100 Years, 9 Editors: And Still Focused on the Independent Tire Dealer

Aug. 8, 2019

There have been nine editors of Modern Tire Dealer in its 100-year history. Nine. Not even double figures in editors. Must be a great job!

Our first editor, Jerry Shaw, was figuratively at his desk for almost 35 years when he died. If he was still alive, I think he would still be editor, and I would be the longest tenured senior editor in the magazine’s history. As it is, I have been editor for the second longest period: 19 years. (The photo of me on this page is from 2000.)

Shaw was involved in the formation of what is now the Tire Industry Association, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. He was deservedly inducted into the Tire Industry Hall of Fame in 2006.

Here is the list of the nine editors.

  • Jerry Shaw, August 1919 through May 1954
  • Phil Robinson, June 1954 through September 1958
  • Ernie Zielasko, October 1958 through July 1971
  • Charles Slaybaugh, August 1971 through November 1975
  • Stephen LaFerre, October 1976 through May 1979
  • Greg Smith, June 1982 through March 1985
  • Dave Burkhart, April 1985 through July 1986
  • Lloyd Stoyer, September 1986 through July 2000
  • Bob Ulrich, August 2000 through…

You will note that from December 1975 through September 1976, and from June 1979 through May 1982, MTD had no top editor, yet the magazine continued publishing an issue every month. That is very humbling, when I think about it. So I am going to stop thinking about it.

To celebrate our official anniversary — our first issue was published in August 1919 — I have interviewed the living editors about not only their time at the magazine, but also their thoughts on independent tire dealers. Modern Tire Dealer, which started as Tires & Accessories, has been focused on helping independents run their businesses more profitably since day one, longer than any other publication in the U.S.

When I started preparing for this editorial a few years ago, there were five living editors, including myself. Unfortunately, one of the editors, Steve LaFerre, died on Jan. 27, 2018, shortly after I talked with him. He joined the magazine in 1967, working his way up to the editorship by October 1976.

He and Slaybaugh were involved in the hiring of Greg Smith, now MTD’s publisher, and Smith was involved in hiring me.

Slaybaugh was hired and mentored by the late Ernie Zielasko, who was editor from October 1958 through July 1971. Under Zielasko’s tenure, the magazine’s name was changed from Tires TBA Merchandising to Modern Tire Dealer. He later founded Rubber & Plastics News and Tire Business, and was elected to the Tire Industry Hall of Fame in 1993.

Charles ‘Chuck’ Slaybaugh

When Slaybaugh joined Modern Tire Dealer in 1964, the offices were in the process of being moved from New  York, N.Y., to Akron, Ohio. At that time, Akron was headquarters to four of the “Big Five” original equipment tire makers: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., General Tire & Rubber Co. and B.F. Goodrich Co.

“My friends would ask, ‘How can you write enough about tires to fill a monthly magazine?’ I asked myself the same question,” he said.

His concerns proved unfounded. “In what turned out to be a career of more than three decades since, I can’t recall a single instance in which the amount of news copy was inadequate to fill the book.”

It didn’t take long for Slaybaugh to learn how spirited a tire-oriented news beat could become when a small group of retreaders and suppliers banded together to hold the Louisville Retreaders Conference in competition with that held by the Washington, D.C.-based National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association (NTDRA).

“This infuriated the NTDRA, which demanded MTD take an editorial stand condemning the formation of a second national tire dealer group and, perhaps even more importantly, the fact that ARA (American Retreaders Association) was holding a rival trade show in competition with NTDRA’s,” he said.“NTDRA’s Executive Director Bill Marsh summoned forth his group’s cadre of state dealer/directors to pressure MTD to champion its cause. The dealer/directors responded with a telephone blitz angrily objecting to the magazine’s ‘lack of loyalty’ to NTDRA. For days the telephone rang almost non-stop.

“Marsh flew to New York demanding that Bill Brothers (Publishing Corp.) fire Zielasko if necessary to bring MTD into line. MTD’s editor refused, contending that in a free market, trade shows should not be prevented from competing with existing competitive associations.”

Remember when…

Important issues from the memory of editor No. 4

Charles “Chuck” Slaybaugh was editor of Modern Tire Dealer from August 1971 through November 1975. He was the magazine’s fourth editor in 52 years.

