In August 2013, Stu Crum left Shell Oil Co. where he served as president of Jiffy Lube International to join Bridgestone Americas as president of its retail store group, overseeing more than 2,200 company-owned stores under the Firestone Complete Auto Car, Tires Plus, Hibdon Tires Plus and Wheel Works brands.
Crum made news this past June when he announced “Vision 2020,” a plan to grow Bridgestone’s retail operations into one of the top 100 retailers by the end of the decade and take the business from a $4 billion unit to a $6 billion operation.
In a space increasingly crowded with car dealers, auto service centers, mass merchants, competing company-owned stores and, of course, independent tire dealers, Crum expects to grow by distinguishing Bridgestone’s retail stores in surprising ways.
Crum plans on borrowing ideas from retailers outside of the automotive industry and even using some ideas within. In this interview, Crum pointed to you, readers, as some of his most innovative competition.
Read on to learn out more about Bridgestone’s retail store growth plan, what you can expect from the unit over the course of the next few years, what Bridgestone’s ‘Store of the Future’ will look like and what business lessons Crum learned from his days as a professional placekicker.
Talk about the goals of Vision 2020, how the plan came to be and how it’s different from other automotive service providers’ business goals.
“To begin, 2014 marks the store group’s 88th year in business – the first Firestone Complete Auto Care store was opened in 1926. The unit hasn’t really reorganized and looked at the business from a sincere strategic level in about 22 years. In June, about six months after my arrival, I announced our Vision 2020 and how we were going to be able to support that plan through reorganization.
“It actually took us about four months to develop that vision, and it’s something that we all really needed to get our heads around because without vision people perish. Our vision is to be ranked among the most admired customer service companies by the end of the decade. Now, that’s kind of an academic vision. What I mean is that I want Bridgestone’s retail operations be recognized as one of the top 100 retailers in the U.S. by the end of the decade. And when I say top 100 retailers, I’m talking about Nordstrom, Starbucks, Whole Foods and all the other businesses that are recognized year in and year out by Fortune magazine or other publications.
“By dollar sales, we’re already there. But, anybody can have dollar sales. I want to be recognized from a customer service perspective. It’s kind of like what John F. Kennedy did in 1961 when he said he wanted to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. There is nobody right now in the automobile car care service space that’s in that top 100. I’m putting out a significant challenge for my team but also a significant challenge for the industry.
“Bridgestone’s purpose is to be the first provider of automotive care in every neighborhood we serve. We must win at the neighborhood level because you won’t win at the national level. Right now, I’ve got 10% that are probably top 100 stores. I’ve got another 5% or 10% that, quite frankly, have a lot of work to do, and 80% that are really good stores. So what I’m trying to do is bring that 90% up to where those 10% are already playing.”
That seems like a huge over-haul. What strategically needs to happen to make this possible?
“We have to go from a transactional view of the customer to a lifetime view of the customer. In our industry, when a customer comes in, he or she may need three or four additional things checked on their car. So, we try to sell those to the customer. With a lifetime view in place, we don’t need to repair every single thing at that moment in time. Instead, we’re only going to recommend what absolutely has to be done so that they trust us as a lifetime customer. If we can take care of those absolutely necessary services that keep them on the road for a lifetime, they’ll trust us the next time to do the same.”
When you began at Bridgestone, the stores were ranked low in terms of customer service. Detail your plans to improve customer service and achieve your goal of becoming a top 100 retailer?
“When we do a customer satis-faction index, our score is at about 82%, which is good. Our bottom 10% stores are at 72%, which is not good. Our top 10% comes in about 92.5%…really good. In order to achieve that goal though, I had to take a look at the organization and ask, ‘Do I have the right organization in place to deliver those results?’ The answer came back an emphatic ‘no.’ So, we reorganized from top to bottom. Beforehand, there were six distinct zones with six vice presidents that ran each zone’s business independent of each other.
“Today, we eliminated those zones. We’ve got two divisions – North and South – and 22 regions. We also created 216 areas that now manage between eight and 12 stores, instead of in the past where a district manager used to manage between 25 and 40 stores. We’ve also developed a whole new set of standard operating procedures, a playbook so to speak. We’re providing electronic notebooks for managers to use in the store with all their operating procedures and everything within that so that they will be equipped on a daily basis. We want managers back in the operation where they started their work with the company and really coaching and counseling and spending time with teammates and the customers.”
What about those below that area manager?
“In February, I am bringing my 3,000 teammates together at a national convention and we’re rolling out the playbook. We’ve hired a company called Southwestern Consulting and they’re helping us put together a ‘boss’-centric training program. Like I mentioned before, we’re going from a transactional view to a lifetime view of the customer. Transactional means that when a customer comes in, you try to get the most out of that customer. Our one-time customers spend about $116 with us in a transaction, and they come in once every three or four years. They’re not loyal. Nine percent of our customers are loyal, and they spend on average about $560 a year with us. If you can create a lifetime customer that first time they come in you develop trust. They may just have a puncture in that tire. You fix that tire, and send them on their way. Even though they might need a service six months from now. Instead, what you do is you tell them to come back in six months. By taking that approach, we actually believe that on a long-term basis we’ll take that 9% loyal customers to 12%, 15%, eventually to 20%. If I can move those folks just to 15%, I’ll get to that $6 billion.”
Aren’t you working against more than just your own company’s culture? You’re going to be combating a stereotype within the industry.
“It is an industry thing. When we measure ourselves versus the competitors, on the national level we outperform every national player in the U.S. on customer service level. We don’t at a regional level. That’s why it’s important for us to focus on the regional level. Recently, there was a USA Today article about an independent study that ranked all of the services that you get. What were the bottom five? Number two was a visit to the dentist. Number one was visiting an auto service center.
