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Incoming TANA president sees a world of opportunity for dealers

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Incoming TANA president sees a world of opportunity for dealers

Nothing gives Steve Disney refuge from the often-frenzied world of selling tires quite like strapping on a pair of headphones, kicking back and grooving to one of the 500-plus LPs that he's spent more than three decades collecting. "If I wasn't in the tire business, I'd own a record store," says the incoming Tire Association of North America (TANA) president.

Disney's lifelong love affair with popular music includes a stint bringing big-name acts like Frank Zappa, Genesis and Jimmy Buffett to Nashville, Tenn.'s Vanderbilt University when he was a student there during the mid-1970s. And a case of CDs is standard issue when Disney travels by car to visit customers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and other states covered by his Louisville, Ky.-based wholesale dealership.

"Well-crafted pop music is an art form in itself," he says. The talkative dealer will get the chance to arrange his own score when he takes TANA's reins from Nick Hodel at this year's International Tire Expo in Las Vegas, Nev.

All in the family

Disney, 45, along with his father, Paul Disney Jr., and brother, Paul Disney III, runs Disney Tire & Rubber Co., a 51-year-old wholesale operation headquartered in downtown Louisville. The dealership has five warehouses in three states that deliver passenger, light truck, performance, commercial medium truck and light industrial tires to more than a thousand customers "from one county south of Chicago to two counties into Georgia, and from central Illinois to parts of Virginia and North Carolina," says Steve.

Not too shabby for a company that his grandfather, Paul Disney Sr., started as a wholesale clearinghouse for used, post-World War II, military-surplus tires.

Within a few years of launching the business, Paul Sr. was joined by Steve's uncle, Manny Tolakis, "who brought an enthusiasm for the retail side, so we got involved in selling tires to the public."

Steve started working at the dealership during the summer following his sixth-grade year, a gig that lasted until he took a full-time position with the company after his college graduation in 1977. "Over the years, we developed our wholesale business, which evolved into strictly new tires, while Manny cultivated the retail side."

Though profitable, the retail part of the family's business came to comprise a minority of its revenue. The family exited the market in 1996 to concentrate exclusively on wholesaling. Customers now include large retail tire chains like Tires Plus, distribution groups like Big O Tires, auto repair facilities, new and used car dealerships, tuner shops, farm supply businesses, "even hardware and general stores in rural areas," Steve says. "But the majority of our customers are independent tire dealers with three or fewer stores" -- precisely the constituents he'll serve as TANA president.

Ambitious agenda

Disney plans to address several issues as TANA president next year, "all of which," he says, "are important":

* Government relations. TANA's main thrust during 2001 has been trying to make sure lawmakers keep tire dealers' interests in mind when enacting new legislation.

"We're blessed in having the resources to hire lobbyists and advisors," Disney says, "but we also need to engage the membership at large in government affairs."

He wants to work with state and regional associations more closely when it comes to political issues since "a lot (of issues) are state-oriented." And Disney wants to encourage individual dealers to write to their state and federal officials by using a feature on TANA's Web site that helps members obtain the names, phone numbers and addresses of corresponding elected representatives.

* Member training. Disney admits TANA can do a better job of marketing its training programs. "I'm not satisfied with the penetration we've achieved. We've sold well over 1,000 programs but not as many as we should have."

Programs under consideration include a passenger/light truck tire repair course with emphasis on failure analysis. "There isn't a day that goes by when someone isn't asked to make a decision about why a tire has failed. If we are better equipped to look at a tire and determine what went wrong, we will be in a position to help consumers see their (tire maintenance) responsibilities."

Disney also will push for a performance tire and wheel service program, plus training for sales and management personnel, "particularly counter salespeople." In addition, TANA will develop a catalog of training available to tire dealers "beyond what (we) offer." A dealer-oriented human resource program may be in the works as well.

