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There is an anniversary upon us that many in the tire industry aren’t interested in celebrating. Two years ago, in early August 2000, we all became painfully aware of the frailty of our products and our businesses.

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The Power of the ‘People’

There is an anniversary upon us that many in the tire industry aren’t interested in celebrating. Two years ago, in early August 2000, we all became painfully aware of the frailty of our products and our businesses. It was the last thing anyone in this industry wanted to see, not to mention Bridgestone/Firestone and its dealers. After months of savagely negative media attention, many of us had to consider that a tire brand long-synonymous with the tire industry might be living on borrowed time.

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I’m sure BFS’s independent dealers, in particular, were uncertain of just how hard the recall would hit them, and how it might impact their own futures. The Wall Street Journal was so interested in this question that they dispatched a reporter to small town America – Jackson, Miss., to be precise – during the early stages of the recall to get an inside view of a loyalty dilemma facing thousands of tire dealers across the country.

It’ll be two years this coming October that I first spoke with Chris Tolleson, an independent BFS loyalist in Jackson, who the Wall Street Journal and the CBS followed around to see if he’d throw down his Firestone shield. It was two years ago that Chris and thousands of other BFS dealers started having many sleepless nights, heads full of questions – some of which challenged their good business sense.

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I caught up with Chris recently just as he was preparing to leave on a well-deserved vacation. I was curious how business was and, looking back over two tumultuous years, his thoughts on what he might have done differently.

While BFS products still account for the largest part of his business – the Firestone brand is still his top seller – Chris broaden his product offering by adding non-BFS brands. The BFS associate brands he carried now play a much larger role in his mix and have added to the success of his business.

It hasn’t been all roses. 2001 was a "bad year," and 2002 didn’t start out too strong. But business has perked up as of late and he hopes it will hold. At the same time, some of the dealers flying the Firestone flag suffered badly over the last two years, and he feels the company needs to make sure it continues to recognize those sacrifices loyal dealers made.

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He likes the new products coming from BFS, and feels they have been well accepted by customers. And consumers are smarter about tires, which helps make his sales job easier.

But one point he keenly reminded me of is that "people buy from people." To Chris, that was the key reason for BFS’s turnaround. It wasn’t the brand, it was the dealer. "The people buying Firestone products are the people who have been buying from me for the last 11 years, not from BFS.

"Despite the huge obstacles and bad press and angry consumers, dealers stuck with BFS and kept selling its products. Customers might have tried Wal-Mart or other large merchandisers, Chris said, but they return to tire dealer because they appreciate knowing the people from whom they buy tires.

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That one point – people do buy from people – is often lost on some. And it’s not just tires, but leadership, too. One thing that helped to make the difference for Chris over these past two years was BFS’s leadership. Chris says flatly that he is "very proud to be a customer of John Lampe."

From my perspective, there isn’t a higher compliment that could be paid to the head of any company. The words of encouragement Lampe offered Firestone dealers throughout the country, he said, made a big difference.

BFS’s dealer-fueled comeback is proof positive that an energized and motivated dealer network is, at its bare essence, a manufacturer’s best way to overcome any challenge.

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Reflecting back, I guess there are reasons to celebrate this anniversary.

We’ve seen a brand successfully repositioned and a major company survive. We’ve witnessed an industry giant lean on its distribution channel for shear survival, and watched that group of small businessmen respond. We’ve seen the power of relationships, of how powerful the phrase "people buy from people" really is.

The defining moment when a good army becomes a great army comes when the general appreciates the real value of his charges, and the soldiers, in turn, understand and believe in the goal.

As John says in the interview, BFS owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to its independent dealers – guys like Chris Tolleson – the people who sell to people. It is they who rightfully should lay claim to a well-fought victory.

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