is and remains strong. Despite heavy cost and economic pressures, unresolved regulation, self-inflicted over-saturation and our inability, in many cases, to act in concert for the greater good, the tire industry from top to bottom remains one of the most vital and robust in the world.

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We have such a strong industry because we develop, produce, market and install technologically significant products, and our greatest asset – our independent distribution channel – leads the way in delivering world-class customer service that reflects well across our many brands and segments.

Those brands and products include the anchors we’ve all relied upon for decades, and a new batch of offshore suppliers that are bringing technically competent tires from China, India and other nations. The globalization of our industry – which started with the arrivals of Michelin and Continental and others on these shores – continues to bring out the best in our science and engineering and imagination, resulting in safety products that can outperform any standards.

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Still, despite all of our science and engineering and creativity, our tires cannot escape the clutches of common sense – rather, the lack of it – that all too often results in devastating court decisions. One of our continuing goals must be a significant revision of tort laws to lessen the cost burden on our manufacturers and distribution and increase personal responsibility. It will take smart lobbying and crafting new rules.

At the same time, tort reform and personal responsibility won’t come without this industry delivering constant, consistent and widespread consumer education.

Personal responsibility, which requires education, and even then, proof that consumers understand the technology, limits and required care of and for tires, most certainly will put tiremakers and retailers in a better light before judges and juries. Yet it is our collective inability to execute such a seemingly simple thing that will continue to haunt us all.

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As we work toward a true, sustained, industry-wide, 24/7/365 consumer education effort – one not solely dependent on already overburdened tire retailers – let us meet the needs of the young driver and the old, and make sure to explain the role personal responsibility must play in tire care. One cannot, after all, seriously overload a vehicle and then drive at excessive speeds on underinflated tires and expect no problems.

With or without “science,” we also must come to terms with the issue of tire age. Regardless of the political landscape, it is remarkable to consider that Europe and Japan have addressed the tire age matter while the North American tire industry continues to bury its head in the sand. As sure as we are sitting here, our day of reckoning is coming and the bill will be high.

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Before too much more time passes, we will be presented with another challenge: the long-anticipated new tire testing, grading and labeling system. This will have a significant impact not only on how we develop and produce tires, but also how we market and sell them to consumers. The new grading and labeling system holds the promise of allowing consumers for the very first time to make direct comparisons between tire brands and makes.

Drivers will be able to consider Brand A vs. Brand B in terms of treadwear, wet braking and fuel economy. With live test data as its basis, a new labeling system will allow consumer-friendly comparisons never before possible. And a significant level of consumer education will be required in order to make this system work smoothly and to all of our benefits.

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Speaking of benefits, the industry must also ask itself: What of our most loyal members? Tire dealers have been the backbone of the industry from the first. Many tiremakers have developed the shameless ability to hug and love their dealers while continuing to push their products through multiple channels, thereby damaging a dealer’s ability to compete and make a fair profit.

Truth be told, if tire dealers did as poor a job representing, supporting, selling and servicing their brands as mass merchants, car dealers and other retail outlets did, there would be no tire companies. Squeezed on margins because of competition on every street corner, dealers are confused as to how tiremakers can tout the high science and sophistication of their products, yet offer them through the lowest of low-end retailers.

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The tire industry has always been one of symbiotic relationships. Dealers, tiremakers, suppliers, even the media – we all depend on one another, and one another’s success. The industry doesn’t need division, and there should be no room for those that seek to divide.

Despite differences and pressures and needs, this industry has always succeeded as one, first and foremost because we are all tire people. We will find continued success only if we maintain that unity.

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