MTD Exclusive: Ball Discusses Cooper's Priorities for North America
As president of Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.’s Americas division, Chris Ball is focusing on three areas: retail expansion, “which is aimed at getting our products exposed to more consumers across the marketplace;” communicating Cooper’s brand message to a wider audience; and “building out our partnerships with our distributors and getting access through our retailers, whether they are large nationals or independent retailers.”
In this exclusive interview, Ball elaborates on the above initiatives. He also discusses Cooper’s strategy at the wholesale distributor level, how emerging vehicle technologies could impact Cooper’s product development, the role that tire dealers will continue to play in the company’s growth and more.
MTD: You mentioned retail expansion as a core initiative. Can you elaborate on what you’re doing there?
Ball: When we talk about that term, what it really is is making sure consumers - no matter where they choose to buy tires or how they choose to buy tires - have access to Cooper. That strategy encompasses everything, from how we look at our distribution footprint - both the Cooper facilities we have, as well as our retailers and distributors - and how we make sure they have the right tires in stock and make sure they are ready to supply, and also looking at it geographically and across the marketplace: where do we have great access and where do we not have strong access? A lot of the work we have been doing is looking at all the different channels and all the different ways that consumers purchase, and making sure we have solutions and offerings across all of them.
MTD: Is the independent dealer channel still your biggest replacement channel?
Ball: The way our business has been built has been, in large part, with independent tire dealers. Our business is a lot more diverse than where we originally started, but I will tell you that we are absolutely committed to - and have an orientation toward - our associate dealer programs. The thing I also will say is we were really pioneers (with) the Cooper Medallion and Mastercraft Century programs. That’s something we continue to invest in. Within that retail expansion strategy, a large number of increases have actually come from independent dealers who look at Cooper as a great solution. Independent tire dealers are absolutely part of our retail expansion strategy, as we look at other types of channels.
MTD: Cooper brand tires are available via several online, e-commerce platforms and systems. Can you talk about what you’re doing in the e-commerce space? Has that been a successful channel for Cooper?
Ball: I view e-commerce as one piece of a larger strategy around making sure we understand all elements of what we call the consumer purchase journey and making sure that we’re bringing solutions not only for the consumer, but also making sure our partners - who might be e-commerce, a website and a brick-and-mortar store, or just purely brick-and-mortar - have some of the best tools we can develop. The attributes that make the online purchase successful also can be applied to the type of information that a consumer would be looking for when stepping into a store.
MTD: So the goal is to drive online buyers to Cooper dealers, who will then perform installation?
Ball: It depends on the consumer. There are maybe consumers who would much rather transact digitally and there may be some who would rather do research and be recommended to a dealer. Our objective is to meet the consumer where they are and help provide the right type of information and let them select the right Cooper-manufactured product.
MTD: There’s been a flight to value-tier products in the wake of the economic shock of COVID-19. How does that play into Cooper’s brand proposition and what you’re trying to accomplish at the retail level?
Ball: We think our products provide a great value, regardless of the economic situation. Cooper is always a great value and always something we think is a good choice. We have more and more consumers who, we think, might be looking for that great product at a great value, and that’s the sweet spot we occupy.
MTD: Can you elaborate on initiatives surrounding your brand? The Uncle Cooper/”Go With the Coopers” campaign launched last fall. Has it been successful, in your eyes?
Ball: We’re very pleased with the early read on the campaign. As we went and looked at different options and the ways different manufacturers were speaking to consumers in the market, the space we occupy - which is a great product at a great value - wasn’t something that was being talked about in a way where consumers could play that back. ‘Go With the Coopers’ is exactly what we hear when our retail partners are recommending our product. So the campaign is really all around bringing out what has always been the core of our brand. We have these great products. They’re well-known. You can trust our company. We become that easy solution and it helps all of our retail partners at the point of purchase to be able to get that reinforcement to the message that they’re already (communicating) to the consumer.
We’re focused on making sure that the Cooper brand message and product access continue to be a key focus. We think there are a lot of consumers who don’t have as easy of access to the product as they could. And we also think there’s a lot of room for us to continue to have more consumers be aware of Cooper and having us as a primary choice, not only when they’re at the counter, but when they walk into the store. Brand really does matter in the tire business. It’s extremely important to make sure you’re dealing with not only a brand you trust, but that you’re purchasing from a dealer who can guide you through the process. In a complicated environment, consumers want to latch onto things they can trust and understand.
MTD: What’s your strategy at the wholesale distributor level and how does that compliment your strategy at the dealer level?
Ball: Distributors are a core piece of how we go to market. As we all know, the tire selection out there is huge. There are so many SKUs and so many different vehicles. We view our role as providing great tires, making them available to the marketplace and partnering with people who can either take them directly into their own distribution network or partner with us to distribute it. Our distributors play a huge role in driving our associate dealer programs. But we also have a number of distributors that help with fill-in and secondary supply. We look at our distributor partners as giving us full coverage to continue to get our Century and Medallion programs out into the market and to make sure they can provide access to maybe some of the tires that our larger retailers might not have in their core assortment. We’re very fortunate to have a number of very strong, capable partners.
