This has been a challenging year for commercial tire dealers, even for large, well-established ones like Belle Tire Distributors. While the Allen Park, Mich.-based company is feeling the squeeze, it continues to invest in its already-substantial operations — in stark contrast to many dealerships that have pulled back in the face of rising operating costs and near-epidemic consolidation within the trucking industry.
This past June, Belle Tire began full-scale production at a new, 40,000-square-foot retread plant in Allen Park, a Detroit suburb. The plant — which currently produces more than 220 medium truck tire retreads per day — has been in the works for at least a couple of years, says Tom Bowman, vice president of Belle Tire’s Commercial Division.
“We discussed this as early as 2006. We looked at our locations, logistics-wise, and looked at our efficiencies, and felt that by doing this we would create more efficiencies.”
Belle Tire ownership, which includes company CEO Bob Barnes and President Don Barnes Jr., decided to close two existing retread shops — one in Detroit and the other in Redford, a Detroit suburb — and consolidate the plants’ production into the newly conceived facility. (Both plants had been picked up through an acquisition that Belle Tire made in the mid-1990s.)
The company then acquired “an empty shell” of a building, as Bowman describes it, in Allen Park. Working with Bridgestone Bandag Tire Solutions, it began installing new, state-of-the-art equipment this past April. “We put in 20 hours a day to make sure things went correctly,” says Bowman.
The plant produced its first retread in late May and was firing on all cylinders by June 1. Several months into the venture and thousands of retreads later, Belle Tire officials unanimously agree that the decision to launch a new plant “was a smart move,” according to Bowman.
“We’re investing in our own future; we’re showing the industry that we’re here for good. But more importantly, we’re investing in our customers’ future. We’ve invested in the latest technology and equipment, and they can be sure that once a retread leaves our plant, they’re not going to have a problem with it.”
Once the decision was made to build the Allen Park shop, Belle Tire officials scrutinized 18 different plant configurations before settling on a final layout, says Doug Engle, commercial operations manager for the company.
The plant is set up to facilitate the flow of casings through the retread process with minimal waste of movement or time.
Each casing that arrives at the shop is marked with a date in order to track cycle times, according to Engle. Workers send marked casings to one of three initial inspection stations, where they are checked for damage. (Belle Tire has left room for a fourth inspection station if the need arises.) By this point, all casings have been bar coded. “We then color-code our bar codes” according to the final destination of each finished product.
Casings are placed in Bandag 7400 Insight Casing Analyzer shearography machines, a critical stage in the production cycle, says Bowman. “Shearography is required by certain customers. UPS requires it; so does Waste Management. Certain machines can catch nail holes and stuff like that, but shearography shows you anomalies. It saves a lot of trouble down the road.”
Casings that pass the shearography test are transferred to one of three buffing stations. Buffers are the most expensive machines in the plant, according to Engle. “Each system has its own buffing radius,” he says. “You have to load it into the machine’s computer.”
From buffing, casings go to skiving stations. (Smoke generated during the skiving process is pulled away by a special ventilation system.) If a casing needs to be repaired, it’s bypassed into a repair area.” The plant has four repair stations that can accommodate two casings per station. After repair, casings are sent to the plant’s single extruder. “We have plans to run two extruders,” says Engle. “We extrude our own rubber,” which is stored on-site.
Next, casings are staged by tread style and are sent to one of four builders. After the building process is completed, workers place casings in envelopes and send them to one of five curing chambers. Each chamber is equipped with an exhaust system that pipes exhaust to the outside of the plant. Chambers also are outfitted with valves that capture and direct heat back into the shop as an energy-saving measure.
Cured retreads then proceed to the final inspection station, where they are branded and labeled before being staged for shipping. Retreads are grouped based on which Belle Tire location they will be sent to.
All work stations in the plant are carefully arranged to maximize through-put, says Bowman. “We’re capping more tires than we were out of the two plants and we’re only running one nine-hour shift right now.” The Detroit and Redford plants produced around 260 units per day, combined.
Belle Tire will add a second shift at the facility, which will more than double its output. While the plant uses more rubber than its predecessors, it has yielded significant savings in energy and manpower expenditures. And it’s next to Interstate 94, the longest east-to-west interstate in Michigan.
“We have to look at ways to get leaner,” says Bowman. “Margins are very skinny on the commercial side of the business. We have to make sure we’re getting a return on our investment.”
Watch and learn
The new plant in Allen Park gives Belle Tire four retread shops: two in the greater Detroit area, one in Toledo, Ohio, and another in Cleveland, Ohio. (All of the dealership’s commercial and retail locations are in Michigan and Ohio.)
The new shop also gives Belle Tire another selling tool as the company has taken customers and prospects through the facility. The dealership conducts 10 to 12 tours at its retread plants each year.
“A lot of customers haven’t seen a retread plant,” says Bowman. “That’s why I encourage our customers to come to our plants.
“I truly feel that once we get our customers through our plants and they can see the process from start to finish, price becomes less important.”
Plant tours have proven to be effective sales tools with prospective customers. “When somebody is deciding who or what process they’re going to go with and we do a plant tour, we’re 95% successful” in winning that company over. “Now they’re putting the face with the name, they get to know the plant manager — it’s very important. This is a relationship business. I’m a firm believer that fleets should find out who they’re doing business with and what that company’s all about.”
Bowman adds that plant tours have been particularly effective in light of flat retread sales and margins, as well as rising raw material costs, which the company has been forced to pass along to its clients. “It’s important to get customers into our plants so they can see what we’re putting into it. We’re not just out there selling a product; we’re selling a system."