“He saves us tens of thousands in potential workers’ compensation claims. His labor costs are $18 an hour, while mine are $22. My overall insurance costs are lower, and I’m saving 10% per tire in labor alone.”
That’s Scott Francis, fleet maintenance manager for Whiteline Xpress Ltd. in Champaign, Ill. He’s in charge of watching over 250 power units and about 1,000 trailers. The man saving him money is Goodyear tire dealer M.C. Sweet, owner of Iliana Tire in Iliania, Ill., who gets 100% of Whiteline’s Champaign business.
You have to wonder how much Mylanta a guy like Scott Francis goes through in a day. “If any one of our trucks misses a delivery time, we shut down a plant until the load arrives,” he says. “That’s why we keep a bank of already mounted tires in our shop at all times. M.C. makes sure that we have what we need when we need it. There isn’t room for error.”
Is it a sweet deal for Sweet? You could say that, but it’s hard, tough work that could cause a guy to start smoking again. Sweet mounts all new tires and demounts the same. He paints all the wheels and makes service calls. The retread work goes through Sweet to a Goodyear facility and back to him.
If the question is tires, Sweet has the answer. Ditto that for Francis, whose job it is to make certain nothing goes amiss. “I like doing business with M.C. because it means I can keep my skilled mechanics doing the work they were trained to do namely repairing diesel engines, transmissions, electrical work, etc. Frankly, I can’t afford to pull them off a high-paying, highly skilled job to mount and dismount tires. That’s where M.C. comes in.
“My shop rate is $42.50 an hour, and my labor rate is $22,” continues Francis. “M.C.’s labor rate is $18, so I’m saving $4 per tire out of the gate. Taking that a step further, I don’t need to hire a full-time tire man and the attendant salary, plus another 37% on top of that for a 401K program, paid vacations, insurance, health insurance, and on and on.
“We’re what you can call a ‘tires on demand’ customer,” he says. “It’s M.C.’s job to catch any underinflation problems, flatspotting issues, flats or even missing tires. In effect, M.C. has taken the worry factor out of the tire part of my job.”
Fleet Manager’s Role
Francis hasn’t left M.C. totally alone. He’s trained his mechanics also to lay an eyeball on the tires. “During every PM, they check tread depths, while I enter data on our tire tracking software. It’s my job to project what we’ll need for winter driving maybe 200 deep-lug drive tires for driving in snow. I also project what kind of mileage we should expect per 32nd of tread depth.
“All of this is done based on the specifications I enter into the software program,” says Francis. “For example, I want my drive tires off at 6/32nds rather than risk injury to those casings by running them out. If the new tire came as 32/32nds, we run them down to 6/32nds. Over the years, we’ve learned that, by using 26/32nds, we can expect roughly 11,000 miles per 32nd, or about 286,000 miles out of that drive tire in a two-year period.”
Francis has also determined that bad alignment is a huge issue. “When we put on new steers, we have the power unit aligned,” he says. “We don’t want to get in the business of scrubbing off a set of steers in 20,000 miles or less. We are also sharply aware that every 10 psi of underinflation reduces our fuel economy by 1%.”
It’s also the Whiteline Xpress fleet manager’s belief that a failed drive tire can cost him a lot of money. “I don’t need a tractor or trailer torn up by a tire running at 2/32nds that suffered a sudden failure because it couldn’t fight off the puncturing object,” says Francis. “We like to run them deeper than that. We like to preserve casings for retreading.”
Tire Man’s Point of View
“We’re the people who take the B.S. out of selling,” says Steve Powers, fleet maintenance manager for Brahler Tire in Morton, Ill. The veteran commercial tire man sounds Truman-like in his buck-stops-here approach. He’s talking about his team of fleet tire experts who “have to beat the monster” every day.
“We can be the Achilles heel at Brahler or the savior, and as long as I’m here, we will never be the former.” No shrinking violet, Powers is as firm spoken as he is talented.
“We have to know what’s going on with all of the traditional tire suppliers and at our own retread plant and have a specific understanding of what our fleet tire customers expect of us,” Powers says. “My guys know that they may be called out at 3 a.m., that our work is never finished and that we must stand behind our products and service every operating day of the year.” That means 365 monsters a year.
Although none of this sounds like fun, it is at Brahler Tire. Boss Richard Brahler is, if nothing else, a visionary who doesn’t sit around wondering how a new idea might work. He turns thoughts into reality but says his newest location in Morton was built around the skill sets of his right-hand man, Steve Powers.
It is Brahler’s passion that moved him to build a retread plant, part of it dedicated to producing premium Marangoni Ringtreads and the rest to producing “innovative tread replacement” (ITR) retreads, which offers second-tier flat tread retreads. Brahler is not a franchised retreader, although he used to be. ITR is his brand his baby. “I wanted to become an independent tire dealer again,” he says, “and, thanks to my plant, I am.”
Brahler, who has a strong background in the tool industry, says he started ITR to compete with new tires. “Every tire that leaves our retread shops gets a shearography test and a pressure test. I guarantee no zippers coming out of my plant.”
