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Editor's Notebook

Who Is On Our Side?’: Dealer Asks Tough Question, But Maybe the Real Answer is You!

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Instead of my usual mish-mash of sticky note items and holiday cheer, I want to leave all of you with a philosophical question to chew on as we head into a new year.

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Who is really watching out for the best interests of the independent tire dealer?

Seems like a pretty simple question, doesn’t it? The answer should be pretty clear cut, but I’m afraid it is not.

In fact, I‘m not convinced there is a good answer.

What brought this to mind? Recently, a friend of mine – a well-known dealer in California – wondered aloud if he and his fellow dealers really had a true advocate, an absolute go-to guy or group that would go to bat for them on the kinds of day-to-day issues that really matter in the field.

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His points of concern? This whole TPMS debacle, which is harming tire dealers far more than anyone perhaps realizes, he says. And competition from car dealers, a problem well underestimated by his fellow tire retailers, he feels.

Mostly, he’s concerned that those two issues will soon fuse, unlocking the potential to knock him and all other independents out of business forever.

My friend, who will remain nameless – you’ll know why in a minute – is a pretty successful dealer. He’s not 2-handicap successful and has to work every day, but he’s making a comfortable living selling tires and fixing cars. Pretty much like a lot of our readers.

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A proud, earnest sort, I know it took an awful lot for him to contact me and ask, “What can we do?”

He’s not a whiner. He’s been very active in his state association. He understands the good things associations – state and national – and tire companies have done to help dealers succeed. And he knows they have limitations.

But right now, he isn’t sure to whom he can turn.

Right now, he stares at TPMS-equipped vehicles in his service bays, knowing that more often than not he’ll be trudging to a local car dealer, hat in hand, begging for replacement parts and service info. An embarrassing predicament for any tire dealer, he says.

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He sees the auto dealer TV commercials touting their tire inventory, “expertise” and low prices, while enjoying business literally handed to them on a silver platter by tiremakers pushing the inventory through tire dealers.

This is making dealers unwitting partners in crime for a few cents on the dollar, he notes with dismay.

He sees these same low/no-profit tires advertised by the car dealers at prices most of his peers cannot touch.

He hears his fellow dealers bragging about how many tires they “sell” to car dealers, and how it’s all free money and more units for volume discounts while not seeming to have a single worry about feeding the competition.

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He knows the all-powerful automakers – through their new car dealers – will leverage their unique TPMSs against tire dealers who cannot afford to inventory all of the grommets and cores and sensors and washers and nuts – not to mention the tools and data – necessary to service every vehicle.

He’s concerned that it has all gone too far, and he is scared for his future.

What he doesn’t see, hear or know is what can be done or how he and other independents can defend themselves. Worse yet, he isn’t even sure they can.

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“What can we do?” he asks. “Who is looking out for us?”

Who indeed.

This dealer feels that the potential advocates – folks who should be on the side of independents, the small businesspeople that are supposedly the backbone of the American economy – are lacking for one reason or another.

Are tire companies really on the side of independents?

He doesn’t see it. “Instead of just selling us tires, why don’t you fight for us?”

Dealer councils aren’t much help. Many are packed with big wholesalers and “guys who haven’t sold a tire in years,” he complains.

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“They (the tiremakers) aren’t going to listen to us little guys, but they will listen to someone who is buying $20-$30 million a year from them.

“Independent tire dealers put these guys (car dealers) in business to sell tires, and now they’re trying to put us out of business,” he says.

“We need to tell our suppliers that if we’re going to have to feed these car dealers with these ‘Around the Wheel’ programs, they need to help us.”

So what about wholesalers?

“Some distributors are no help. They just want to sell tires, and they don’t deal with all the regulations and rules that retail stores and commercial centers do.”

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What about the government?

Not with the powerful automaker lobby pushing D.C. around like a rag doll. Right to Repair legislation remains pinned down by car company lobbyists and a reluctant, slow-moving Congress. And, NHTSA doesn’t have the backbone to force automakers to standardize TPMSs – which would solve many problems, he says – or to share TPMS information and tools with independents.

TPMS will be required on all passenger vehicles come September 2007, he reminds. But, other than a few training programs and technical bulletins, he doesn’t see anyone stepping up to the plate to help dealers really deal with this new and expensive technology.

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Only the car dealers will have all of the tools and technical info needed to handle formerly routine services like rotations and replacement. By having their own unique TPMSs, automakers set up their dealers to be the only places consumers can take their cars for tire service.

Unfortunately, he feels, it’s too late to change anything. Car dealers have already been invited into the henhouse, he says.

So, what about his fellow dealers, the ones who brag about bagging easy car-dealer sales?

“We’ve been asleep at the wheel for a long time,” he says, and allowed tiremakers and car dealers to “take business away from us.”

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But, tire dealers have been just as culpable, and he knows it. “We helped car dealers get into the tire business,” he admits. No one refused, and no one pushed back and said, ‘Enough.’

“What do tire dealers do? They complain, and then nothing,” he says.

“The problem is we’re all too busy. We’re working for a few dollars, but we’re too busy to see into the future.”

But, aren’t tire dealers getting help from their associations?

State associations do what they can – depending on how attune they are – with state and local matters.

In a former incarnation, TIA was THE national tire dealer association. Now it represents everyone in the industry – dealers, tiremakers, importers, recyclers, retreaders, even this magazine.

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Rightly or wrongly, he feels TIA should be representing the independent tire dealer.

“That’s what TIA should be doing,” he says, but he wonders if it can.

TIA does its best to represent the industry on national issues, he says, but it only has so much juice in a town where money and position talk, and, well, you know the rest. “When its just a small association, they (government, auto companies, etc.) just shut you off.”

This is not, nor has it ever been, a very forward-thinking industry, he says with a sense of finality. “We live in a do-it-for-me world. We expect someone else to do the work.”

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Part of his frustration is that he sees various special interest groups marshaling the troops to get their voices heard. “The farmers drive their tractors to the state capital, and doctors march on Washington over insurance.

“So why not tire dealers?” he wonders.

Well, maybe he’s right. Maybe it is time for tire dealers to grab the flag and do it for themselves.

Maybe tire dealers, as he suggests, should stop looking to tire companies or tire wholesalers or government or associations to represent your real-world interests.

Is this the answer? I don’t know.

I do know tire companies try to balance the business of business against the best interests of their core channel. Do they always succeed? You be the judge.

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I do know that associations could do a lot more if they had a stronger, larger and more eager membership base. Will they have such? That, I guess, is up to you.

I also know that self-reliance and independence are why you went into business for yourself. But how can you be self-reliant and independent and still expect others to carry your torch?

Do you have to back down just because you don’t have the deepest pockets or the most muscle? No. Do you have to sit down and shut up because you don’t think you have a voice? Not at all.

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But you have to do something more than just complain.

Get active and get involved, whether it’s with your suppliers or in your associations or among yourselves.

Get some heads together. Develop a workable position, and communicate that you are willing to fight for it. Convince yourselves, then you can work on convincing the government, your suppliers, even your customers.

Like all things in our society, you can choose to stand up for yourselves or fade away.

So, maybe, in the end, the answer is you.

But are you willing to be the answer?

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