However, he started with the magazine in 1964, and remained with the magazine for more than six years after being named editorial director in December 1975.

Here is his list of events “that kept (MTD) busy” over the decades he was on the staff.

  • Two dealer associations
  • Federal tire safety regulations
  • Tire makers compete with independent dealers
  • Private brands vs. name brands
  • Confusing tire fitment specs
  • Changing tire reinforcing materials and constructions
  • Radial tires lead to turmoil in the market

He also compiled a short list of important industry-related developments with which he and the MTD staff had to contend.

They included concern for tire and brake safety (“era of Ralph Nader”), competition from tire manufacturers (“tire makers frequently retailing with its own dealers”), and the entry of radial tires in North America (“and North American tire makers not prepared to compete”). 

Steve LaFerre

I emailed LaFerre, who freelanced for me after he retired, the questions for this editorial. He had only finished answering two of them when he died.

He said Washington, D.C., became the new focus for everyone in the tire industry during his days as editor.“From mahogany row to independent tire dealers, we were uncertain if new tire standards were needed or not. Our reporting and writing assignments revolved around new tire standards, then later truck tire standards, and still later retreaded tire standards and tire recalls, which were wildly out of control at times.

“It felt like the film Armageddon. Just when the MTD staff thought the final new tire standard regulation was ready for implementation, we learned quite the opposite.

“As more and more House hearings ensued, congressional and editorial deadlines came and went,” he said. “It was a difficult time for reporters and legislators alike.

“The National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association was helpful, as was the American Retreaders Association. Still, there were more meetings, calls to Washington insiders, and interviews with Joan Claybrook, the ‘dragon lady,’ and Clarence Ditlow III, who were added contact points for many tire journalists. Slowly, D.C. and Akron began working together.       

“When the dust cleared in the late seventies and early eighties, all of us from top to bottom knew we had done the right thing. Tire standards did need revamping. And newer, longer-lasting, safer, stronger radial-ply tires became the choice of American consumers.”

When asked, “What is the key to successfully running an independent tire dealership in 2018?” his answer was succinct, at least at first.

“In a word, education. Require your suppliers to send highly trained business and technical advisers to your dealership on a regular basis to train your people.”

If you knew LaFerre, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn he had trouble answering anything “in a word,” especially when he was given the chance to help independent tire dealers. Here are two more of his suggestions.

“If you purchase new alignment equipment, you can cut down amortization costs by keeping your new investment in use every business hour of the day. Customers will appreciate your attention to detail by offering alignment service.

“Here’s another thought. The worldwide news cycle has changed. Dramatically! Reinforced by consumer cell phones, most with cameras and video capability, Hollywood producers, politicians, talk show hosts and other dignitaries have paid a high price for alleged transgressions.

“Ask human resource people to prepare a review of your company’s protocols regarding customers. One misstep could put you out of business. You don’t want a local or national TV news crew waiting for you after your early morning coffee. Set boundaries for everyone on your payroll. No exceptions.”

Lloyd Stoyer

Stoyer, now in his early 90s, was enthusiastic when I sat down with him in the latter half of 2017. I took over for him when he retired in 2000.

“As editor, I’ve had to put up with Greg Smith for 17 years!” I told him during the interview.

“You have my sympathy,” he said.

A longtime newspaperman, Stoyer joined MTD in September 1986 and stayed until he retired in July 2000 following the sale of our magazine to Bobit Business Media Inc., a family-owned business. He was elected to the Tire Industry Hall of Fame in 2000.

In his first MTD editorial, Stoyer had some advice for tire dealers based on a fresh experience shopping for tires: “Take an objective look at your business from the customer’s viewpoint. Attracting customers may not be as difficult as you think.”

He ended up paying $50 more for a set of tires — a fortune for him, as I recall — because the people at the dealership were well trained and he liked the way he was treated. “They convinced me the extra cost was worth it,” he wrote.

“Before I even looked at tires, the salesman asked me three questions:

‘What do you expect from the tires you buy?’

‘What kind of driving do you do?’

‘How long do you expect to keep the car you’re putting them on?’

