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Oldies but goodies

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Oldies but goodies

I tell people we sell a few tires out of an old barn between two corn fields out in the country.” If there was an award given for Understatement of the Year, Ed Miller would be in the running to win it.

In addition to selling medium truck, passenger and new farm tires, Miller’s dealership, M.E. Miller Tire Co. in Waueson, Ohio — which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2010 — may very well be the largest distributor of antique farm tires in the country, possibly the world.

In the close-knit realm of antique farm equipment collectors and restorers, where word-of-mouth is king, the company is the definitive source for out-of-production rubber.

Need a front tire for your 1938 Allis Chalmers B? Miller , who runs M.E. Miller Tire with his sister, Bev, can get it for you. Looking for a rear tire to replace the old, worn-out rubber on your 1955 John Deere 40? Ed’s your man.

“We’ve always specialized in ag tires,” says the easy-going Miller, who once farmed the ground on which his shop now sits. “We know the farm tire market.”

Blast from the past

Farm tire sales and service comprised 67% of M.E. Miller Tire’s business in 2008. Antique tire sales made up 47% of that percentage.

The dealership’s antique farm tire business has come a long way since 1989, when Ed read an article in Successful Farming magazine about a farmer who used old tractors — equipped, naturally, with antique tires — to till his fields.

In the same issue, Ed also read about a big antique tractor swap meet to be held in Iowa later that year. He decided to attend the event.

[PAGEBREAK]“I just got bombarded with people asking for this tire or that tire — stuff they couldn’t find. When I got enough inquiries about a certain size, I went searching for it to find out who made it or who could make it.”

Miller struck up an exclusive distribution deal with a firm that had secured licensing agreements with Bridgestone/Firestone and several other tire companies to make reproduction antique tires.

To get his fledgling vintage tire business off the ground, Miller began advertising in antique tractor enthusiast publications.

He also began attending antique farm equipment shows. Starting with one show 20 years ago, M.E. Miller Tire now has a presence at 15 shows each year. “In February we start in Florida. Then we go from Florida to New York and Pennsylvania to Kansas.”

Like most enthusiast conventions, farm equipment shows vary in size. Miller only sends his troops to the big ones. “Financially, it has to pay our way.”

At these meets, he tries to position his dealership’s booth directly across the aisle from where show tractors are displayed.

Up to 40 antique tires are trucked out to each show. All of the tires have been purchased already. Miller and his staff simply hand them off to customers.

“We advertise in the magazines the shows we are going to and take pre-paid orders, so what we take has already been sold. We don’t do any mounting at all. We just deliver the tires to the customers, who put them in their pickup trucks and go.”

Miller says the shows also are lucrative from a networking standpoint. Attendees who don’t take delivery of tires at the events often contact him later.

[PAGEBREAK]High-tech marketing

Going to swap meets is just one way M.E. Miller Tire markets itself. The company also does brisk business selling antique tires and related items like rims, valve stems and even buckets of tire paint on eBay.

Miller was inspired to use eBay after Bev, who collects memorabilia from the 1950s, successfully used the service to unload several items from her collection.

He set up an eBay store, which costs around $20 a month to maintain.

“We all work at it. When I come into the office in the morning I’ll print off the eBay orders, then someone else will enter the orders in the computer. Someone else will make out the invoices and pull the tire, and someone else will ship the tire out.”

At press time, Miller had 443 items up for auction.

He only accepts PayPal transactions. (PayPal is an eBay-owned e-commerce service that facilitates payments and money transfers made through the Internet.) “I don’t ship anything until it’s paid for.”

Once the dealership receives payment, the item is shipped immediately, which has earned Miller’s eBay store a customer feedback score of 100%.

“You have to work at that. You have to ship the stuff right out.”

Miller’s presence on eBay has garnered inquiries from all over the world. “We ship to a lot of customers in foreign countries who restore old American tractors. They want the American tread designs. I also stock European tractor tires for people in the U.S. who restore European tractors.”

The dealership has processed orders from antique tractor enthusiasts in New Zealand, Sweden, Columbia, Norway, the Netherlands, Australia, Brazil, Greece, Denmark, England, Argentina, Guam, Germany, Israel — even Tahiti.

Some foreign buyers have even traveled to Wauseon to buy tires. “There are groups of people who will come over from Europe and will spend a couple of months in the U.S. going from one place to another, buying parts.

“There’s a company that sends containers of antique tractors to Europe. Customers will call us and have us ship tires to the place that’s shipping the tractors and have the tires put in the same containers. The market is not large, but I have the biggest piece of it.”

