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Cooper Tire deal would allow Goodyear to go all-in on America

During more than 20 years as the agent of record for Hankook Tire America, Richard Clarke had one overriding goal: To turn a South Korean tire company into an All-American brand.

"People didn't even know how to say the word 'Hankook,' " Mr. Clarke, now a partner and vice president of sales and marketing for Tire Consultants Group, said. "They kept saying Hancock or Han-kook or something."

So, Mr. Clarke used marketing agreements with the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NCAA, the NBA and the NHL to make Hankook a household name.

"I remember after we did one campaign, one of the largest wholesale tire dealers in the country said, 'You made Hankook Tire as American as apple pie,' " Mr. Clarke said.Here's the thing, though: while Hankook is accepted by Americans, with sales topping $1.885 billion in North America in 2019, according to Tire Business calculations, Goodyear is the top-selling American-based tire maker.

Akron-based Goodyear had sales in North America of $7.52 billion in 2019, trailing only the Bridgestone Corp. ($11.95 billion) and Group Michelin ($9.973 billion) in the region. Acquiring Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. — with sales in North America of $2.313 billion in 2019 — only would solidify that.

"I think this is a defining moment for Goodyear," Mr. Clarke said during the recent Tire Business livestream "Goodyear + Cooper = ?" "History aside, the opportunity I see for Goodyear right now is to be able to take a franchise and go all-in on the idea that they are the All-American tire brand.

"That starts to put Goodyear in a place that's very chic right now and that's being American. Look at how My Pillow is marketing it as an American brand. ... Goodyear can take a little piece of that."

Mr. Clarke was joined on the hour-long livestream by James Picariello, an equity research analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets, Tire Business Editor Don Detore, Managing Editor David Manley and Special Projects Reporter Bruce Davis.

For Mr. Picariello, merging two American companies doesn't just fit the consumer mood, it also fits the political mood, with tariffs hampering tire companies that make the bulk of their tires overseas.

"If you think about the current tariffs environment, where you're looking at basically a 30% tariff rate affecting 30% of the entire U.S. consumer tire market, Goodyear acquiring Cooper prevents a foreign brand acquiring Cooper and really leveraging that U.S. brand imaging," Mr. Picariello said.

"That could be a more formidable competitor for somebody else, so I think that also adds to the exceptional timing around this deal, for Goodyear to bring Cooper in-house as opposed to someone else."Goodyear will still rank No. 3 globally among tire makers after the deal — Michelin is No. 1 and Bridgestone No. 2, according to Tire Business calculations — but Mr. Picariello said there's an opportunity for Goodyear to gain market share in the next 18 to 24 months, especially in North America.

"In theory, we'll have to see some of these affected foreign brands put through additional price increases, beyond just raw materials and inflation-type increases," he said. "So that should open the door for Cooper and Goodyear to take some share in the U.S. So it's a good setup."

One thing that could hamper the Goodyear/Cooper All-American branding is the fact that Goodyear and Cooper both have multiple factories overseas.

But neither Mr. Clarke nor Mr. Picariello expect that to be an issue.

"Again, I think it's perception," Mr. Clarke said. "Goodyear being in this country for 100 years, it is important to take ownership of that position. Cooper also has a long history, too. Whether they're made here or not, it's still an American company."

Added Mr. Picariello, "What Goodyear tells us should be true: their U.S.-sold tires for consumers and TBR are made in the U.S. or Mexico. ... From a consumer tire perspective, both companies make the vast majority of their tires in the U.S."Other takeaways from the livestream include:

Goodyear can fully market itself as a Tier 1 brand.

Dealers can offer Goodyear as their top-tier brand and Cooper as a Tier 2. Cooper's Mastercraft would then fit alongside Goodyear's lower-tier brands like Dunlop or Kelly.

"In certain channels, they have to price down the Goodyear brand because they don't have a second-tier offering," Mr. Picariello said. "Goodyear will be very happy not to do that because they can utilize Cooper instead."

Cooper could be coming to TireHub, but Goodyear likely won't return to ATD.

American Tire Distributors Inc. previously distributed Goodyear and Bridgestone-branded tires, but those relationships were severed in mid-2018, just after Goodyear and Bridgestone opened TireHub L.L.C., a 50/50 joint wholesale venture headquartered in Atlanta."I have a tough time imagining Goodyear won't leverage Cooper," Mr. Picariello said.

As for Goodyear going back to ATD, Mr. Clarke said, "That's a land mine. I don't see it going back. It's tough to go back in this business. You're burning a bridge. I'm gonna say no. It would be really difficult to change that."

Much of the "cost synergies" in the deal will come from executive layoffs — specifically, from Cooper.

"This is one unfortunate aspect of a merger," Mr. Picariello said. "Those SG&A (selling, general and administrative) savings. ... They come from removing redundant people in some fashion."

There could be more consolidation on the way.

"It certainly opens the door," Mr. Picariello said. "These tariffs don't go away. ... It all spells good things for domestic manufacturing when thinking about potential consolidation."

Tire Business