There is no shortage of tire manufacturers competing for your hard earned dollars. From well-known brands to names seemingly selected by a computer algorithm, your choice is vast. This makes sense because, after all, there are at least four of the things for every car ever built.
Chances are, if you’ve heard the Nokian brand name in this country, it has been associated with winter tires. The Finnish company knows a thing or two about cold weather grip, honing its spellcheck-vexing Hakkapeliitta line of winter rubber over the course of many years. Your author rocked a set back in his formative driving years and can attest to their claw-like grip during Newfoundland’s snowiest winter on record.
Refusing to rest on one’s laurels is what separates great companies from good ones and, with that in mind, Nokian has decided to expand its presence in the North American all-season tire market. To do so, they moved 1.4 million cubic yards of Tennessee dirt, made plans to hire up to 400 Americans, and built a tire factory in a rural area of the Deep South.
Initially, the company looked at about eighty different sites in the United States on which to build their state-of-the-art factory but settled on Tennessee for a number of reasons. Local labor skills was one, as were the economic incentives. One thing that’s tougher to demonstrate on a balance sheet? A strong work ethic and good attitude, employee traits Nokian said they found in spades when getting involved in community projects while rubbing elbows with the locals.
This new plant is part of the push to offer relevant products in more parts of the country. Folks outside the snow belt generally don’t need winter tires, so Nokian’s new factory will produce a series of all-season tires aimed at commuters and families. The first product to roll out of the Tennessee assembly plant is the Nokian eNTYRE 2.0, a tire specifically designed for North America and our unique driving habits (read: commutes and long highway slogs). This mainstream low rolling resistance tire is designed with a stiff outside shoulder to provide more grip in corners than milquetoast tires and a quartet of main grooves to expel water faster than a stern headmaster expels a school bully.
In addition to the all-season rubber, the factory will also crank out an all-weather tire called the Nokian WR G4. As a rubber hoop that has earned the three-peak mountain snowflake designation, its asymmetrical tread pattern has some fan-like ribs to push away slush and snow. Its blade grooves sound like a dancing Wesley Snipes character but are actually functional edges of the tread blocks designed to bite into winter’s worst. The secret-sauce silica compound keeps its rubber flexible when the mercury dips near freezing.
Nokian is banking that tires like the eNTYRE 2.0 and WR G4 will increase the brand’s visibility and name-brand recognition in parts of the country where their footprint is currently small. The company is, in fact, looking to double its market share by 2023. Speaking to Mark Earl, Vice President of Americas Business Area, he told us that this plant will allow them build tires beyond the ones they’ve opportunistically been selling all over the world.
Once the factory is operating at full steam it’ll be capable of producing 4 million tires a year and storing about half a million on site. According to Wes Boling, the marketing maven who took us on a tour of the plant, a tire’s journey starts in the plant’s mixing area, a space encompassing no less than 265,000 square feet. At one end, raw materials that make up the tire compound and tread enter the building, stored in silos until needed.
A quick science lesson, in case you fell asleep in high school – mechanical attributes (the tread pattern) and molecular construction (the rubber compound) are the two features which separate a good tire from a great tire. While the former is honed on a track the latter is cooked up in a lab, explaining why the mixing area is, cumulatively, is more than the size of four and a half football fields.
Further in the bowels of Nokian’s new factory, assembly and curing facilities perform the tasks of taking the newly mixed raw materials and turning them into something that resembles what you’d find on each of your car’s four corners. Rigs called the “marrying machines” aren’t performing shotgun nuptials (that’s reserved for the phalanx of churches here in the rural South) but are instead bonding together tire sidewalls and tread to the tune of one tire about every forty seconds.
It’s all hands-off and highly automated as you might expect, with employees monitoring the machines and spotting potential problems before an error can occur. Tires are cured in one of sixty-four enormous ovens for 12 minutes at 350 degrees. Once the place is fully up and running, those gargantuan tandoors will be capable of curing tires up to 22 inches in diameter.
Don’t look for many 100,000 mile warranties on Nokian tires in America if remarks by company brass are anything to go by. They are definitely focused on making tires that will perform well in tough conditions and are pliable enough to grip the road like frightened cats but make the point that constructing a hard compound tire just so it can last an outrageous amount of time for marketing purposes is of little interest to Nokian.
What is of interest to Nokian is to provide a bit Finnish friendliness with the downhome southern comfort of rural Tennessee. The planned admin building will be largely powered by a bank of solar panels atop the parking lots, for example, while a honest-to-tonttu Finnish sauna will be installed for all hands to enjoy. According to Boling, it wasn’t a question of if there would be a sauna, but simply where.
“The hardest tire to sell is the first one,” said Boling while collecting our safety glasses at the end of the tour. With the company claiming a 78% customer loyalty rate, higher than Michelin or Goodyear, they stand a great chance of hanging on to their clients once they’re in the door. If their efforts to positively integrate themselves and the company into the communities of southern Tennessee are any indication, they’ve a smooth road ahead.
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