Chris Whetzel

Battle of the brands

Sept. 3, 2015
With more tire choices than ever, manufacturers fight for market share, and fleets are the ultimate winners

As major tire manufacturers reintroduce once-prominent brands in the quest to gain market share, compete with offshore entities, and meet fleet needs for both cost-efficient and fuel-efficient tires, fleets have more choices than ever before, but is that a good development?

Miles to removal, durability, tread depth and retreadability all must be addressed. Just as importantly, though, is the question of which brand to support. Michelin? Goodyear? Bridge­stone? Continental? Those are the most well-known. How about BFGoodrich, Dayton, Double Coin, Firestone, Giti Tire or Yokohama? Maybe you have a preference for Benchmark, Joytour or Triones?

Haven’t heard of some of these brands? Don’t feel bad. At last count, there were nearly 200 different tire brands, many of which are overseas imports, from which to choose. If you are looking for a SmartWay-verified tire, good luck. There are over 650 such tires. Even narrowing the list to just the most prominent brands still leaves dozens of manufacturers from which to choose.

“There are some lower-cost tires out there that we are not going to carry because drivers are not going to get the life or ride they want out of them,” says Gene Kanzigg, tire program manager for TA Operation, which operates Travel Centers of America truck stops and Petro Shopping Centers. 

One of the big differences between brands, according to Kanzigg, is the construction. “Most all your [Tier 1 tires] have a four-belt package under the tread,” he says. “When you get into the Chinese tires, one of the reasons they are cheaper is they have one or two fewer belts.”

Ryder System has a large vehicle fleet and purchases thousands of tires each year. As a result, Scott Perry, vice president of supply management and global fuel products for the Fleet Management Solutions business segment, has plenty of experience with tires. He says many fleets are focused on the ability to retread.

“The expectation is that [there is] a casing robust enough to retread two or three times,” he says, adding that Ryder tends to stick with Bridgestone for its new tires and Bandag for its retreads. But, Perry quickly adds, Ryder typically has anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 tires from various brands in its fleet for evaluation.

Also consider brand reputation, Perry advises. “You may be rolling the dice a little bit as to whether that [lower-cost tire] even makes it to a DOT removal point.”

The number of manufacturers has blossomed in recent years. Consequently, each brand can no longer sit and wait for fleets to come to them. They must actively market their tires, tout their advantages, and be visible. In short, we have entered an age where the battle for market share has led to more choices and more tire-related services, all to a fleet’s benefit if it can just wade through the rolling sea of rubber.

Going back to Kanzigg’s point about the various tiers of tire brands, each manufacturer must promote its tires and services in the best light. In the case of Goodyear, it’s a “total package solution” that includes tires, retreads, services and even business tools “to help fleets lower their operating cost,” says Brian Buckham, general manager, commercial tire marketing.

Because each fleet is different, designing a single set of tires to meet all needs is impossible. “When designing truck tires, Goodyear believes that it is important to achieve the right balance between low rolling resistance, traction and tread wear,” says Buckham. “At Goodyear, we refer to this as the ‘performance triangle.’ Our tires are designed to deliver different performance benefits, depending on application.”

With more than a dozen tires SmartWay-verified already, Goodyear is looking at introducing a Fuel Max trailer tire later this year so that it can offer a “super-fuel efficient tire for every long-haul wheel position,” says Buckham. The company is also applying that same approach to its retreads with SmartWay-verified options in the Fuel Max line.

“In addition to industry-leading tires and retreads, such as our new Fuel Max and Endurance tires, Goodyear offers, through our Goodyear-Fleet HQ suite of business solutions, best-in-class services, including 24/7 emergency roadside service,” says Buckham, who also notes the advantages of a large service network of over 2,200 locations.

Like Goodyear, Michelin maintains a top-notch reputation among fleets. To remain there, though, takes a lot of work to develop products and services that fit fleet needs. “Michelin provides a total solution for fleets and truckers,” the company says. “We not only offer a complete line of high-quality tires and retreads, we also offer a suite of services to maximize fleet uptime.”

Tires, service and maintenance

Those services include Michelin OnCall 2.0 emergency road service, preventive light mechanical maintenance through Michelin Truck Care, and preventive tire management through Michelin Tire Care.

With a line of fuel-efficient, SmartWay-verified tires, including the X One line, Michelin says its tires are designed to be long lasting and durable. For fleets focused on retreading, “robust casings” help lower their overall cost of ownership.

“Our unique benefit is that we are able to maximize multiple performances at the same time,” a company spokesperson says. “So, fleets and truckers get the best of all performances; they don’t have to sacrifice one benefit to get another.”

For instance, many may choose a tire based on upfront cost, but that tire may have a shorter lifespan. Mike Graber, senior product manager-truck tires for Toyo Tires, says fleets that buy on price alone could face a competitive disadvantage.