By the way, Brahler owns Gaither Tool Systems, a company he created before entering the tire business.
“Thanks to our new-tire suppliers like Continental, coupled with our ITR retread shop, we believe we can push past the 750,000-mile casing if we pay attention to what we’re doing as well as how our fleet customers are using those tires. Part of our job is to communicate costs and data to the fleet accounting people on a regular basis,” Brahler says.
“If the difference in tire casings is $150, and the lower-price casing will do the job, we advise the less expensive casing. We have seen the quality of the truck tire casing rise so fast in the past 10 years that one new tire is pretty much like its competitor. Although we enjoy good relationships with all tire suppliers, we have been particularly impressed with the Continental, Yokohama and Bridgestone casings lately,” he adds.
Nevertheless, “we are learning that fleets aren’t brand conscious for either new tires or retreads,” Brahler says. “If it works and reduces their costs, that’s what counts.
“Today, with Steve in place, we’ve reduced overall tire and retread costs for fleets,” says Brahler. “Because they farm out the work to us, they need less personnel, fewer, if any, service trucks, and we make their tires run longer. Better, our fleet customers are growing, and I’ve got a stable and growing tire and retread business.”
How Steve Powers Calls It
“We see 10,000 pieces through our location yearly,” says Powers, who handles 100% of the work for 12 fleets. “Everything I do here every dime we make depends on our ability to make the fleet’s expense our income. I might sell a commercial truck tire listed at $300 for $290 and make another $25 by delivering it mounted and ready to go.”
He makes it sound easy. But things are not always as they seem. Powers must understand the fleet’s trade cycle, tire rotation needs, power unit swap outs, trailer issues, the condition of in-service and scrap tires and more than there is space to list.
“Additionally, I need to know how many new power units are on order. If 100 new units are coming in, I know that, on a four-year trade cycle, a power unit will probably see 100,000 to 120,000 miles per year of service or a total of as many as 480,000 miles in that life cycle. That means I need to supply those units with 200 steer tires per year. It’s my job to plan for that and make those tires last for as long as possible.
“The other thing I need to know is what types of runs the fleet will make,” says Powers. “I may be working with two or three types of fleet service within one fleet. It’s not so much about numbers as it is application. Some of the trucks are used in line-haul operations; others are for short-haul, regional use. Still others see interplant service.
“A tanker fleet, for example, will run on tires that last about 90,000 miles on the power unit and 90,000 miles on the trailer a 1:1 ratio. They are always loading and unloading and cannot afford a tire failure of any kind, so they don’t risk it.
“With G&D Transportation, for whom we do 100% of their work, the CEO understands that I participate in his bottom line. When he can’t grow because of expenses, that’s where we enter the picture,” concludes Powers.
Powers doesn’t underestimate the value of proper alignment, mostly because his fleet customers see the dollars-and-cents difference. For the record, G&D owns 400 power units and 3,000 trailers.
“Generally, we align 60% of G&D’s power units once a year, and we check every new power unit delivered,” he says. “That’s because half of all new power units that are being delivered haven’t been aligned or were improperly aligned. G&D is spending $6,000 a year with me for alignment work, and I’m saving the fleet $4,000 a year that it doesn’t need to spend on new tires.
“It boils down to this,” says Powers. “A pair of new steers costs the fleet about $700, and I’m saving about $280 simply by making certain those tires go on an aligned truck. I’ll get the fleet those 120,000 miles it’s expecting.”
Is it that easy? “The fleet manager squawked at first for my charge of $95 to check alignment,” says Powers. “But, when he attained the mileage he paid for by running straight down the road, he quickly agreed that checking alignment is a good idea.”
Eye on OE
That’s not all Powers does. He also watches the new-vehicle industry every day. Right now, there’s a shortage of new trailer tires. So, new trailers are being delivered with steer and drive tires and with an upcharge, which is for paid by fleets. “We take off the new drives, if that’s what the trailer came with, and move them to the drive axles,” he says.
“G&D just bought 100 new trailers with an upcharge of $45 per tire because those trailers came with new steer or drive tires. We yank off the new tires and put on our own ITR retreads for $150 each. We can, for example, move those eight new steers to eight power units, and G&D ends up paying $1,160 for eight new steers that would have cost about $2,800. Of course, this concept only works if the retread lasts as long as a new tire. Our own ITR retreads fill the bill.”
What Powers goes through is a constant analysis of fleet tire needs and new-vehicle tire specifications. Through careful study and the mixing in of Brahler’s’ ITR retreads, Powers can save a fleet some serious money.
Tucker Szold, the man in charge of watching over G&D’s fleet tire budget, says the quality of the product, including service, is good. “Since we’ve been working with Brahler Tire and Steve Powers, our tire failure rate and downtime numbers have both diminished. Our fuel and tire costs are down, and all of this is happening as G&D is growing.
