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We Will Come Back’: New BFS Chief Says Actions, Not Words, Will Restore Confidence

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The devastating impact of its massive voluntary product recall has taken a toll on Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS), its employees and, importantly, its dealers. But now that the recall effort is close to completion, BFS is starting to look to the future and standing squarely behind its century old Firestone brand. In his first extensive interview with any tire industry magazine since taking the helm as chairman, president and CEO of BFS, John Lampe talks about the status of the recall effort, BFS dealers, and where the company goes from here.

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Here are excerpts from our interview with Lampe. See the complete interview at www.tirereview.com and at www.aftermarketnews.com.

BFS’s dealer meeting in Las Vegas was attended by some 3,800 dealers. Your own introduction was met by a standing ovation. Did the response by the dealers surprise you a bit?
Lampe: I was deeply moved by our dealers’ response to my introduction. Even more humbling to me was the large number of dealers who approached me personally to express their faith in the Firestone brand. Many of the dealers, I think, came to hear first-hand how this recall would affect our company. Their response was almost unanimously enthusiastic: they believe in the Firestone brand and our products.

What specific things will BFS be doing to try and win back consumer confidence?
Lampe: I continue to believe the two most important steps in regaining consumer confidence are completing the recall and determining the root cause or causes of the problems. Once we’ve accomplished those goals, we’ll be able to focus on other brand-rebuilding efforts and will, in fact, be launching a full program in 2001. We took an important step toward regaining consumer confidence by broadening our tire warranty and money-back guarantee programs.

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Given the barrage of negative publicity, the fact that no root cause has yet been found, and that the Firestone brand had already suffered a major hit 20 years ago, do you think BFS can bring the brand back? What will it take from BFS and its dealers?
Lampe: As I’ve said before, this has been a setback, but I believe that we will come back stronger than we were before. We continue to receive extraordinary support from our dealers and employees. We’re thankful for their loyalty, dedication and work on the front lines. They’ll be an integral part of our brand rebuilding. But, before we can begin that task, we must accomplish our immediate goals: complete the recall and find the root cause or causes of the failures. We’re continuing our own internal review to find the root cause, and our independent expert, Dr. Sanjay Govindjee, should complete his report by the end of the year. These combined efforts will show consumers that we’re making every effort to regain their trust. We owe it to our customers to continue to improve our internal processes to ensure that something like this never happens again.

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What’s been the most frustrating aspect of this entire episode for you?
Lampe: Many people have asked me why I accepted the role of CEO during these difficult times. I didn’t really have the choice. I believe in my company, the people within my company, our dealers, and our OE customers. Throughout this recall, I’ve found it particularly difficult to hear and see the strain this has put on all of them. Despite the media attention, which sometimes has misrepresented this complex issue, our employees, dealers and OE customers have remained loyal.

You mentioned in your dealer meeting speech that BFS wasn’t prepared for the media onslaught after the recall was announced. Did BFS have a crisis communications plan? Looking back, what would you have done differently?
Lampe: This situation developed very quickly and, in many ways, we were ill-prepared for consumer reaction to our voluntary recall. Early on, I think we could’ve communicated more rapidly and with more information, but I think we’ve improved significantly in the past couple months. We’ll continue to find ways to communicate with all audiences more effectively.

During the dealer meeting, there was talk of using a celebrity spokesperson to support the Firestone brand. Has a celebrity been chosen at this point? What kind of attributes – or specifically who – is BFS looking for?
Lampe: I want to be very clear about this: restoring consumers’ faith in our tires is the single most critical element in rebuilding the Firestone brand. And that can only be done by the employees of Bridgestone/Firestone. It’s through our actions and our words, our commitment to our customers and to making the best tires on the road, that we begin to regain that trust. Now, if at some point we find a third-party who shares our values and our commitments, who believes in the Firestone name, and has the trust of the American public, then it is certainly an option we will strongly consider. But, ultimately, when a consumer decides to buy one of our tires it will be because we, as a company, have taken the necessary steps to regain their faith in our brand.

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A dealer in Mississippi has filed suit against BFS, charging, among other things, that misconduct by BFS had cost his dealership significant money. What’s your reaction to legal action by dealers?
Lampe: Our dealers are an important part of the Bridgestone/Firestone family. They’ve played a critical role in helping us through this recall. With that said, I certainly appreciate the toll the recall may have taken on them and their stores. They’ve stood on the front lines and helped our customers during a very difficult time. But their support has been unyielding, and that’s one of the things that has touched me the most in the past few months. Certainly, no one wishes to have a lawsuit filed against them, and we know most of our dealers aren’t considering this option.

You’ve expressed concern about is BFS’s ability to monitor and share data about warranty claims, adjustments and manufacturing quality. What specific steps have you taken to better analyze this information internally?
Lampe: Until recently this industry didn’t look at claims data or suits as a way to evaluate tire performance. We looked at proven indicators such as our adjustment data – it’s a larger database, and is easier to draw statistically significant conclusions from. With this recall, nothing in the adjustment rates suggested any problem. In retrospect we should’ve included claims data, particularly the severity of the claims that were filed. In the future, we’ll base our evaluations on a variety of data – proven indicators like adjustments, tests on the product line, tests in the field and claims data. This situation has made it very clear that we need to think differently about how we collect and analyze information. I continue to believe that both tire manufacturers and vehicle manufacturers must learn more about each others’ business and products in order to produce the safest and most reliable product possible.

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So much of the focus has been on the negative aspects of the Firestone recall. What positives do you think will come out of this situation?
Lampe: There is certainly a heightened awareness among consumers about tire safety in general, and we’re glad to see customers coming into our stores to ask about how to best care for their tires. I think the Rubber Manufacturers Association has done a great job of bringing this issue to the forefront with its survey showing that most consumers still have a lot to learn about tire maintenance. Tires are the only parts of the vehicle that actually touch the road, and for the sake of safety, it’s our responsibility to make sure consumers know how to properly maintain them.

At what point will you be satisfied that the Firestone brand has fully recovered from the damage caused by the publicity surrounding this recall?
Lampe: It’s my firm belief that a company must always strive for improvement, that it can never be satisfied. We’ll never stop looking for ways to enhance the quality of our products or the service we provide our customers. Our goal isn’t to return to what we were before, but to exceed that level and to become an even stronger company.

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