“The most significant risk is that lower cost per mile may be the ultimate trade-off,” Graber says, adding that fleets purchasing a tire because of a lower price may lose out on product advantages such as fuel efficiency, mileage, retreadability, and casing durability.

As Ryder’s Perry notes, fleets that don’t consider a tire’s total cost of ownership may pay more in the end through higher maintenance-related costs and shorter tire life. If you choose to go with a second- or third-tier tire, Perry says a strong tire maintenance program is a must. “You must be extremely diligent in managing all the other things around that tire. You can’t control the construction of that tire, but you can control inflation. You can control vehicle alignment.”

“Most of your major brands have national account programs with roadside programs or relationships with service providers,” TA/Petro’s Kanzigg says. These programs could potentially reduce service costs due to tire failures, many of which may be due to debris and out of a fleet’s control.

And that’s where companies such as Bridgestone, Goodyear, etc., may have an advantage. For Bridgestone, which offers the premium Bridgestone line in addition to the mid-level Firestone and Dayton brands, national accounts play a prominent role. But so does the ability to offer fleets of all sizes the option to purchase tires that fit their budgets. Each brand, though, fits its own unique niche and each has its own identity, says Matt Loos, director of TBR for Bridgestone Commercial.

“Each of the brands has been set up to make sure they have their own identity,” he says. For Dayton, the key word is “respect. It’s designed to appeal to the owner-operators and small fleets. At Dayton, it’s about providing that value.”

Firestone is more of a “retail brand,” as Loos notes that customers tend to make their purchases in conjunction with their local dealers. Bridgestone is dominated by larger fleets serviced through its national accounts program.

“They are larger fleets, they are nationwide, and they are looking to us to support them [and provide tire-related solutions],” says Loos of the Bridgestone customer. Still, a Fire­stone or Dayton customer has specific needs as well.

“There are customers who gravitate to an affordable tire, and there is nothing wrong with that. And that’s what’s great about having Dayton because [fleets] have access to fuel efficiency [attributes], and they have access to SmartWay tires,” Loos says.

Bridgestone customers can tap the company’s national account program, points out Loos. “[Tires] are an investment and many fleets look at them that way,” he says. “There are a lot of great tires out there, but one of the things that separates them is the manufacturer behind the tire.”

National fleet programs, though, can add cost to the purchase price of tires, advise several manufacturers.

Patrick Gunn, director of sales and marketing, Commercial Tire, for Giti Tire, which markets and sells GT Radial tires, says that the brand offers a lower cost per mile “without compromising quality.” But to do that, there has to be a trade-off. In this case, it’s the national fleet program, although that can have advantages for fleets, he advises. “We do not have a national fleet program that requires subsidizing by our dealers,” Gunn says. “This enhances profitability for our dealers who can pass along the related savings directly to their fleet customers.”

Driving down costs

Others, like Continental, try to position themselves as a premium tire company that provides overall value, including national programs. The company offers 30 SmartWay-approved tires plus 8 SmartWay-approved retreads.

“Continental’s driving philosophy and position is to offer the fleet the lowest overall driving cost,” says Prosser Carnegie, head of brand management-CVT, Continental Tire the Americas. “Fleets are looking for tires that provide safety first and foremost, a means to optimize their overall costs, and increase their efficiency.”

Continental touts fuel efficiency, retreadability and durability of its tires. To help achieve these attributes, the company standardized its 3G casing across all axle positions, meaning that “new Conti EcoPlus HT3 trailer tires are built with the same 3G casing that our Conti EcoPlus HD3 drive and Conti EcoPlus HS3 steer tires are,” Carnegie says. “The advantages are that a fleet can retread our trailer tire in a drive position, where traditionally trailer tires were reserved for retreading only in the trailer position.”

Carnegie says the final decision on which tire to buy is based on a business case. “This is comprised of several different factors and not just on the performance of the tire, but can include the services and support that a tire manufacturer can provide,” he says.

When most people think of the top tire brands available, the names roll off the tongue—Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear, Michelin, etc. But that doesn’t mean other brands don’t belong in the conversation, and from a quality standpoint, the difference between number one and number 20 may not be as large as you think.

“Yokohama has long been recognized as one of the most, if not the most, retreadable tires in the industry,” says Rick Phillips, Yokohama vice president of sales. “A quality casing is the foundation upon which we build all of our commercial tires. We also have one of the most fuel-efficient tire lineups on the market (10 SmartWay-verified tires). This is something Yokohama has always made a priority.”

When making its sales pitch, among the items Yokohama focuses on are cost per mile and nationwide availability. “When we talk to fleets around the country, one of the first things they ask is where to get our tires,” Phillips says. “It’s great to tell them we have almost 1,000 certified dealers and truck stops across the U.S. The fact so many of the best dealers in the U.S. carry our products is a testament to the product itself.”

