Emanuele E. "Manny" Cicero took the helm as president and CEO of specialty tire maker Denman Tire Corp. on May 1, replacing the retiring Charles Wright. Cicero, 49, brings 27 years of industry experience with him from Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire L.L.C., and before that Michelin Tire Corp. In his last six years with BFS, Cicero was president of the company´s Off-the-Road Sales Group.
After just 2 1/2 weeks on the job at one of the smallest tire manufacturers in the U.S., Cicero talked to Brad Dawson, senior reporter with Rubber & Plastics News, about making the move to Warren, Ohio-based Denman, possible changes at the company and succeeding in a demanding industry. This is an edited version of that interview.
How are you feeling about the position with less than three weeks on the job?
I´m excited. It would be foolish to say you´re not frightened by some of the challenges ahead. We´re a small company in a smokestack industry in the industrialized North. We have to figure out our cost structure and figure how to work together to make products for less than our customers are willing to pay for them. That´s the big challenge right now.
Why did you decide to move to Denman?
I have a great deal of respect for Bridgestone/Firestone and I loved working there for 21 years. It´s an absolute first-rate company. But it is big...the largest tire and rubber company in the world, and big, while it has certain rewards, also has its share of frustrations.
But this was a real opportunity here. Denman is small, it´s manageable, and I have a chance to make a real impact, make some decisions quickly instead of going through countless layers of committees. Bridgestone had become rather bureaucratic, and this was an opportunity to make a fresh start, get involved and make a real impact.
Given your background, was this a natural move for you?
The way we were previously structured prior to the recall at Bridgestone/Firestone, I ran a rather large division, and was completely responsible for manufacturing. After the restructuring, I became head of a sales division.
I enjoyed the manufacturing, I enjoyed having everything under one roof, I enjoyed controlling the business from manufacturing to sales and having direct profit and loss responsibilities. In that sense, it was a chance to get back to that integrated business, rather than just buying tires from Japan and reselling them. Yes, it was a chance to go out and take a little bit of part ownership as well, a little equity in a small company and have direct impact on myself as well as for our owner.
What traits do you bring to Denman?
I think my background is more from the sales and marketing side, and from what I can see, this company needs some help in that area. It had a very strong operations leader. Charlie Wright was very strong in the factory and operations, but maybe not as strong on the sales and marketing strategy side. Just as I´m not strong on the operations part, not as strong as he would have been in understanding the machines and processes.
There´s a chance for us to expand the business through some better attention to our customers and our customer strategy, and improve the mix. I´ve been told I´m a pretty good communicator, and the employees here don´t seem to have been jelled into a team lately. I´m hoping to get everyone on the same page of the playbook again.
What types of adjustments do you see yourself or the company making?
I haven´t decided yet what I want to do. The observations I´ve made are that the people here, including senior management, have been very good at working in their functional areas. They seem very competent at their own area of expertise. But I haven´t seen a lot of people go beyond that, outside of their area of expertise.
One of my goals is to familiarize everybody with the entire workings of this company. We´re small enough where you can still do that.
I´ve been very impressed by the attitudes of the people, especially our shop floor people. I´ve walked the floor quite a bit the last couple of weeks, and I think the attitude has been cordial and very sincere.
What challenges does Denman face as a small tire maker?
Our size alone puts us at great risk. We´re a niche player, a specialty tire player. We certainly have no ambitions to take on the industry giants. That would be suicide.
We´re a lifeboat in the ocean, basically. We have to navigate amongst these ocean liners and pick up the crumbs when they come. But this industry is big enough where if we select the right crumbs, we should be able to do very well.
The biggest threat, of course, is the fact that we´re a U.S. producer with fairly high costs. And there´s the ever-present threat of imported tires from low-cost nations.
Is changing the face of Denman—for example, approaching the way you sell tires differently—an option?
In a couple of weeks I´m taking my senior staff out for a couple days of strategy meetings just so we can discuss those types of things. What do we have to do to ensure not only our survival but ensure our growth?
Certainly adding value will have to be one of those. Selecting the right markets to enter, and making sure they´re profitable. Not trying to do everything, making sure we don´t step on the big boys´ toes. So we need to be cooperative, and we need to understand who our customers are and what they need.
It seems like we may have gotten away from that, from what I can see, at Denman. Almost universally I heard good stories about the Denman of the past, and the Denman of the recent past seems to have deteriorated in some of those areas.
You talked about taking the company to "the next level of growth and success." Do you know what that is yet?
I don´t, but I know that it can be dangerous to survive at our level now. I think there are plenty of dealers in North America who can sell specialty lines, who have special needs that aren´t being met by their current suppliers. I think our job now is to identify those needs, and decide what we´re good at so we can go out there and fill those.
My own reference point is competition´s always meant Goodyear and Michelin, and now the competition is really not those guys at all. In fact, they could be allies. It´s the other specialty players who are our competition. I´m still trying to study and learn in this new arena.
Did you ever expect to be president and CEO of a tire company?
That´s what my goal was when I entered it. It was a goal for the tire industry or any industry at the time.
In 1978 when I entered the tire industry, we were in the middle of a fairly bad recession, and any job for an English major was a good job. Michelin took me on, and I´m forever grateful to them for giving me a job. This industry becomes addictive. It´s interesting. It´s not the most glamorous, but it´s been solid.
The plan might have been to be president of one of the major ones, but this opportunity came along at a time when I could use a change of pace and a change of responsibility. I have a great deal of respect for our owner (Sanford Pensler of Pensler Capital Corp.); he´s an interesting man. Ordinarily, I may not have considered a move to Denman, but he´s very persuasive and very interesting. I thought I´d take a ride with him, and see if we can do something bigger with this company.
How do you see Denman best meeting demand?
We have a sales force and I trust our salespeople are familiar with that demand and know where to get it. But Denman is not a traditional off-road tire manufacturer: very few sizes, bias only. So how do we get that business?
Where I came from, we had an unprecedented number of backorders. When I talk about the crumbs and everything else, those are the kind of crumbs, where just Bridgestone/Firestone´s backorders could feed this company for the next 10 years.
We need to learn where they are. I know a lot of customers who have been frustrated by the industry backorders. We can make some contacts to see if we can help them, and help not only the customers but help companies like Bridgestone/Firestone because they´re frustrated as well with not being able to meet market demand.
Are the post-recall measures handed down by NHTSA still a major concern for specialty tire makers?
It´s very much a concern. The cost of complying with the TREAD Act for a company our size is fatal. The shear cost of added insurance due to the Firestone Wilderness recall and expectations from customers do require that regardless of the TREAD Act, we have be more vigilant.
Our costs have gone up regardless of compliance because of insurance. And it´s not a small thing to a company this size.
Where would you like to see Denman go in the future?
At the very least I´d like Denman to be the absolute first choice amongst North American tire dealers when they think of specialty tire needs.
From what I understand, Denman was a primary choice. I think somewhere along the line they lost their way. So I´d like Denman to be synonymous with specialty tires, with quick change and quick solutions to a dealer´s needs. I think through that alone there´s plenty of opportunity to grow, and I think grow dramatically.