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When you set out to accomplish a goal, the most daunting part is the beginning. It’s looking at the blank piece of paper, the immaculately clear whiteboard, or the empty, recently rented office space, and realizing that it’s time to start building something—as soon as you figure out where to start. Once something’s in motion, it often becomes clear what to do next, but starting it yourself is another matter entirely.
This is the challenge that Cooper Tire undertook in 2018 when it brought its heavy-duty truck tires—the Pro, Work and Severe series—to market. Before 2018, there was no Cooper-branded truck tire, and even with all that the company already knew about tires, starting a heavy-duty truck tire brand at the scale required to gain traction with fleets took a tremendous amount of work, imagination and vision.
It could have been easy to be gripped by that paralysis that so often comes when there are too many choices. The easiest way to avoid that is to have a plan. Cooper had one, and it’s starting to pay off.
Step one: Establish a brand
When you think about truck tires, it’s likely that certain brands immediately spring to mind. Now think about how long those brands have been around. You can play the same game with OEMs and suppliers. Well-known, established brands with a history rule the trucking landscape.
So entering the heavy-duty truck tire market in 2018 was a bold move for Cooper Tire when most of those other tire companies were formed closer to 1918. In Cooper’s case, while their heavy-duty truck tires were new to the industry, they came with a 100-plus-year-old name brand attached.
“The beauty of the Cooper brand is not just in the value and the performance that it can bring to a fleet, but that the brand recognition is pretty significant,” says Gary Schroeder, executive director of Cooper’s global truck and bus tire business. “It’s very rare that we’ll go in and talk to a fleet or a commercial servicing dealer and they don’t know instantly who Cooper is. They associate the name with value and longevity.”
Naturally, the next step for the new tires was living up to that reputation.
Step two: Developing the tires
Though they’ve produced truck tires aimed at the replacement market under the Roadmaster brand for more than a decade, the Pro, Work and Severe series are the company’s first time both using the Cooper brand name for truck tires, as well as in targeting fleets and heavy-duty national accounts. The Pro Series was launched in early 2018 and is aimed at long-haul fleets, alongside the Work Series for regional-haul fleets and the Severe Series for mixed service.
At the time of release, Cooper touted four design pillars of the Pro Series: low acquisition costs; improved tread life; improved fuel efficiency; and improved casing integrity designed for multiple retreads.
Achieving these results meant putting the tires through an extensive testing process.
According to Phil Mosier, manager of commercial tire development, who oversaw the development of these tires, this process started out with internal tests at Cooper such as endurance testing, rolling resistance and dimensions to make sure the tires are safe for the road and meet regulatory requirements.
“Then we have to take it to the next level,” he continues, “which is still somewhat controlled. We’d put it in a controlled fleet and do a level of treadwear testing or run it over gravel to see how it holds up to a rougher surface.
“Once we’ve put it through those paces, the final validation was putting it into the actual fleets,” he says. “We put out a significant number of tires and try to get a spectrum of not just one style of fleet, but different locations around the country and different road surfaces and different routes, so we could get a general feel for how the tire’s treadwear is going to perform.”
The Cooper team benchmarked the Pro Series as it went through development, pitting them against Cooper’s Roadmaster tires and their tier one competition.
“Halfway through, you might have to reset and say, ‘Okay. It didn’t do very well in this test.’ So you go back and go through a second set of prototypes,” Phil says. “It takes a while to get that really successful product.”
Test miles and performance data piled up to the point where the Cooper team had proven the product and were satisfied with the whole package—price, tread wear, fuel economy and casing integrity.
Cooper brought the Pro series to market slowly, starting with the drive tire in March of 2018, the steer tire in March of 2019, and the trailer tire that June. Gary Schroeder describes Cooper’s approach as “very deliberate, very surgical.” Cooper’s focus isn’t doing things quickly, it’s doing them correctly, which plays into the aforementioned testing process. Phil relates that the steer and trailer tires weren’t launched along with the drive tire because they had more testing to do and, simply, they weren’t ready.
“We are not going to put something out in the marketplace that doesn’t meet the criteria we set,” Gary says, “and we set that criteria based on the competitive set that we’re selling against.
“The level of sophistication which the fleets put their incumbent and prospective tires through is very thorough,” he notes. “You can’t survive in that business if you go in and try to sell somebody a bill of goods. You might look good for six months to a year, but then when they put the tires on and run them and they don’t live up to what you sold them on in terms of fuel efficiency or wear, you’re out. Those fleets talk, and word can spread.”
