ITRA looks to next year and beyond: Training, legislation remain key issues

Nov. 1, 2001

The International Tire & Rubber Association (ITRA) is clearly an organization in transition. The group will experience a major personnel shift at the end of the year when longtime Executive Director Marvin Bozarth steps down. It has postponed its next World ITRA Expo convention and trade show until 2003 in favor of hosting a series of regional events starting next year. And the association faces the challenge of meeting the needs of its members in ever-changing markets.

Modern Tire Dealer recently sat down with Bozarth ITRA Director of Training Kevin Rohlwing , and ITRA President Tom Raben (left to right in photo) to discuss the group's agenda for the remainder of the year, 2002 and beyond.

(Since this interview was conducted, ITRA and the Tire Association of North America announced they would merge in mid-2002, pending the approval of their members.)

MTD: What is ITRA's current focus?

Bozarth: The biggest thing we have going is the ITRA Certified Tire Service (CTS) program. It continues to grow.

Raben: As of October 2000, we had 565 instructors and 2,565 technicians. This year, through Sept. 13, we have 734 instructors and 5,636 technicians. There's such a need in the industry for training.

Bozarth: There are so many things a tech needs to know how to do, and if you do them wrong, you can get hurt. It's really frightening how little some people know.

Raben: (The CTS program) is a humbling experience for these guys in some cases. They've been doing it for 20 years and find out they really don't know it all and they're glad to find out what they didn't know. Everyone learns something from it.

MTD: Are there any modifications or changes planned for the program or are you satisfied with the way it is right now?

Rohlwing: The program is updated every month through our Commercial Tire Service Update, which goes out to instructors and technicians. We'll never say (the program) is finished because you can't foresee changes in the industry or equipment or wheel systems. The program fits the needs of the day, but it's designed to react to changes.

MTD: Are there plans to extend training to cover other commercial products, like OTR tires, for example?

Raben: For the time being, we have a full boat taking care of the program we have. This is where there are the biggest numbers of industry people and where the exposure is the greatest. But we've looked at other areas.

Rohlwing: What a lot of people don't realize is how much work goes into putting a program together. You just don't sit down one weekend and come up with a bunch of ideas. It takes months of getting information, getting people together and working with so many different organizations. In a lot of cases, we're going to be creating information from scratch. There are very few written standards for OTR tire service from the tire manufacturer level.

Raben: We won't roll out a program until it's a first-class program.

MTD: The next World ITRA Expo will be in 2003. What was the reasoning behind that decision?

Bozarth: The economy was slowing down a little bit, there were a lot of mergers going on and suppliers cutting back on their expenditures for exhibits.... It was kind of the wish of our exhibitors, really.

Raben: We also know that a pretty high percentage of the membership that attends the conference doesn't necessarily attend every year. So our thought was to have a bigger show during an alternate year and make it better as a result.

MTD: ITRA is planning a series of regional seminars that start next year. What purpose will they serve? Will they simply be technical training seminars or will you supplement them with classroom-type sessions?

Bozarth: Basically, they'll be everything the trade show would be without the exhibits. There could be more plusses on the training side and informational sides, and, of course, you have to look at what the needs are in the industry (and) what people want to hear about.

MTD: If these seminars go according to plan, do you foresee a time when they may replace the World ITRA Expo?

Raben: I don't think that's the point of them at all. The regional seminars would try to take the learning process to the people as opposed to trying to get everybody to come to us once a year.

Rohlwing: People need to see the equipment; that's a big part of the Expo. It's difficult to buy an expensive piece of equipment without seeing it. The Expo offers that opportunity...

Bozarth: ...especially to the small dealer. A lot of times a supplier will send an airplane to a large dealer and bring him in to see equipment, but a little guy doesn't always get that opportunity.

Rohlwing: A lot of retread equipment made here in the United States is exported; you'll find a lot of our exhibitors are very enthusiastic about the international attendance at our show. The people who come from overseas want to see the tools and equipment. I don't think you can ever replace that. We're just trying something different.

We're going to start off with some regional CTS classes -- two consecutive days in a city, same class repeated, so a company can send a part of their workforce one day and the other part the next day. Right now, we're finalizing details on the cities and locations. You'll see dates in January and February especially, since that's such a slow time (for dealers).

MTD: How do you go about increasing ITRA's membership every year?

Rohlwing: A big part of it is the CTS Directory. We just did the Great American Truck Show (in Dallas, Texas) and talked to hundreds of owner/operators, and every one of them was happy to see that book. We include directions right to (dealers') front doors so a lot of them can avoid road service charges. We're trying to encourage trucking companies to go to ITRA members for their tire service.

MTD: Any other initiatives or strategies to increase membership beyond the directory?

Bozarth: The OSHA program is... one that can reach out to school bus fleets, municipalities -- (groups) that aren't even in the tire business; they just happen to mount tires.

The CTS program is for people who are doing work now: experienced techs. The OSHA program is for everybody, (including) the guy you hired off the street yesterday who told you he knows how to service tires and never even mounted (one). It gives you step-by-step procedures required by OSHA with all the basic tools available today.

Rohlwing: Before you can literally let a new hire touch a tire/wheel assembly, you have to make sure he's trained in those areas required by OSHA.

