Bridgestone OTR Tires Move Down the Technology Highway

April 13, 2018

Bridget Neal was named president of Bridgestone Americas Inc.’s Commercial Off-The-Road Tire Division last August. She is responsible for leading strategic planning, sales, engineering and global support for the company’s OTR business. She joined Bridgestone in 2002.

Modern Tire Dealer Publisher Greg Smith had the chance to sit down with her during the Tire Industry Association (TIA) Off-the-Road Tire Conference in February.

MTD: Where do you see the opportunities for growth?

Neal: I’ve been with the OTR group for a few years now. For us, we’re really moving down the path of technology. Having an intelligent product and a technology to lower the cost of ownership for our customers is our goal. We’re going to keep evolving around that.

MTD: The industry is entering a period of supply not keeping up with demand right now. How does Bridgestone balance allocation between OE and replacement markets?

Neal: We evaluate our customer demands on a regular basis and make changes to our priorities on an as-needed basis to meet our customer needs. At the end of the day those are our end-user customers. We balance to meet their needs.

MTD: When shortages happened in the past, people switched to bias tires to fill the gap. Are you seeing that yet?

Neal: We are seeing a pick-up in our large and giant bias tire business. It is a benefit for us to have the ability to flex between the two.

MTD: When your company launched its Aiken, S.C., OTR plant in 2014, the plans were to be producing 130 raw rubber tons per day and manufacture four sizes of tires by 2019. Where do things stand right now?

Neal: We’re speeding up production right now. We should be at full production by end of year of 65 raw tons per day. There is the potential to go to 130 raw tons per day, but it is not in the works right now.

MTD: Is your Bloomington, Ill., plant still primarily bias?

Neal: Yes, but we do have some 25-inch radials being built there.

MTD: During the conference, we saw a number of forecasts for the market size. What are your thoughts?

Neal: (laughing) I did forecasting early in my career. I was 80% accurate which was pretty good at the time. I mentioned this to coworkers who told me “you need to get better.” I told them if I was any better I’d go to Wall Street!

I do think forecasting is very valid. You have to do it. But, you need to get information from your boots on the ground, your sales team. We use both internal forecasts and external forecasts. It is quite difficult to forecast OTR tire demand because there is not one trigger to change things.

MTD: What do you do to make sure your dealers are competitive in the marketplace?

Neal: It comes back to solutions and having a solutions-based approach with our products and technology. This allows us to spend more time with our customers and have a meaningful conversation with them to help them lower their cost of business by increasing uptime. We drive this message with our dealers. We bring them in for training and explain this is how you pair the product and technology together.  We want to provide the best product with the lowest cost of ownership.

On the technology side, we put more in our dealers’ hands. Our PressureStat tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) is sold through the dealer channel so that is another revenue stream we provide to them.

MTD: What’s your opinion about tariffs?

Neal: We believe in fair trade and when on a level playing field we will compete with everyone.

MTD: Where does the small OTR segment fit with Bridgestone?

Neal: The small OTR side is still critical for our business. Not only having bias and radial offerings, but having a full line is important for our dealers to compete.

We invested in a Firestone tire last year and will expand it again this year. The Firestone VersaBuilt radial line is for the dealers, we don’t offer it to the OE side of business. This is to help our dealers compete in that smaller category. It gives them something to compete with on that side of the business. It’s just not quite the level of our Bridgestone line.

MTD: People seem optimistic near-term for the OTR business right now based on actions by the current administration. How do you view things?

Neal: We monitor the political climate, like the infrastructure bill. I am slightly optimistic right now, but not sure whether to be more optimistic about OE or replacement.

MTD: Are you looking at producing tires larger than 63-inch?

Neal: Not at this time. We certainly produce the largest tire in the world. We always look at the needs of the customer.

MTD: What have been your biggest challenges?

Neal: Building the team. I’ve hired Marisa to bring in a process-oriented person to focus on customer needs. (Marisa Blank was hired as the executive director of sales for commercial off-the-road (OTR) tires in February) She will be in charge of developing sales growth strategies for the mining and construction industries and related segments

Another challenge is the huge part that “digital disruption” plays on the market, and we talk about that a lot, not just at OTR, but commercial as a whole. We want to make mobility more efficient. How do we make a smarter tire with integrated technology? Where do we see that going in the next five years?

MTD: How receptive are the end users to this?

Neal: Right now, we’ve seen a change in the industry. Information is king. I’ve seen it in mining and the aggregate space. They want information to see if they are improving their uptime. We’ve seen customers be able to move more product by monitoring their data. We’ve helped them move more of their product through this strategy.

MTD: What’s most enjoyable aspect of your new position?

Neal: The people. It’s the people and the passion OTR people have.

Every day they look for ways to help customers. We’re focused on mobility, intelligent products and integrated technology and delivering it with our best-in-class dealers.

MTD: I was surprised that OTR recycling was so low. Why is that?

Neal: It’s a logistics issue when it comes to recycling the large tires. We need to think about how to do it. It is a very, very large tire that needs moved.

We have a little way to go. We’re focused on it and want to help the industry with it, but I’m not sure what that is yet.    ■

About the Author

Greg Smith | Publisher

A 36-year veteran of automotive trade publishing, Greg Smith has held various publishing positions at the management level. He has worked extensively on both the editorial and publishing sides of the business and is a recognized expert in the aftermarket and tire industries. As such, he is a frequent speaker at many industry events. He has traveled internationally as an advocate for the industries he serves.

Currently as publisher of Modern Tire Dealer, Greg is responsible for the brand’s business operations.  MTD is where Greg got his start, and through most of the last three decades, has led it to tire market prominence.  

To support education in the tire industry, Greg leads MTD in its sponsorship of the Tire Industry Association’s Certified Instructor Training Tour, a program designed to train the trainer in proper safety and step-by-step procedures for proper wheel installation. As further reinforcement, Greg created the Performance Handbook, a how-to publication on proper ways to mount, balance and work with performance tires. 

To help recognize outstanding tire dealers, Greg helped establish the MTD Dealer of the Year award over 20 years ago. The award provides a deserving tire dealer with recognition for accomplishments both within the industry and in the dealer’s local community. 

Greg helped launch Auto Service Professional magazine in 2010. The primary focus of Auto Service Professional is to provide high-level information to an audience of more than 150,000 automotive professional technicians whether they are business owners or technicians. 

From his early years in the market, Greg has been active participating on industry committees and boards. Among the early ones were APAA and ASIA, and has since participated in AWDA, SEMA, NTDRA, TIA and TANA.