“He figured the price of the tires installed on the car, including the cost of balancing and valve stems, whereas other salesmen I had talked to quoted the price of the tire alone and slipped in the extras later.”I asked him what he thought were his strengths as editor of the magazine. He said he liked writing about tire dealers.

“I liked to look into specifics, things that the dealer was doing to be special and different, not just in general. I was always looking for a different aspect, a different strength or weakness.

“I didn’t always have the greatest thing to say about some of the dealers. But I wanted the magazine to be different enough to be noticeable. I went out of my way to be different because I didn’t want to run just another dealer story. I wanted there to be a reason somebody would be interested in that story.”

When dealing with tire manufacturers, he said he always tried to be honest and fair. “Sometimes I think I pissed them off!

“Nobody is perfect, and I’m sure I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have, but I did try to be fair.”

Greg Smith

Smith has been with the magazine in one capacity or another for 40 years. Truth be told, he was de facto editor after LaFerre left. He even wrote editorials as managing editor.

He learned a lot about the business side of running a magazine from former Publisher and President Bernie Kovach, his mentor.

“He knew that the industry was all about people and connections,” said Smith. “If you made a promise, you kept the promise.”

Smith started with MTD before radial tires made up half of the replacement passenger tire market in the U.S. He remembers how much radialization changed not only tire manufacturing, but also the retail tire dealer’s business model.

“Radial tire technology made many existing tire factories in the U.S. obsolete,” he said. “As a result, domestic manufacturers tried to compete against European and Asian tire makers who had newer plants and a jump-start on radial technology.

“This meant that the traditional hierarchy of the tire manufacturers changed, with acquisitions becoming the norm. It also spelled the beginning of the end of many private brand companies. Dealers had to change who they bought tires from and how they bought them.

“The change from selling primarily bias-ply tires to radial tires on the consumer side of the business meant longer periods of time between visits by customers. Dealers turned to automotive service to keep their bays full.”

Competition remains fierce, but the challenge has come from different segments, he said.

“Mass merchandisers were a threat to tire dealers, then warehouse clubs, then car dealers and now manufacturers attempting to sell directly to the consumer along with controlling their own distribution of products.

“With this backdrop, how independent tire dealers handle the internet, online sales and social media will help determine how they stay relevant. But the most successful tire dealers have always been those who pay attention to their customers and surround themselves with great people. It’s also a given that a dealer must have a strong entrepreneurial spirit.” 

His greatest claim to fame may be the creation of the Tire Dealer of the Year program.

“Being able to recognize the accomplishments of tire dealers and to make donations to so many worthwhile charities — some of them local charities — in the name of worthwhile tire dealers has been very humbling and satisfying at the same time,” he said. “Everyone who has been a part of this program deserves a huge thank you.”

And the rest

I would be remiss if I didn’t give more than a nod to the other editors who are no longer with us. The first three, Shaw, Robinson and Zielasko, were highlighted in a story we ran as part of our 50th anniversary celebration in the July 1969 issue. A reprint of this story, written by John Hartman, president of MTD’s parent company, Bill Publications Inc., can be seen below. That leaves just one editor unaccounted for. Dave Burkhart joined MTD in relative secrecy as managing editor during the summer of 1983. By that I mean there was no announcement of his hiring.

He became our seventh editor in April 1985 and left after our July 1986 issue. In announcing Burkhart’s promotion, Kovach said his efforts “figured significantly in MTD’s redesign and in the upgraded image of the magazine.”

In a year and four months as editor, Burkhart never even wrote an editorial. He managed to stay off the grid before there was a grid! “Burky really understood human dynamics,” said Smith. “He was at his best at the NTDRA convention. We would visit hospitality suites, and while I was talking with the hosts or one of the guests, he would quietly work the room. At the end of the evening, he would know all about the important relationships among the dealers and between the dealers and each supplier. It really helped us understand what was going on in the industry.”

Burkhart hired me as assistant editor in 1985. I knew there was plenty of interest in the job, and assumed I was chosen because I was the most qualified. Or at the very least I must have had a special quality that placed me at the top of the list, right?

It was neither of those things. A year after I joined MTD, he and I were talking about the hiring.

“So, I must have been the most qualified,” I said.