Raben: This association, for so long, has been a retread association. It still represents retreaders, but in addition to that... it now has appeal to thousands of people who can see value in all our programs, where before they just looked at the retreading side. There's no doubt about it, that group (retreaders) hasn't increased at all; they're on the decline -- you have fewer shops doing more tires.

Rohlwing: And I don't know how you can be a commercial dealer and not offer retreads; the two are absolutely dependent on each other.

MTD: During the past year, ITRA has taken an active role in legislative issues...

Bozarth: ...we always have.

MTD: Are there any special projects on ITRA's plate right now? We know you've responded to invitations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for comments and feedback.

Rohlwing We're always at their disposal. NHTSA knows that if they need more explanation all they have to do is pick up the phone. We're very much in tune with what's happening in Washington, and if anything comes up that will have any effect whatsoever on our members, we'll be on top of it.

MTD: Earlier this year, MTD quoted Tom as saying, "The industry has to keep pace with what's going on." What are some of the major challenges facing commercial tire dealers and retreaders, and what is ITRA doing to help them?

Raben: Training needs, and we'll be involved in (legislative) issues that will adversely affect us.

Bozarth: We also try to focus articles in our Tire Retreading/Repair Journal to (help) retreaders and commercial dealers understand regulations and safety issues and how to become more efficient in their production.

Raben: So often, we're perceived as strictly an association that's related to retreads; really, we're not. We're evolving. We're addressing commercial needs, which is a big piece of the industry.

Bozarth: A lot of times you think you know what's going on sitting here talking on the phone. But until you're out there with the guys in the trenches or listening to what they're saying, you don't.

MTD: Will you consider working with other related organizations or associations?

Rohlwing: We actively participate in (the American Trucking Associations Inc.'s) Technical Maintenance Council.

Bozarth: We serve on the Rubber Manufacturers Association's Retread and Repair Materials Committee.

MTD: Do you see synergies with other groups?

Rohlwing: If the right opportunity was there and it was good for our members and their members, absolutely.

MTD: Are there any internal changes taking place within ITRA, like personnel shuffles or streamlining, that we should know about?

Bozarth: We eliminated our technical director's position (in April); that was Bill Gragg. Bill is on contract with us now to do training and special projects. I'll probably do something similar to that -- working on special projects maybe an average of two days a week, promoting training programs and helping with conferences and workshops. As far as anything else, I don't think a decision has been made.

MTD: How is the search for Marvin's replacement coming along? When can we expect a new executive director?

Raben: We're interviewing people. It would be our hope by the first of the new year.

MTD: ITRA knows as well as anyone that this is a dynamic industry; it's always changing and it's tough to predict what will happen next. Where do you see the domestic commercial truck tire industry and/or retread industry going? Will there be more consolidation?

Raben: Without a doubt. To be in retreading... you can't be a real small retreader today and still make it if you don't have equipment that's on par with what the big guys have. The commercial side of it is pretty much the same way. And all the infrastructure you need to do business -- I don't know how you can do that if you don't have the critical mass to justify it.

Bozarth: One-source billing, one-source warranty, one-source service...

Rohlwing: ...and the liability that the tire dealer faces on a daily basis will only increase over time. You hate to say it, but most dealers in this country are probably a major accident away from some serious financial problems.

Bozarth: There's no such thing as an accident anymore; it's a product liability claim.

Rohlwing: And if you can't show documentation (of training), you're going to be hurting.

Raben: (The industry) is changing, but if you're in it and working with the changes day to day and have an entrepreneurial spirit to go with the flow, the opportunities that are here today always will be.

Rohlwing: Good service will always triumph.

MTD: Where do you see ITRA one year from now or five years from now?

Raben: I see us moving from a strictly retread (group) to an association that addresses the needs of a much bigger market. I see us getting stronger.

Rohlwing: You'll see continued growth in membership, instructors... you'll see an organization that is reacting to the times. If a new regulation or technology comes up that changes our business, this organization will be in place with a solution for our members. That's why we're here.

Learning from experience: Focus on strengths, says Bozarth

Marvin Bozarth, a 43-year tire industry veteran, is retiring as executive director of the International Tire & Rubber Association at year's end. Modern Tire Dealer asked him for his words of wisdom on the following topics:

MTD: What has been the most significant change in the retread and/or commercial tire business during the last 40 years?

Bozarth: The development of the steel radial truck tire. (It) brought about complete new concepts for retreading and caused precure retreading to evolve as the predominant system worldwide.

MTD: What is the biggest challenge looming on the horizon for independent retreaders and/or commercial tire dealers?

Bozarth: To maintain profit margins that allow independent dealers to remain in business. Small dealers will find it extremely difficult to compete with large companies that offer nationwide warranties, billing and service programs. Small dealers who are not affiliated with major brand companies will find their customer bases dwindling somewhat. This could be a positive trend for smaller retreaders as it prompts them to pursue small accounts with niche marketing that provides larger profit margins.

MTD: What is your advice for independent retreaders and/or commercial tire dealers who are just starting out?

Bozarth: Be prepared to work long and hard to develop an acceptable customer base. Focus on the items and services that are most in demand, and don't try to diversify too much. (For retreaders), produce only the popular tire sizes that generate a good profit margin and leave the odd sizes for someone else. Try to develop a product or service that is unique and focus on a few areas you do exceptionally well.