MTD: Cooper recently picked up space at Max Finkelstein, which is a big development given that company’s size and reach. Are you planning on signing any other major, regional distributors?
Ball: We’re very fortunate that the Cooper value proposition - whether it's our Cooper brand, our Mastercraft brand or our Starfire brand, from a more entry-level type of product - has a great solution for any partner. We’re always looking at making sure we have access to the market. Generally speaking, we’re very pleased with the partnerships we already have. And there are markets where I think we have the opportunity to invest and grow. It’s part of our larger focus on how we make sure we’re always watching the marketplace. You may see changes, but really, it’s driven by the consumer - not by picking somewhere to go, just to go there.
MTD: On the original equipment side, Cooper has been very selective in the fitments it pursues. Will you continue along those lines?
Ball: OE is going to continue to be a key part of our technology and development process. We still - within the NA market - will primarily be a replacement business. That really is where we’re centered. Our value proposition works very well in the replacement market. But we will continue to invest with our strategic partners, from an OE standpoint, and look at that not only as a brand- building and technology-building opportunity, but also as a way to make sure that we’re having an eye on what’s happening in the automotive market and the new changes that are coming. We’re working on a much more consumer-centric product development process. What the OE product development process does is it gives us another lens into what consumers are asking for and helps us round out our overall perspective on building great tires.
MTD: What are you hearing from your OE customers and how does that inform the technology you’re infusing into your products?
Ball: I can tell you there’s a lot of big vehicle trends being discussed right now. There’s fleet and ride sharing. Electric vehicles (EV) are a big topic. Feedback we get from our OE partners, from our field and even from our own testing - all of that goes into how we develop our next generation of tires. I really view tire development as part of an ecosystem that we’re building, with the consumer at the center. The input we get from any one source is put through the consumer filter.
MTD: How do you feel electric vehicles will change the landscape of the tire industry?
Ball: It will be interesting to see how fast they’re adopted. There’s no question there’s going to be a move toward the EV market. But what we really see is that the performance requirements - as you look at how the tire handles and the types of attributes the consumer is looking for - does change a bit within the EV product. As the market starts to shift, I think EV (tire design and performance) demands are going to be variants of what we have with internal combustion engine vehicles, and we will have options for both.
MTD: Does that mean new technology on the tire development side?
Ball: Not necessarily all-new technology, but a different mix of existing technologies. I do think that over time, it’s going to require some innovation on how we make sure that we’re dealing with higher torque and making sure we understand how the noise profile changes. The batteries also create a different weight profile. There are going to be performance attributes we’ll have to modify. Another big trend is autonomous vehicles and how that will change the predictability of how cars handle. We’re keeping an eye on these different trends and making sure that within our technology pipeline - either with current products or future products - that we’ll be prepared for those things, which consumers are going to expect.
MTD: Can you walk us through how you view all the brands in Cooper’s portfolio?
Ball: I’ll start with the Mickey Thomspon brand. The legacy of Mickey Thompson as a disruptor in the industry and coming up with breakthrough concepts continues to this day. We have some very progressive sizing and also have some products that really break the norm, in terms of what you’d expect from a tire. The Dick Cepek brand comes right along with that. Cooper obviously is the premier brand we offer. Within both the Cooper and Mastercraft portfolios, we have a broad range of (products) going up into some more premium price points, as well as going down into some more value price points. Starfire doesn’t stretch quite as high. We have an incredible amount of breadth and depth we can offer. And every product that we offer stays true to our core values, which are great products at a great value, backed up by great service.
MTD: I want to shift gears a bit to talk about the current state of the market. Dealers are telling us that their business has rebounded tremendously versus five months ago. Can you tell us what you’re hearing from dealers, in terms of demand at the consumer level?
Ball: Demand has begun to return. There’s more demand out there. And there’s also likely some pent-up demand that might have been delayed during the second quarter. Generally speaking, I think we’re in a better position now. And I think we’re in a spot where - depending on how much consumers return to the road - there could be some underlying trends that could help give us a more stable demand, if not a little bit of growth, as we go into next year.
MTD: How’s the production ramp-up at Cooper's plants coming along?
Ball: We have ramped up some facilities. We’re still in the process of ramping up others. But we are back in production at all of our manufacturing facilities right now and we continue to look at demand to make sure we’re meeting that.
MTD: What are the top questions dealers are asking you and your team?
Ball: One of the primary ones is, ‘What are you doing to continue to support your associate dealer programs?’ and the good news is, a lot of that information is already out there. That’s a key one. Another one is around product availability - making sure we have the right products available at the right time. You’ve heard the news about our distribution center in Mississippi that we opened. We also have a distribution center that will be moving locations (in Indiana) and will give us more capability. What customers are really saying is, ‘Are you going to be there when I need you? Do you have the right product assortment and line-up?’ We’re able to respond with a resounding, ‘Yes.’ We have a lot of great products coming down the pipeline and we continue to stay focused on our dealers and dealer programs.
MTD: Looking ahead to the next few years, pandemic aside, what are some of the biggest challenges tire dealers will face?