“No, all of you were equally qualified,” he said.

“Then why did you hire me?” I asked.

“You were the only one to ask for the job,” he said.

And that is the advice I give to anyone applying for a job. It certainly led to an exciting, satisfying career for me.

Thanks, Dave.    ■

If you have any questions or comments, please email me at [email protected].

We often say that publishing is a “people” business; that our assets walk out the front door every evening at the end of the business day.

Never was this truer than with Modern Tire Dealer.

In its 50-year history, MTD has had just three editors: Three men whose dedication to — and love of — the industry has been the driving force behind this magazine. Each in his way was Modern Tire Dealer.

Many have served MTD well over the years, but the story of this magazine is essentially the story of its editors: First, Jerry Shaw; then Phil Robinson; and, for the last 11 years, Ernie Zielasko.

Jerry Shaw was editor of MTD for 35 of its 50 years, from 1919 to 1954. MTD had a different name in those days, (Tires) but what may have been its most common name was never on the masthead: For years, until well after his retirement, Modern Tire Dealer was always “Jerry Shaw’s book” to many persons.

Jerry came from the school of the old automotive industry newspaper men who cut their teeth when the first cars went on the roads. Jerry was learning the elements of his trade as far back as the 1908 Glidden tour.

He covered bicycle racing for the New York Sun. Then came the days of automobile racing: Road racing, and, with the development of the Indianapolis Speedway, track racing. And Jerry covered it all.

Jerry became automobile editor of the New York Tribune in 1911 and, in 1919, he assumed editorship of a new magazine called Tires. At the time, the tire dealer had no publication to represent his point of view. He had no organization to speak for him collectively. He needed both vitally. And Tires, under Jerry’s direction, provided them.

In 1921, the National Tire Dealers Association was formed. The initiative came from “Jerry Shaw’s book.” Jerry, himself, toured the country in the group’s first membership campaign and was a real force in creating the original association from which the present National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association (NTDRA) grew.

Philip E. Robinson, who became editor in 1954 after Shaw’s death, came to the magazine from the staff of NTDRA on which he had served as director of public relations for three years.

A native New Englander, Robinson brought to MTD a broad background in communications that served him well during his 4 years as its editor and ever since. He left the magazine in 1958 to accept a position with Tyrex, the association of rayon manufacturers and, later, spent eight years with Beaunit Fibers Division of Beaunit Corp., one of the association’s members. Today, he is manager of market development for St. Joseph Lead Co. in New York City.

Robinson left his mark on the magazine in the form of a number of important editorial improvements. Perhaps the most noticeable: Turning the front cover into an editorial rather than an advertising page (most publications in those days sold the front cover for advertising purposes).

Today, Modern Tire Dealer bears the stamp of its third editor, Ernie Zielasko.

I will not try to write about Ernie’s many strengths and virtues. You know better than anyone of his contributions to your industry.  And, anyway, I know him well enough to know that he would only frown, mutter “Puffery” and blue-pencil it all out.

But Ernie is a leader in two businesses. Not only is he a key figure in the tire and rubber industry, but a top-flight editor and publisher in the business publications field. And I think I can slip it by his blue pencil if I praise him by praising his magazine.

Modern Tire Dealer has always been a leader, but never so much as in the decade of the 60s.

MTD early sensed the need for tire dealers to broaden their base of automotive services. Its long-standing crusade to convince tire dealers to profit from a wide range of under-car services contributed materially to strengthening the independent dealer in the face of growing competition.

In 1965, Modern Tire Dealer pioneered a new concept in business journalism by becoming a newsmonthly magazine. By adopting the running editorial format made famous by weekly consumer news magazines, MTD brought its readers the perspective and depth of a monthly magazine with the conciseness and reading ease of a weekly.

Modern Tire Dealer has been a forum for the leading men of the industry. Not only do the top men of the industry express their views and opinions in MTD, the magazine has been the “home” of regular columnists like Doug Clephane, retreading expert Ivan Taylor, and the late Bill Sewall.

The corporations who advertise in Modern Tire Dealer have recognized its basic excellence by making it the leading publication in the industry. Its steady gains, year by year, have paralleled its constant editorial growth.  

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.