Globally Bridgestone is the number one tyre manufacturer and has been for more than 10 years – and every year it is getting bigger. As Stefano Sanchini, regional managing director, Bridgestone Middle East & Africa FZE is quick to remind me, the brand is now into its eighth decade in the Middle East and Africa, and, as such, knows a thing or two about the tyre market in the region.
“We are consolidating our leading position globally but there are many different parts of the world where we have different positions in terms of the competition,” he starts. “I joined Bridgestone in the Middle East quite recently, but of course I was in the region before I joined. I had the pleasure of looking at Bridgestone as a competitor and I have to stay in the Middle East and Africa it is by far the number one brand.”
The company celebrated its 70th anniversary with its Saudi Arabian partners last year, and Sanchini believes that Bridgestone benefitted from its pioneering work all the decades ago.
“From the start, our Japanese colleagues did a great job coming in the region – some of our partnerships here have lasted more than 70 years. They really started to look at this part of the world much earlier than a lot of the other major brands,” he explains. “They were looking outside of Japan in the 1950s: the Second World War had just ended; they were looking for opportunities to expand in this part of the region.
“The Japanese influence has been always very strong in the Middle East and Japanese brands have always quite being appealing. Trading houses were going to Japan looking for brands and (on the other side) of course Bridgestone was also looking for opportunities. It was a good combination of factors.
From the start, he says, the tyre-maker realised that it needed to focus on products that could survive an intimidating environment for tyres which may have been a lot less humid than its home territory but forced it to create new rubbers that could deal with extreme heat and loads.
“They could see potential in the region but had to massively invest. Fortunately, Bridgestone is also a strong engineering company and came not only to sell the product but also understand the region – and by that I mean understand which product they could produce for this kind of market; the roads and weather conditions.”
Even back then, it was clear that one ‘Middle East-specific tyre’ wouldn’t survive the extreme temperatures and the different needs of the transporters based in a continent of almost endless diversity.
“They started making Saudi tyres, Oman tyres…products tailored for each specific market with a lot of investment in field engineering to get them right,” says Sanchini. “People from Japan were coming for years and studying the market and then went back to create the best product for Saudi, Egypt, the UAE, and so on.”
Today, Bridgestone produces a complete range of tyres from passenger cars, to buses and the full range of truck sizes (it also produces tyres for industrial and off-road equipment uses). It also runs its own offices in key markets across the region that can provide technical support to distributors and their customers.
This support infrastructure and the long legacy in developing an astonishingly varied range were something that Sanchini spent many years fighting against as a competitor but is now happy to be able to work with: “You can imagine the complexity in managing it an industrial level. I would say between the premium brands we are almost 50% of the market: For every two bus and truck tyres, one will be a Bridgestone.”
Once in contact with a customer, Sanchini says that he and his team can often identify potential roles for products throughout an operation: “We can really satisfy all their needs in terms of tyres. We strongly believe that the only way to understand what is happening is to be in the field; visiting the fleets and doing scrapyard surveys to see what kinds of damage is on the tyres.”
He describes this as part as an ongoing process of giving feedback to the technical and design teams that staff Bridgestone’s development hubs. Whether it is customers in the established markets of the GCC or more recent, emerging countries such as the Ivory Coast or Cameroon, driver usage and road/external conditions remain important factors in the final production of a tyre: much as it has been since mid-way through the last century.
“The tyres can be similar, but the construction can be quite different to cope with different types of performances. The distance you can drive in Saudi is much further than it is in the UAE. Overloading is another big factor. You still have massive overloading in Egypt and the UAE but much less in Saudi. I mean I saw a truck in Egypt so overloaded to a point that I couldn’t believe it was possible. It must have been 120 or 130t. You see this especially in Upper Egypt where marble is being transported.
Pausing to recall his disbelief, he then adds: “This is why Bridgestone has the reputation it has. It can cope with this kind of extreme performance. Like I said before, Japanese engineers started trying to understand what would be the best formula in Egypt a long time ago.”
Like its fellow tyre manufacturers, such as Continental or Goodyear, Bridgestone wants customers to think beyond the rubber on their vehicles. It has its own TPMS system and tyre management strategy on offer to those who want to improve uptime in their fleets and lower costs.
“The time of being merely a supplier is over. The integration between the tyre manufacturer, the local distributor and the customer is getting tighter and tighter,” he remarks. “You need to be a service provider that’s in the field to understand how the business and how the operation is working. It’s no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a must-have.”
He continues: “The tyre with the service, the fleet solutions and the TPMS, all go together so you need to have a strong understanding of the fleet’s needs if you want to be a successful service provider.”
Bridgestone made its biggest-ever non-tyre acquisition last year with the purchase of Tom-Tom and its telematics know-how for $1 billion. Sanchini says the purchase is an example of a company convinced that needs to be offering fleet solutions, like Tirematics Solution which uses sensors to remotely monitor, transmit and analyse real time data from the tyres.
(The premium version, Tirematics solution for yard management is described by Bridgestone as a comprehensive package that includes a full range of premium fleet solution services to address customers’ needs. The combination of sensors and a new cloud-based engine enables real-time monitoring of tyre pressure and temperature, with a high degree of accuracy and instant alerts when vehicles enter the depot.)
“The tyre is becoming a centre for data collection which you can use to give information back to the fleet operator and the drivers. Bridgestone wants to keep a grip of its core business but is moving more and more into the concept of fleet solutions.”
When asked whether this is something that fleets in the region understand or want, Sanchini answers that there is demand, but the level of interest, understandably, can vary from market-to-market.
“This region is very big and there are some markets where it is difficult (to sell). But I have to say, that was my preconception at the beginning, but, when you go and start presenting the costs and our ideas, we get very positive feedback. There is a lot of interest in the region and we already have some fleets where we are applying this concept.”
He explains this cadre of early adopters is already feeling the benefit of seeing the data from their trucks via Bridgestone’s online platform.
“There has been a lot more interest than I initially expected from not just a technologically driven market like the UAE but also in Saudi and Oman. Even in Egypt, which is very much a driver/owner market, we have been able to start a pilot programme.”
Given the current economic climate, how often is Sanchini being asked about the cost when he sits with customers?
“It’s the first question people ask first and its often the last. We start off with costs and then we talk about service and solution. By the end of the discussion, they’ve forgotten about the cost and ask about that it again,” he laughs before making a more serious point. “The example I always make is: that when you go to Europe or other developed markets they have huge fleets but they are even more conscious about cost per kilometre. The fact that they are going in this direction shows there is a value side. They do it, not to be fancy, but because it is bringing in benefits to the bottom line of the fleet operation.”
Read the full interview with Stefano Sanchini in the upcoming September issue of Truck & Fleet Middle East