Investment, innovation and inventory: How Bob Sumerel Tire lives on the leading edge

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Investment, innovation and inventory: How Bob Sumerel Tire lives on the leading edge

Few commercial tire dealers will deny that trucking companies, regardless of size and application, are demanding more from their tire and tire service providers than ever before. But instead of lamenting this shift in customer demand, Todd Sumerel, president of Bob Sumerel Tire Co.'s Commercial Tire Group, has embraced it.

Many fleet decision-makers consider tires to be "absolute lowest-tier work," according to Sumerel, who has charted the Erlanger, Ky.-based dealership's commercial strategy for the last two years. "It's hard for trucking companies to hire full-time tire people. They tell us, 'You make sure my tire pressures are right, make sure the wheels on my trucks are torqued correctly, make sure I have a normal amount of inventory.' None of our big trucking customers are going to do any inventory or they'll keep very little inventory.

"Yard work is a huge deal. Road work is a big issue; if we don't have most of these guys up and rolling within an hour, they're on the phone wondering why."

The total package

Bob Sumerel Tire Co. was established as a single-location shop in 1968 by Todd's father, Bob Sumerel. Since then, the dealership has grown to more than 35 locations in Kentucky and Ohio, including 10 commercial-only shops and a number of combined commercial/retail outlets.

Todd's hands-on involvement in the company dates back to the mid-1980s, when he and his brother, Craig, who runs its retail division, began helping out at its retread plants and warehouses while in high school. During college, Todd trained in commercial sales and helped manage stores. This led to a post-graduation stint working in commercial sales out of Bob Sumerel Tire's Columbus, Ohio, shop for a few years before returning to Erlanger.

Dealing with fleets face-to-face convinced Todd that in order to achieve maximum commercial success, the dealership would have to offer customers a comprehensive package of products and services. While Bob Sumerel Tire's commercial offerings can be tailored to fit individual needs, "we're more successful when we have the whole program in place," he says -- and that includes retreads.

Competitive segment

"When a customer buys a retread, there are a (couple) of things he gets: one is the performance of the product, and the other is the performance of the dealer."

Bob Sumerel Tire operates four retread plants, one each in Erlanger and Columbus, Dayton and Zanesville, Ohio. The Zanesville location formerly belonged to Central Ohio Bandag Inc., which Sumerel acquired a year-and-a-half ago.

A long-time Bandag retreader, the company installed new equipment in Erlanger last year. "We replaced the shearography, bought a new extruder, a new monorail system -- pretty much everything. The only thing we didn't replace were the chambers."

The cost was substantial, says Todd, "but if we want to stay ahead of the industry and take care of the kind of fleets we want to do business with, we need to be out there on the leading edge."

Bob Sumerel Tire's competitors in the northern Kentucky/southwestern Ohio region include heavy-hitters like Premier Bandag, Dayton-based Gem City Tire and Newport, Ky.-based Sumerel Tire Service Inc., which is owned by his uncle, Tom Sumerel. "I wouldn't say the local market is depressed, but it's soft. There's a decent amount of customer loyalty, but every year as the economy gets tougher and there are different decision-makers, loyalty decreases.

"The retread business is very competitive overall. Goodyear has been more aggressive. Michelin has been more aggressive. The players who are still in retreading are stronger than they've ever been."

Casing prices have posed another challenge, according to Todd. "Right now in the casing market, people will want to pay a premium for a certain type of casing, maybe a low-profile, 22.5-inch virgin Michelin, Bridgestone or Goodyear that's three years old or newer. But once you get out of that three- or four-year window, casing prices drop down to nothing. There could be a $50 or $60 difference" between a new casing and an older casing. "There's such a huge spread."

Bob Sumerel Tire usually gets more than the market average for its retreads. "Our whole approach as been to give our customers the best service possible -- road service, pick-up and delivery, plus representing our company effectively and being professional. Those things have hopefully helped our customers become more loyal to us and have made us a better vendor to them."

Beyond the norm

Traditionally, Bob Sumerel Tire has built its commercial business by pursuing large national accounts like UPS, Ryder, Waste Management and others. "A lot of times, (bigger fleets) will push us to do things that we wouldn't normally do," such as second- and third-shift preventive maintenance. "If we're successful, we can take (those services) to small and medium-sized accounts and use them as a marketing tool."

One service Todd heavily promotes is the dealership's two-year-old in-house answering service that takes calls from downed truckers and dispatches service trucks to their locations. His answering people, who work from a third-party location, "know our business," which enables them to respond more effectively. "There are a few holes" in the service, he admits, like no Saturday night to Sunday morning coverage. "That's our slowest time. We've decided not to do that yet." Bob Sumerel Tire runs more than 50 service trucks throughout its network.

First things first

A firm believer in growth -- but only under the right conditions -- Bob Sumerel Tire has acquired a number of commercial dealerships over the last five years in addition to Central Ohio Bandag. They include Cheney Tire in Wilmington, Ohio, nearly four-and-a-half years ago; Tire Treads Inc. in Erlanger three years ago; Ken's Tire Service Inc. in Hamilton, Ohio, more than a year ago; and Dayton, Ohio-based Thompson Tire Service last summer. Cheney and Central Ohio also had retail operations.

"We think it's important to grow at the right pace," says Todd. "We have a strategic plan and the first thing (potential acquisitions) have to do is fit that plan. We're looking for companies that are well-run and are in their best years, rather than the opposite. We're also looking for what makes sense geographically."

Bob Sumerel Tire also is examining ancillary revenue streams like trailer lights and mud flaps. And the dealership is pushing its OTR tire service capabilities with new vigor. But its core commercial business and basic sales pitch will remain the same, according to Todd. "For most trucking companies, tires are the second-highest operating expense (behind fuel). We have to make sure we're showing people how we can help them.

"We're always looking for ways to improve and give better service. We have to do that daily."

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