“Since I see the figures every month, I know first hand what’s going on in terms of income and outgo. There is no question that our fleet tire partnership with Brahler Tire is one that has benefited G&D,” Szold says.
What Role for Tiremakers?
When talking about outsourcing tire operations, the normal conversation involves only fleets and tire dealers.
So what role does or should the tiremaker play?
Guy Walenga, commercial tire engineering manager for Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire (BFNAT), says outstanding tire performance is all about the basics, the fundamentals. “Fleets must understand that if they don’t keep the proper amount of air in a truck tire, that tire will not perform the way it was designed to perform,” he says.
“Actually, the fleet driver has the best opportunity to conduct a quick tire inspection every time he gets out of his truck. Do a walk-around inspection, and take a look at the tires,” says Walenga. “Can anything be simpler?
“Today, we’re providing even more miles per 32nd, and we can’t make them fast enough,” Walenga adds. “Not only do today’s tires provide more mileage, they are more durable.”
Besides providing great product, though, what role should tiremakers play in supporting a successful outsourcing arrangement?
Marc Laferriere, vice president of marketing for Michelin Americas Truck Tires, and Mark Feeney, director of Michelin Business Solutions, came up with a short list of what fleets expect from them and their dealers: consulting before the purchase; actual ordering and invoicing; servicing the product, including delivery, repairs and retreading; and after-sales support to prove the value of the product.”
Does that sound too corporate for you? The distilled version sounds like this: “It’s critical for tire dealers to recognize that fleets expect service. Fleets must keep downtime to a minimum,” says Laferriere, “so they must do business with a dealer that can provide prompt delivery of mounted tires on wheels and be able to provide alignment, repairs, retreading and emergency road service.
“Product is a big part of the equation,” he says, “but the same energy that we put into the product must be applied to after-sales support. What a fleet wants from the dealer and tire supplier is proof of performance. That means we must never stop educating fleet tire managers, drivers and our own people.”
The only reason a fleet turns its tire program over to an outsider is to save money. Pure and simple. And, as you can see, dealers understand that. They have the tools, people and attitude to squeeze every penny out of every 32nd.
Tiremakers, too, are doing their part.
As operational costs continue to rise, more and more fleets will doubtlessly be looking for the perfect tire partner. And there are plenty of them out there.
An Opposing Viewpoint
Of course, there’s always another side to the story. And, while Darry Stuart, president and CEO of DWS Fleet Management Services, doesn’t disagree with the concept of outsourcing, he does have a take-no-prisoners attitude about fleet tire maintenance programs.
“You can win a game of horseshoes even if every shoe you throw is just a leaner,” he says, “and you can win the NASCAR crown by finishing second in every race. Consistency counts. It’s the same with the big fleets. In my opinion, if you overdo your tire programs, you can’t afford them. It’s just not cost effective.
“To me, a truck tire should be round, black, have a deep tread depth and sold at the right price with a competitive cost per 32nd of tread depth,” he says. “Next, you PM that truck and its tires to death. If you fill a new tire to 100 psi, and it shows up later at 80 psi, yank it off and throw it in the scrap pile. Something is wrong with it. So, move on rather than spend time and money trying to find out what it is.
“Although I like computers, I’m not a big fan of computer software for commercial tire programs,” he says. “The software only confirms what we should already know. To me, computers used in this manner are all about people who would rather send e-mail from office-to-office than walk out into the yard and look at the tires.
“This is visual work. It’s hands-on work, not software work. At least not until we get a legitimate tire chip that can send us more information than inflation pressure, temperature and wheel position readings. The guy who won’t touch a steer tire as he walks by is not going to be a good fleet tire manager,” he continues.
“Tires talk to us only if we stop to listen. Blindfolded, you can rub your hand over a tire and tell if you have an alignment or irregular wear problem. An inflation problem is also easily detected. Either you have a problem or you don’t. It’s not complicated.”
In Stuart’s view, the length of time needed to make a tire decision should be no longer than from one PM to the next. “In between, take a look at your scrap pile. Once again, the tires will tell you what’s wrong if you just look at them. One of the issues we face in this industry today is that everyone wants to know the exact condition of every tire, where it is in its life cycle and what can be done to extend tire life. Right now! Nice idea, but we can’t do it.
“Most big fleets with thousands of trailers don’t even know where their trailers are most of the time. So, they can’t look at them. They forget about them until a tire must be replaced.
“Add to that the fact that truck makers are not building good units any longer. In a way, all of us in the business are responsible for that. We have asked truck makers for a lot, but we’re not willing to pay for it. That’s why we see so many small truck components that are less than desired. So, we take five cents out of the new vehicle here and there, someone sends an e-mail and everything is fixed? I don’t believe it, not for a minute.
“My plan for a fleet tire program is to divide the purchase price of a new truck tire by the 32nds of tire tread depth. Use an Excel program and calculate the miles per 32nd on your own. In so many ways, we have lost sight of what we’re trying to do. If we don’t stop playing with computers and start dealing with reality soon, we’ll all pay the price.”