A Lifetime in the Business
Throughout three decades of working in the wheel alignment industry, Beissbarth UK’s managing director, Philip Hodges, has been a driving force for improvements in standards, training and technical innovation. Coming from a family background that can trace its roots in the tyre industry as far back as 1915, Philip’s own time in the business has also seen many developments. He shares with us his insights and experience in the industry from his beginnings in the 1970’s through to becoming managing director of Beissbarth UK – an iconic and long-established brand that has become closely associated with groundbreaking technology in its field.
“The business has changed enormously since I started importing and marketing wheel alignment and garage equipment back in the 70’s,” shares Hodges. “When I set out the only form of wheel alignment was a ‘tracking bar’, or alternatively a large ‘backboard system’ known as the Optoflex from Denmark. The result of this early time consuming technology was largely ineffective, as the chassis formed a rigid body for vehicles so adjustment was not easy – or so they thought at the time.” The introduction of lighter vehicles with independent suspension brought about many changes to the original design of the car, and these changes has made it, he adds, an absolute necessity not only to offer the adjustment of vehicle wheel alignment and suspension as a service, but to have a correct understanding of the service offered and advice given.
“Even in my early days I was acutely aware of the exciting market potential, the advantages that emerging technologies would bring and the opportunities that expanding markets in Europe would offer,” the Beissbarth managing director continues. “Over the years I witnessed a growing dedication and understanding by the automotive industry that wheel alignment has become a very useful source of revenue and service. Many specialists in the independent tyre dealers and networks have used wheel alignment as a marketing tool to increase their service portfolio and boost profits.
“It is not just about selling tyres,” says Hodges. “From a customer perspective, good marketing campaigns have helped to communicate the role accurate wheel alignment can play in delivering fuel economy and reduce motoring costs.”
A family connection
Philip Hodge’s current role as Beissbarth managing director is the latest step in a family relationship with the industry that dates back several generations, and as he shares, helped develop the enthusiasm which he holds today. “My origins are deeply-rooted in the tyre business and formed my real passion and love for the motor trade,” he shares. “In 1915, my grandfather started the first tyre company in Nottingham, when solid cushion tyres were the principal method for wheels for steam lorries such as Foden, and beaded edged tyres were the start of the pneumatic tyre revolution that we know today.”
Customers travelled considerable distances throughout the Midlands to the company’s office in Nottingham for replacements, says Mr. Hodges, as tyre dealers were few and far between. “After the First World War, and as the business developed, my grandfather built a strong relationship with many of the early pioneers – particularly Dunlop, who had patented the pneumatic tyre, which became so famous in racing and general use world-wide.
“Our company was the main distributor for tyres and accessories in Nottingham in the period up to the 50’s and a central part of the city’s transport scene,” he adds. “Tyres were important then as now, and also in short supply, so people were careful with them. They were expensive and had to be used respectfully.”
The relationships built by Philip Hodges’ grandfather grew further under the direction of his father up to the late 1960’s. As the young son of a tyre dealer, Philip Hodges’ school holidays were spend working in the family business cleaning and stocking out cupboards, and improving product presentation. “My early years helped me develop valuable qualities in terms of technical knowledge and strong communication skills,” he explains. “I delivered tyres and accessories with my father with a trailer on the back of the car, speaking to customers who stayed with us well into the mid 70’s.”
And while his career, for a time, took him in another direction, he returned to the industry, joining Dunlop as a trainee. However his time there was cut short when his father fell ill, and Philip returned home to the family business. “I still have fond memories of my time with Dunlop, who at that time also had a large worldwide business in related industries, as did all tyre manufacturers,” he recalls. “Back home, I joined the tyre business and was quickly put to good use in taking over the role of visiting long-standing customers, delivering tyres and getting new customers, in which we were successful throughout the Midlands.
“Eventually my Father died and the punitive inheritance tax rules of the day meant that we had to sell the company,” says Hodges. “Pirelli became the owner of the business. The family firm was the third company to be purchased by Pirelli, which eventually became the Central Tyre Group. My brother and I were glad to have found a good company with which to be associated. Central Tyre at that time became a good, solid, well-run group of companies with original owners still at the helm throughout the UK.”