Phillips echoes the comments of others when it comes to buying on price alone. “The list of trade-offs is long, but [fleets] should think about two words and make sure these are not on the list,” he advises. “First is quality. If a tire is cheap, it’s usually because something has been taken away from it and very rarely do you make something better by subtraction. Second is safety. This should never be compromised.”

A newer, relatively speaking for a company that is over 115 years old, entry into the commercial tire marketplace is BFGoodrich. Part of Michelin, the brand first launched its commercial operations in 1996, but it has quickly built upon its company’s history of quality tires that are durable and provide even wear, good traction, and retreadability, the company says.

With several SmartWay-verified tires (two steer, a drive and a trailer option), BFGoodrich believes it has the products and quality for which fleets are looking. Just as important is the value its tires provide. “We differentiate the BFGoodrich brand by providing the right combination of product benefits, product quality and cost with respect to target end-user needs,” says the company. “Fleets should take into consideration their overall business needs such as uptime and operational efficiencies and evaluate those against what tire brands are best suited to support their business needs on both a tire and service level.”

Other tire makers focus their sales pitches around the word value. Double Coin Tire’s Walt Weller, vice president of CMA/Double Coin, says his firm offers “value tires that provide performance competitive to major brands at a significant discount to major brand prices.”

Value can still mean quality

That doesn’t mean fewer of the attributes that fleets want, though. “Double Coin tires offer all the benefits that major brands offer at a significant discount to major brand programs,” he says. That includes the things fleets are most asking for: national pricing, long tread life, retreadability and fuel economy, over 1,000 points of sale in the U.S. and Canada, and service agreements with many of the largest tire dealers and retreaders in North America.

Tread depth and tread patterns are also important. While a tread pattern may look the same on two different tires, it may not be the same quality, Weller advises. “Many inexpensive tires have tread patterns that appear very similar. For example, in the case of drive tires, some manufacturers offer similar tread patterns but upon examining the specs, we find that they are offering significantly less tread depth,” he says. “The difference between 22/32s and 30/32s is huge and may make what looks like a bargain a very expensive tire to acquire. The only advantage is a cheap [upfront] price.”

Toyo Tires also approaches its marketing efforts from a value perspective. “Toyo commercial tires combine top-tier product performance, application versatility, and a competitive acquisition point for a lower cost per mile,” says Graber. He adds that Toyo’s tires come with a comprehensive warranty and 66-month retreading policy that includes casing allowances for two retreads and a retread rubber allowance.

With seven SmartWay tires covering all positions, fleets can also expect fuel efficiency, the company notes, while still addressing many of their tire-related concerns.

Roadmaster’s approach is more simply stated: “customer-centric.” That means designing commercial tires at affordable prices, and it includes six SmartWay-approved models.

Roadmaster also offers various trailer tires, including the RM272 model designed specifically for drop-deck trailers. To exemplify its approach to tire quality, the company detailed the RM272 development process.

“As much as 60% of the 5,000 lbs. that drop-deck trailer tires carry transfers from the footprint to the shoulder rib of the front axle tire on the inside of a sharp turn,” the company says. “This loading and scraping can potentially tear the shoulder rib, which can cause big chunks of the tread to rip off. With 3,000 lbs. of lateral force now concentrated on the shoulder rib, any tire that’s not designed to handle this kind of abuse can experience significant damage.

“When the RM272 was in development,” the company continues, “we tested its performance against three types of concrete surfaces to match difficult real-world conditions, including concrete with exposed limestone, and grooved bridge decking. These tests enabled our engineers to validate that the tire’s durability and performance levels exceeded everyday operating conditions.”

GT Radial also tries to focus attention on its quality products.  “The wider the tread, the better; our Equal Force Carcass technology enables an optimum tire footprint and equal force distribution, resulting in better control and regular tread wear,” says Gunn. The company also pays considerable attention to stress areas during the tire construction process.

When marketing tires, Giti touts its products, which currently include a steer, drive and trailer tire that are SmartWay verified with two more on deck for verification this fall, as rugged, durable and retreadable products that are “designed to far exceed the load and capacity requirements of the market.”

Gunn warns fleets that buy on price. “The lowest price offering generally [results in] compromises in quality and materials,” he says. “You must define technical parameters, differences and comparable indicators of the products you are considering. These include tread width, belt layout, casing cords, bead structure, contact area and under tread depth. Let the buyer be aware. If it seems too good to be true, it generally is.”

In the end, as Ryder’s Perry and several of the tire manufacturers suggest, tires can’t be bought on price alone. In other words, break through the sales pitches and perform due diligence. It just might be the ticket to lowering tire expenses, which is the best selling point of all. 

About the Author

Brian Straight | Managing Editor

Brian joined Fleet Owner in May 2008 after spending nearly 14 years as sports editor and then managing editor of several daily newspapers.  He and his staff  won more than two dozen major writing and editing awards. Responsible for editing, editorial production functions and deadlines.

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