“I know what we’re up against. We’re not just up against ourselves. We’re up against the industry. The industry itself has a black eye. From a company-operated standpoint, we have the largest marketshare in the industry. But we’re 3.5 % of the industry. To a degree, we are not only trying to reshape our business, it’s also us reshaping the industry. And that’s a big nut to try to break.”
What risks are you taking on by making this change?
“There’s risk that you may not get as much service as you could from that first-time customer. There are some very good retailers that are doing that already today, but when you own that customer for a lifetime, when they actually do need to get their four tires and they do need to get their brakes done or they do need to have transmission service, they’ll actually choose you. And I would suggest that the industry has typically recommended services to people that may need to be done but didn’t need to be done right away. And I think that’s the new mantra that we’re working off of and the new value proposition we’re trying to teach our teammates, as well.
“The next question I think I have to answer is how do you do that? We have a bonus program that pays bonuses on a higher percentage to the net promoter score/customer service than we are to topline sales and profit. Now, there’s risk. We believe over a long-term basis we will grow our customer base by doing this. And there may potentially be some short-term opportunities in there, but we believe in the long term, if we’re going to sustain this business another 88 years, it’s the right thing to do, and it truly is cultural change to our organization.”
Some of the retailers that you mentioned, they’re known for a look and feel…we use the term ‘customer experience.’ What are you working on to change the customer experience at Bridgestone’s stores?
“By the end of the year, our two prototype stores – we call them the ‘Store of the Future’ – will be finished. The Store of the Future will no longer have a counter between the customer and us. Probably 800 of our stores already have pods, but within those pods there will be touch screens for our customers to look at the same time they’re talking to the employee. The second thing you’ll see in those stores is an area of that store that features the community. It will showcase where we’re sponsoring the local softball team, little league, Girl Scouts, whatever it might be.
“We still believe that it’s important that customers are able to touch and feel a tire. No matter all the streaming video you do in the world, we’ll never replace the touch and feel of a tire. We’ve already introduced Wi-Fi in all of our locations. We also believe that in the Store of the Future, when we actually bring a customer’s car in they come into a separate lane. They go through to the review, and the customer is able to see that through a window. And from there, the vehicle would go into one of the bays, depending on what service they needed, whether it’s new tires, whether it’s an oil change, no matter what it is.
“There will also be streaming video. When you tell a customer they’re getting new brakes, they don’t always understand what that looks like. Streaming video will be used to show and explain what the service is to the customer, and explain the difference between a ceramic brake pad and an old metal brake shoe.
“That new store will be up and running by end of the year, January 2015. After we’ve tested it, our plan is to roll that out nationally.”
What are you learning from other retailers like Apple and Nordstrom?
“I think the first thing is, of course, customer experience. Part of our new training in teaching our sales teammates and our store managers and actually working with the boss is trying to understand the customers’ needs. Far more empathy and far more listening. We’ve got two ears and one mouth. I think we’ve had a tendency as an industry to use our mouth more than we’ve used our ears. And I think when you actually listen and you to try to understand what the customer – the boss – actually needs, you can deliver and provide a service that they actually want
“Number two: We don’t do a thorough job of really getting to know the customer’s car. We’re also in a business where you’re mitigating your risks. It’s about making sure that every time a customer comes in they can leave knowing that their car has been looked over and everything is safe and that they’ve been given an explanation of everything that’s been done.
“Third, they need to know when their next scheduled maintenance is. We want to be that trusted service advisor. And I think that’s the biggest change in it, is we become the person they trust just as much as they trust their doctor.”
Do you view car dealers as one of your biggest competitors?
“If I had to name a number one competitor it would be car dealers, and I say car dealers for a couple reasons. First, some of those car dealers are actually developing standalone facilities to do tires and services. The car dealer doesn’t make the money on the vehicle they used to make. Now this year, they’re selling a ton of vehicles for the first time in eight years.
“But, I’d also say our competition is more so regional marketers, and I’ll throw a few out there. I look at companies like Les Schwab, Christian Brothers and Discount Tire. What’s happened over the last number of years is that these retailers have done a very nice job of focusing on specific areas, Discount Tire being one of them. And they get cars in and out, and they don’t do all the other services, but what they do they do very well. There’s not a national chain that I wake up in the morning and I worry about. There’s a number of regional players that when I wake up in the morning I worry about because they’re getting it right at the regional level. Those are the folks that I admire.”
What have you learned from your experience as a kicker in the NFL and USFL?
“I was the only guy on four teams in three years in two leagues. You learn what real pressure is, because there’s nothing like standing over a ball with 70,000 people in the stands and 15 million people watching with three seconds left in the game and it comes down to you.
“I lost one. I’ll never forget I missed a 47-yard field goal with about a minute left in the game. It was a huge game. Running this operation isn’t nearly as stressful as that loss but I do have 23,000 teammates that don’t like me some days.
“I actually shared this with my teammates the first meeting I had with them. The biggest thing I learned as a placekicker was that a kicker is only as good as the people that are in front of him. If your line it isn’t blocking, the ball never gets over. If your snap isn’t good, the holder can’t put it down. If the holder puts the ball down but he puts the laces faced towards you… So, you really learn as a placekicker that you truly are only as good as the folks that are in front of you.
“I’ll never forget that I was playing New Mexico State freshman year in college and the ball was snapped. It was put down and the holder accidentally dropped the ball. I literally kicked that ball halfway down as it was falling. I ended up kicking my deep snapper in the butt with the ball. I came off the field and the coach was screaming at me. At that point, I could have done a lot of things. I could have finger pointed. It wasn’t until game film that they actually saw what happened. But, it’s at that point you realize that it’s all about your team. So, depend on your teammates.”