10 Questions With Jim Wannamaker Of Bicycle Tire Maker Kenda USA

Up until a few years ago, bicycle tire maker Kenda was known not for its top-of-the-line mountain and road bike tires, but for its low-end rubber that went on hundreds of thousands of mass merchant bikes around the world.

Started in Taiwan in 1967, Kenda was doing just fine as a business selling tires for bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles. In the early 1980s, one of the four sons of the company’s founder decided to move to the United States in hopes of improving Kenda’s market share in North America. He settled in Ohio, only because that was where Huffy, one of the largest bicycle manufacturers in the US at the time, was located.

In 1997 along came Jim Wannamaker, and he helped add a new focus to the company with the introduction of the premium line of tires.

Since then, Kenda’s market share in mountain bike and road bike tires has steadily improved. More and more options have been added to the line to the point now where Kenda has its tires spec’ed on more complete bikes than any of its competitors.

With Mountain Bike Action’s decision to call the Kenda Nevegal the best mountain bike tire for each of the past two years, the Kenda brand has become the ‘it’ name in tires.

And things will only continue to grow now that Wannamaker has been able to woo Brian Lopes over to Kenda from Maxxis. Lopes will join Hans Rey, Tinker Juarez and Eric Carter in designing signature tires under the Kenda Legends of the Sport banner.

Wannamaker, the North American Sales and Marketing Director for Kenda, answered a few questions about the company and where it’s headed.

Where are the Kenda bicycle tires manufactured?

Jim Wannamaker – “Currently all of our premium tires are made in Taiwan. We have two factories in Taiwan – the bicycle factory and the motorcycle factory. We have two factories in China and one in Vietnam, which produces mainly motorcycle tires with some bicycle and some scooter tires. Kenda has its factories located where the bicycle factories are.”

What percentage of the overall business is related to bicycle tires?

JW – “Of everything we produce – motorcycle, ATV, passenger car, radial – bicycle tires are still the lion’s share of it. It’s not as big as it used to be when I joined because the other divisions are growing also, but it’s still our No. 1 division.”

Your market share seems to be growing exponentially both on OEM products and aftermarket sales. What’s the reason for that growth?

JW – “Five years ago we didn’t see those numbers because we didn’t have the products. But I think it’s a combination of things. You can’t just have the good product and not let people know about it (marketing) and I think another key thing was finding John Tomac. That brought instant credibility. My gut feeling is next year we’re going to be even stronger because we’re going to have tires from Hans Rey, Brian Lopes, Tinker Juarez.”

What impact did having the Nevegal getting the top rating in MBA have on the company?

JW – “When you have the best tire, everyone wants to spec your tire even if it’s not the top of the line Nevegal. (But when the Nevegal first came out) the sales the first year weren’t really there, so there was a lot of resistance on the factory’s part to build the quantities I had projected. It takes time to prove yourself.”

How much of an impact does racing have on tire sales?

JW – “It’s very impactful. Right now we’re on a lot of the top boutique brands. We’re sponsoring the Santa Cruz Syndicate team…we’re sponsoring Titus teams and Ellsworth teams. We strategically aligned ourselves with GT and Mongoose, we’re sponsoring the KHS teams, the Kenda Seven team.”

How excited are you to be able to bring Brian Lopes into the fold this year?

JW – “That was huge. I would say of all the people we signed this year, Lopes has to be the No. 1 guy. But Hans is a big thing because he has been with GT for 20 years and is known all over the world. And Tinker is a two-time Olympian. He’s in the mountain bike hall of fame and the BMX hall of fame. Having all these great riders affiliated with Kenda helps a tonne. It’s like a snowball effect.”

What type of role do these riders have in developing their own tire lines?

JW – “Complete. They sit down and sketch them, send them to me and I forward them to the factory who makes recommendations. I want them to be personally involved. It’s not something we’re going to design and say ‘here it is.’”

What’s the biggest mistake people make when selecting mountain bike tires?

JW – “No two people are alike. No two people ride the same. No two people have the same bikes. They might have the same bikes, but they’re using different air shock pressure, or a different model year. What I find is people don’t experiment with the products they buy. A two per cent PSI increase or decrease makes a world of difference. It’s the equivalent of changing your air shock pressure.”

How many products are being offered in 2006?

JW – “Let me go back a little bit. In 2005 there were 172 SKUs in our premium line. This year there are only 104, but there’s a reason for that. We’re getting ready to launch a lot of new products. Tomac has two new tires we’re going to focus on this year. Of course, we’re going to focus on the Lopes tire which will be called the El Matador, Hans Rey will have a tire called the Telonix and Tinker has a tire we don’t have a name for yet. We’ll have these legends tires, new BMX tires and new road tires. ”

Where do you see the tire market going in the next few years?

JW – “Look for improved tread patterns, improved rubber compounds, more durable tires with more flat protection and lighter weights. I also think at some point down the road technology is going to change.”

For more information about Kenda and its tire line, visit www.kendausa.com.

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