Step three: Get ready to compete
When you’re up against all these well-known, tried-and-true competitors, your sales pitch needs to be good. You need to be able to walk into a fleet that’s been using a competitive brand for 20 years and convince them that it’s in their best interest to change.
So what’s Cooper’s pitch? Gary says it’s all based around total cost of ownership.
Cooper has models that show prospective fleets four important facts: what they’ll pay for the tire; the fuel efficiency they’ll get over the life of the tire; the mileage they can expect to get; and the value of the casing at the end of the tire’s life. All of this data, Gary notes, is customizable to each fleet and its applications.
“When you compare the Pro Series to any incumbent, primarily the tier one tires, there’s enough evidence in what we share with them that the fleet’s interest is piqued,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s, ‘is this going to save me anything or not? And what does that mean exactly?’ That’s what it comes down to for the fleets.
“One of the things that to me has been a pleasant surprise,” Gary adds, “is that the fleets we’ve talked to are willing to change. I think it speaks to the sophistication that these fleets have. Yes, there’s brand loyalty, but they’re also responsible for a budget and a bottom line and they have cost saving targets they have to hit. They want to know how they can save a little bit more money to put it to the bottom line or reinvest it in driver pay to help with retention, for instance.”
Step four: Hold the fleets’ attention
Now that it’s been almost two years since the initial launch of the Pro series drive tire, how are things progressing?
“There’s a lot of interest in the Pro Series that we are seeing from fleets,” Gary says. “We’re excited about that, but we’re also patient about it because it’s a long selling cycle. To go into a fleet with 500, 1,500 or even 5,000 power units, they’re going to want to bring the product in and do their own fuel and wear testing on it. And that takes time.
“We designed our tire’s drives to go minimum 300,000, 350,000, or in some cases as high as 400,000 miles. It takes quite a while for a truck to put that many actual miles on it. But we’re really excited the types of fleets that we have signed up and are evaluating our product. We’re optimistic that in the course of the next few years, there’ll be more and more medium- and larger-sized fleets that will see the value in the product, begin to purchase it and spec it on new equipment orders.
“There are some fairly significant-sized fleets that have gone through that process of validating the performance of the tire, and have switched over from a competitive brand to our Pro series and our Work series,” he shares. “Sometimes they buy a little bit of both, which is good. We’re very early, but we’re really excited to see that everything that Phil and his team have done and said that the product would do is translating out into the real world.”
Step five: Keep your eyes on the road ahead
“Over the next two to three years,” Gary says, “our goal is to expand our reach with fleets in a very targeted way. We’re confident, over that timeframe, that we’re going to see evaluations of our tires finish and see that conversion or at least a portion of their tire buy coming over to Cooper—primarily to the Pro Series, some Work series as well. We continue to march down that path.
“We also think that regional P&D is going to be a rapidly growing segment driven by e-commerce,” he goes on. “We think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity over the next five to 10 years in that final mile space—so tires that are great on scrubbing and chipping and get abused pretty significantly. Not as bad as waste haul, but not that far behind.
“Something that we’re working pretty hard on is having a final mile solution for a fleet of not just Class 8 power, but one that’s buying vans and medium-duty trucks, and using a lot of 19.5-in. sizes and similar.”
Looking further into the future, it’s important for anyone in the trucking industry to have a plan for electrification, which continues to loom over the horizon—though no one yet knows when it will take hold or what form it will take when it does.
At first glance, it may seem that tires will be unaffected by electrification—after all, a tire is a tire is a tire. But there will be different demands being placed on the tires of electric trucks, and tire makers will have to be ready to meet those demands.
“There’s the potential that there’s a lot more torque on the tire,” Gary points out. “It depends on how the vehicle’s system is tuned and moderated. It could perform exactly like a diesel, but it could perform like an electric car, in which case you’ll start wearing tires out really quickly. Probably the biggest thing would be just how you configure the tread pattern so that you don’t get irregular wear.
“It’s something we’re actively tracking and looking at. But I think in general, people are still trying to figure out the whole electric thing. What is it going to look like? Where is it going?”
We may not know the answers to those questions yet, but it’s important to be prepared. No matter which way things turn out, Cooper plans on being ready.