* Consumer education. "I don't think tires have ever had a higher profile in consumers' minds, but that doesn't mean (customers) are any better-informed or more knowledgeable," Disney says. Under his term, TANA will continue to work with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as it sets rules for tire pressure monitoring systems and other vital issues. "By producing a better-informed public, we will better serve our members."

* International Tire Expo (ITE). Disney, who expects registration for TANA's annual convention and trade show this month to be up vs. last year, says the ITE has outgrown its space at the Las Vegas Convention Center. As a result, TANA will work with the Specialty Equipment Market Association to free up more room for next year's show.

Disney also wants to encourage more new product unveilings at subsequent events "to develop excitement."

* Association relations. TANA is in a better position now than ever to work with the International Tire & Rubber Association (ITRA), according to Disney. "There has been a lot of work done by my predecessors and counterparts on the ITRA side... a lot has been done behind-the-scenes," he says.

"We certainly have complementary strengths and assets in staffs, leadership and membership. There's a lot we can do to help each other." (Following this interview, TANA announced it was planning to merge with ITRA, pending approval of the associations' members, in mid-2002.)

Strengthening relations with Canadian and Mexican tire dealer groups also will be a priority during his term. "We need to be able to work in synch."

* Membership development/retention. "If you look at the pool of potential TANA members, I'm disappointed we don't have more." TANA has around 3,600 members; Disney believes it can have more than 5,000 eventually. He will promote the association's programs, particularly its Car Care One credit card program, as incentives for dealers to join.

Other recruitment strategies will revolve around TANA's Ambassador Program, in which 140 association spokespeople, under the guidance of retired Florida-based dealer Don Olson, will contact a pre-screened list of potential members throughout the year; and the organization's Dealer-to-Dealer Program, "a coordinated effort to promote free information exchange."

Too many consumers take tires -- and the work that goes into their development and construction -- for granted, Disney says, which does everyone in the industry a disservice. "My firm belief is that if you look at the engineering, workmanship and materials (involved) in today's tires, tire manufacturers, distributors and retailers are not being rewarded appropriately for that value. I'd like to see the equation changed."

Now is the time to emphasize tire technology, features and benefits, he says. "The perception (tire buyers) have today doesn't reflect reality. This has to be tidied up."

Votes of confidence

Disney's peers certainly have faith in him and his leadership ability. "Steve is a straight shooter," says TANA Executive Vice President Ross Kogel. "He commands a tremendous amount of respect among board members and fellow dealers."

Disney's ability to think "out-of-the-box" will serve the association well, Kogel believes. "He has some terrific ideas, especially on how dealers can communicate."

"Steve speaks his mind -- good, bad and different," says outgoing TANA President Hodel. "It's nice doing business with people like that, because you know where they're coming from."

"One of the best traits he brings to TANA is his thoughtfulness," says Tom Wright, who preceded Hodel in the association's top position. "He doesn't just buy whatever comes down the chute. He's very analytical."

Disney's ability to communicate articulately also is a plus, according to Wright. "He's a good speaker and makes his points very well."

Disney himself is characteristically modest about his upcoming term and what it will bring. "To continue along the trajectory laid out starting with Paul Bobzin to Ted Wiens to Pam Fitzgerald to Jim Shook to Tom Wright to Hodel -- I'll be more than thrilled," he says. "They've set a very high standard."

United we stand

While he pledges TANA's full support next year, Disney says independent dealers can start improving public perception of their companies right now by intelligently positioning themselves in their individual markets. "This is a people business. The type of consumers tire dealers should want to attract are those who are outlet-oriented, not price-oriented.

"A dealer who can build his business in that manner will have the greatest potential to weather all the changes and problems that come his way. And from there, he can have the luxury of determining what's most beneficial for him to sell."

The future of independent tire retailing and wholesaling is as bright as ever, according to Disney. "It never ceases to amaze me that there are always new people wanting to get into this. There will always be a place for the independent in our industry."

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