Miller has collected and restored antique pickup trucks so he understands the collector mentality. “I get excited when people want antique tires for their antique tractors.”

[PAGEBREAK]No-till? No problem!

Supplying antique farm tires has evolved into a profitable niche for M.E. Miller Tire, but new farm tire sales and service remain the firm’s bread-and-butter.

The new farm tire market has changed drastically over the years, according to Miller. For starters, fewer machines are in use, which means wheel positions are at a premium.

“Every farm had many different pieces of equipment with tires on them,” he says. “The main tractor they plowed with had tires... the discs, the cultivators, the sprayers. They had to have a loader tractor for hauling manure. They needed manure spreaders and a bailer, and bail wagons, hay mowers and hay rakes. All those pieces of equipment had tires.”

The switch to no-till farming — which forgoes soil disturbance in favor of leaving crop residue and other organic matter on the soil’s surface — has played a major role in this development, he explains.

“Farmers go out and maybe chisel (the soil’s surface) once, then plant, spray and harvest. They don’t plow the ground and disc it up to get it real fine anymore.”

In addition, fewer farmers are farming more acres. “We have a customer and he, his son and one hired man use three large, four-wheel-drive tractors. They rent a lot of farms to get the acres they need. They once figured that their three large tractors replace 40 small tractors. It has changed the inventory we carry.”

New farm tires can be ordered through M.E. Miller Tire’s Web site, www.millertire.com, one of the first sites listed when you Google the words “tractor tires.”

Miller also obtains exposure for the dealership by participating in online chat room discussions.

“If there’s a question about a tire, I’ll answer it. People ask questions, and some will even refer other people to our Web site, so I don’t have to say anything. They say it for me!

“I also have a link exchange with a lot of Web sites. I’ll link to their site and they’ll link back to me at no charge.”

In addition, the company has developed a profitable sideline supplying tires for tractor pull contests. Tractor pull teams are extremely particular when it comes to tread designs, says Miller.

Some will even ask him to alter tread elements to fit their performance specifications. Miller’s son, Jeremy, serves as the firm’s “custom tire-cutting” specialist.

“For farm use, you want a good, deep tread so you don’t spin your tires. But on the track, you want a real shallow tread so you get the bite but don’t tear up the track.”

The dealership’s participation in tractor pulling has led to new and antique tire sales. M.E. Miller Tire sponsors a two-man pulling team from Wauseon. The company’s name is featured prominently on the front bumper of the team’s truck.

“They’ve been pulling for 21 years and have won the Grand National Championship 11 times.”
It’s just one more way to reach customers, says Miller, who also sells autographed die-cast replicas of the truck for more than $100 a pop. “And it’s a lot of fun.”

[PAGEBREAK]Good, clean fun

“Fun” is a word you hear a lot at M.E. Miller Tire, which has 10 full-time and seven part-time employees, some of whom have been with the company for 20-plus years.

“I just went to a class reunion,” says Bev, “and I said, ‘It may sound boring to be in the tire business, but we have a lot of fun — not just selling people tires, but the whole thing.’”

The Millers’ enthusiasm is summed up in Ed’s custom license plate, which bears the acronym CWFM. “It means Can’t Wait for Monday!” he says. “I’ve always said, ‘If you find a job you enjoy, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

That’s been the Millers’ credo for nearly 40 years, and as long as there are tractors — new or old — that need tires, they intend it keep it that way.    ■

Low-tech marketing: Ink, paper and postage still do the trick, says Miller

The Internet has generated a lot of publicity and sales for M.E. Miller Tire Co.’s farm tire business.

However, the company’s old-fashioned newsprint catalog remains the most effective vehicle for reaching older customers, according to co-owner Ed Miller.

M.E. Miller Tire prints 60,000 catalogs each year “and we immediately mail out 45,000.” The catalog lists more than just tires; it also lists rims, tire repair kits, bead breakers and other items.

The publication even contains a shipping chart.

“Everyone always asks, ‘How long is it going to take to get my tire?’” says Miller.

While most antique tractor enthusiasts are patient, he has a few customers “who may be getting their tractor out for a parade and find out they have a flat tire, so you have to overnight them a tire or a tube. You’d be surprised how many times we get a last-minute request for something like that. And they will pay a premium for next-day air.”

M.E. Miller Tire makes an electronic version of its print catalog available on its Web site. “We’re still dealing with an older clientele — retired farmers, that type of thing — so we’re not ready to give up the paper catalog. We send that catalog out and within four days we’re getting phone calls.”

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