Last week, Matthew Beecham talked with Satoru Ushida, marketing director of Falken Tyre Europe about their ambitious plans for Europe using a motorsport platform to promote their products. Since then, Satoru provided us with an update on the company’s tyre production since Japan’s most powerful earthquake hit the north-east coast.
just-auto: Please tell us some background to Falken Tyres?
Satoru Ushida: Falken Tyres is owned by the Sumitomo Rubber Industries (SRI), the world’s sixth largest tyre manufacturer. Sumitomo has manufacturing facilities across Asia, including four plants in Japan, with further factories in Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Falken brand was created in 1983 and was first sold in the US and Europe some years later.
What type of tyres does Falken manufacture?
Falken manufactures a wide range of tyres and this is growing. These range from OE factory fit tyres through to aftermarket tyres that are very successful in motorsport activities such as drifting. Recently, Falken has planned to expand its product range, launching new products in the rugged all-terrain category with WildPeak A/T, and adding the flagship high performance tyre FK452, the ZIEX ZE912 and the EUROWINTER HS439 which helps improve winter driving predictability. In the US and European markets we are also selling truck and bus radial tyres.
Does Falken have facilities in Europe?
Yes, but it is still very new. The European division of Falken is based in Offenbach, just outside Frankfurt. We started sales in January 2010 and already we employ 35 people. We have sales, marketing and technical support here. All our manufacturing is based out in Asia.
What is the OE market like for Falken?
It is developing well for us. We have had great success with the Japanese OEM manufacturers such as Nissan, Suzuki and Daihatsu. We think that there is great potential in Europe for us to grow.
How will you achieve this? The tyre market is notoriously competitive.
Our research shows that whilst we are not that well known, those people that do know us perceive a high quality and excellent price, both excellent attributes for the market. There is also a lot of evidence from users that our tyres offer lower noise levels than other competitors. Coupled with the price and quality, we believe that these three elements are crucial to capture more business in the passenger car market. With more tyre sizes released and moving into different sectors such as off road and the winter tyre market we have a range that will be attractive to retailers.
Do you know what customers are looking for in this sector?
They are interested in the technology and read tyre reviews. Cars are not their prime interest, unlike our current customer base.
You mentioned that your tyre is quieter. How is it that your tyre able to make lower noise?
There are many areas but minimising tread movement is important. Attention to detail on asymmetric tread patterns, compounds and adjusting the profile of the tyre shoulders can all make a difference. Our tyre has also been praised by owners for reducing tram lining. This has been very noticeable in the UK where the road surfaces are poor compared to other European roads. Our technical team also has access to the key test tracks in Europe and we are making more use of these as we tune our products to European market demands.
You mentioned that Falken is not well known and this is true compared to the other manufacturers. How do you plan to increase awareness?
We will be paying closer attention to getting more awareness with good test results in European car magazines. This includes the crucial tyre tests that appear in the magazines in Germany. Our other activity is motorsport. Since 1999 we have competed in the Nurburgring 24 hours, an endurance race that is increasingly used by car and tyre industry to develop and market products. For 2011, we have committed to running a Porsche 997 GT3 R in the race. We will be bringing tyre dealers from across Europe to the event to participate.
Did you choose a Porsche because it is an OEM you are targeting?
No, though we welcome such an opportunity! The Porsche will be very competitive and has been a proven winner in the endurance series that runs at the track. It also is more relevant to Europe than some of the cars we have been running and provides consistency. Our partners in the US have been running a Porsche in our blue and teal colours in the American Le Mans Series.
Environmental matters are also crucial in the tyre market. What sort of activities is Falken undertaking?
Our parent company is involved a range of environmentally conscious activities from geothermal, biomass and photovoltaic power generation through to commitments to recycling targets. Their work is highly diverse; for example it is undertaking a project that captures methane gas through installation and operation of anaerobic digester system—methane reactors—where the generated methane gas is utilized to generate electricity or as thermal heat at a tapioca factory. For Falken we have new labelling legislation coming in 2012. In the US, there is an interesting project called Smartway. This started as a collaboration between the US Environmental Protection Agency and tyre manufacturers such as Falken to help the transportation industry deal more effectively with moving freight. The challenge was to improve energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions as well as a need to cut fuel costs. The experience gained is shared throughout our engineering departments to benefit passenger car and other sectors.
How has your tyre production business in Japan been affected since the earthquake?
We deeply appreciate your phone calls, telegrams, and e-mails of your co-anxiety expressed following the colossal scale of the earthquakes, which struck Japan on March 11th around 14:45 (Japan time). This particularly affected north-eastern part Tohoku as well as Pacific Coastal areas, causing extensive damage and casualties in the area.
Fortunately, all the SRI group employees and their families have been confirmed uninjured. We regret to inform you that our Shirakawa tyre factory near to the seismic centre suspended production and has subsequently stopped daily manufacturing operations due to the immediate black out, and because the factory building and equipments installed have been found partly damaged. However, we have set to work for resuming production, investigating the extent of the damages. We have been currently collecting information in terms of supply to our customers, including supply from the other factories (Nagoya, Izumi-Ohtsu and Miyazaki factory), which produce most of the Falken products and are undamaged. We sincerely appreciate your understanding and your patience.