Ball: One thing I’ve been really appreciative of is the overall response that our industry has taken (in response to COVID-19), when you look at the safety measures our retail partners have put into place and the way that everyone is working together to make sure they provide a safe, reliable experience for consumers. I also give huge credit to our distribution partners and retail partners who didn’t shut down during the pandemic. I am confident that the resilience they’ve shown will be used going into the future.
I think the second big piece is that SKU proliferation and product complexity is likely not going to get better. So how do we, as an industry, work to make sure we have the right solutions available for consumers, but also make sure that we can get it to them in a way that’s very smooth and seamless? That challenge keeps becoming more difficult the more we try to use our existing systems to be able to provide those tires. The reliance that we have on our customers and the strength of our forecasting and how we deploy products are things that will continue to be key points of emphasis.
MTD: I imagine forecasting must be especially difficult right now…
Ball: We’re very fortunate to have long-standing partners and great collaboration. We really feel great about the discussions we've been having and the open and honest dialogues we’ve had. We really view that as a best practice. I think that everyone has been forced to take a more frequent look at the business, and it’s not just the frequency. It’s also the depth of preparation for the unknown that has had to be increased - making sure you have a contingency for the contingency, which changes the need to make sure the business has the right back-up plans and the resiliency built into (our operation.) And also watching things evolve… being able to change and pivot as you react is very important. I think our whole industry has shown a lot of resiliency and capability in dealing with those unknowns.
MTD: Are you introducing any new products in the near future?
Ball: At the SEMA Show last year, we introduced the EnduraMax, which is a very innovative product that takes a lot of our off-road technology and combines it with on-line performance. We think it speaks to some consumer needs that are out there. As we talk about our new product launches, you’re going to see more and more focus on how we can take these consumer insights and bring them to the market in a way that really surprises and delights consumers, on top of providing solid performance. We have new products planned every year, so we have new products coming.
MTD: Will there be an effort to refresh your product screen more frequently?
Ball: We have been focused a lot on our technical development capabilities and we see a significant acceleration in our ability to introduce products. We've built new skills and capabilities with how fast and how reliably we bring new products to market. I would say the new product cycle time capability for Cooper has improved and we’ll continue to refine that.
MTD: Cooper has made significant investments in its Roadmaster commercial truck tire program over the last few years. Can you elaborate on that? How is the Roadmaster program developing?
Ball: The TBR and commercial side of our business is a key piece of where we’ve been focusing and investing - Roadmaster as well as the Cooper brand we launched just over two years ago. We think we have an incredible value there. If you look through any lens - whether it’s the total cost of ownership or the breadth of our portfolio - we think we have a winning value proposition. And the team that is leading that group has been doing a great job of getting the message out there and being able to get access to those places that frankly are under-served segments of the market, but are perfect for the Roadmaster and Cooper solutions.
MTD: How do you segment the Roadmaster truck tire brand versus the Cooper truck tire brand?
Ball: Roadmaster is a successful replacement tire line and also is used for certain original equipment applications, such as trailer fitments. The Cooper brand is focused on fleets and is an OE brand in that space.
MTD: Are you making investments in your commercial truck tire dealer network concurrently with investments in your consumer tire dealer network?
Ball: The same type of focus we have on providing access to product in the passenger tire segment is the same type of work we’re doing on the commercial side. We’ve identified where we have opportunities in under-served segments we think will do very well if they have access to our products.
MTD: You clearly have a vision of where you want Cooper to be. How do you want the brand and company to be perceived and do you think Cooper is there at this point?
Ball: I’m very proud to be part of this organization. We have great people. I feel like I’m working with a group of people and an organization that deserves to win in the marketplace. I think we’re at a moment right now where a lot of the additive work we’re doing is starting to open up the beginnings of opportunity as a company.
Being a great manufacturing organization with great partnerships provides a great foundation and that’s a gift we appreciate every single day. With that being said, our story hasn’t been told in enough ways to get enough people to understand what an incredible company Cooper is and what incredible products we offer. How do we make sure that this great legacy will continue to grow and get into more people’s minds and homes than before? That’s what keeps me motivated every day.
MTD: What role will independent tire dealers play in Cooper’s future success and helping the company capitalize on the opportunities that are ahead?
Ball: They absolutely will continue to be a cornerstone of our business. At the end of the day, consumers will choose the way they are going to shop and we believe a significant number of consumers will continue to go to independent dealers who have built long relationships with them, who will always steer them right and will always be there for them when they have issues. Our job is to make sure we’re there to support all of our partners.
MTD: What will be some of the biggest challenges for tire manufacturers over the next couple of years, from your perspective?
Ball: I think Cooper is a little different than some of our competitors. We’re very much in a moment where we think we have a brand that offers incredible value and offers a lot of opportunity. Our biggest challenge is making sure we’re getting consumers access to the product and making sure we’re building our reputation with the consumer and also with our partners to make sure we’re the product of choice.
“As we’ve framed up our strategy over the last couple of years, one of our core tenets has been making sure we’re building upon the great work the (Cooper) team has done,” he says. “All of our North American team is focused on enhancing our capabilities and building off this fantastic base.”