After a number of years Philip Hodges felt the need for fresh challenges, and this led him to join Kismet Dynaflex in a role that saw him looking after their imported products from HP Anderson in Denmark and Koni from Holland. Within a few months, however, it became evident that Kismet was in financial trouble, and suddenly Hodges found himself with the opportunity to start a company. This business became the garage equipment supplier HTC Nottingham, and amongst the range on offer were wheel aligners. “I was not only back in the tyre industry in a roundabout way, but in the wider transport industry. I renewed old acquaintances and met a host of new ones.
“HTC Nottingham was a pioneer in wheel alignment and became synonymous with it. A light sourced simple 4 wheel aligner (Minilux) was introduced later for the tyre shops, as part of the range which had already become popular in the larger units.” The Minilux, relates Philip Hodges, pioneered the use of this type of aligner and gave many smaller tyre shops and garages their initial introduction to the alignment business. Many independent tyre dealers had already progressed to large computerised wheel aligners, he adds.
“Alignment proved that it could be a large revenue provider and a very good method of selling tyres,” he says. “The after-sales element was educating customers that correct alignment could achieve fuel economy. Many perceived the investment in wheel alignment equipment to be expensive, but they soon discovered that it was an essential workshop tool to help solve vehicle handling problems too. Wheel aligners quickly became a necessity in modern tyre shop and garages.
“I think I can claim quite sincerely to have started what is now the most profit generative part of the tyre business,” Philip adds. “After HPA, HTC Nottingham went on to introduce the ‘Hunter’ range in the UK and Ireland, with service being the most important aspect of the company. Success was assured, with over 130 Hunter units in service along with hundreds of HPA units in the late 80’s.”
During this time the company’s alignment products received plenty of national exposure in the media. “I appeared on television with Sue Grant in the forerunner of Top Gear, highlighting the importance of wheel alignment as part of road safety and fuel economy,” explains Hodges. “Media coverage continued with videos on truck alignment with Michelin, The Daily Mail and local TV all took up the message of fuel economy, reducing tyre wear and improving road safety. I supported technical colleges and several thousand mechanics with technical information. Tyre fitters and garage owners were trained to spot and understand wheel alignment and the need for adjustment.”
Some eleven years ago Philip Hodges took the next major step in his career. “In 1997 Beissbarth asked me to form Beissbarth UK, which has the largest motor manufacturer approvals in the world. As a major supplier to the motor vehicle manufacturers of wheel alignment equipment, I have continued with the industry that has taken up much of my life.
“Beissbarth are unique innovators and have been throughout their long history,” he continues. “It is a source of great pride to me that it continues to lead developments in technology with the ‘Touchless’ wheel aligner. ‘Touchless’ is the ultimate product in the measurement and diagnosis of vehicle suspension.”
From his position today as the man at the helm of one of the country’s most influential players in the alignment business, Philip Hodges looks back at his time in the trade. “Throughout this long period in the motor Industry, I have continued to have a great affection for the Tyre Industry. Always progressive, it has changed beyond recognition from when I was five years of age. The range of developments is incredible – 9 to 20-inch rims, split rims, two and three piece wheels, semi solid and solid tyres, steel rims, alloy rims, cross ply, radial, run-flat, low profile, directional tyres, tyre pressure monitoring systems – the list is almost endless.
“What about the people? Many are still here, saying ‘It wasn’t like this in my day’. They are right. It has moved on. But one thing is for sure, training and giving a complete picture to the customer of the benefits of the correct tyre for the vehicle and wheel alignment will go on forever. Communication of those messages will continue to change, whether on the net, television or through a memory stick – and maybe in decades to come through a hologram beamed to the customer! However those messages will be delivered, the most important development is that wheel alignment has come of age and is firmly on the agenda of services offered by tyre dealers, garages, main dealerships and body shops.”
In conclusion, the Beissbarth managing director states: “For my part I am pleased that I have played an instrumental and pioneering role in the process, which will continue as long as wheels are required, curbs are bumped, cars have accidents and tyres are damaged.”