From Firestone Dealers, Spin -- Not Balance

You won't find many kind words for Ford in tire showrooms, where salesmen and managers are defending the tiremaker's reputation

Although Bridgestone/Firestone has been bloodied in its high-profile fight to retain -- or regain -- consumers' confidence, its sales-floor troops appear to be rallying. In the wake of Firestone's break with Ford Motor Co. on May 21, the day before the automaker's $3 billion recall of 13 million Firestone Wilderness tires used on its SUVs and pickups, tire dealers say they're ready to defend Firestone to wary consumers.

They also say the break with Ford was overdue, pointing out that Firestone's recall last August of 6.5 million tires, used mainly on Ford Explorers, diverted responsibility from the automaker, which had recommended that the tires be underinflated. Tire-tread separation was a factor in Explorer rollovers, which caused more than 100 deaths in the U.S. and Venezuela. The current recall, initiated by Ford and disputed by Firestone, was the equivalent of asking the tire company to take a second bullet for the automaker, dealers say.

"It is our obligation, whether we are a Firestone dealer or not, to bring the message to the public: Firestone does make a good product," says Bob Katz, vice-president of the New England Tire & Service Assn. and owner of Nu-Tread Tire in Boston, which sells a number of brands, including Firestone. Katz is selling fewer Firestone tires today than a year ago, but he's moving more of other brands made by Bridgestone/Firestone, such as Bridgestone, Dayton, and Dunlop.

"The retail customer belongs to the dealer, and his customers are going to trust what he's saying," says Dick Nordness, head of the Northwest Tire Dealers Assn. in Kennewick, Wash. "As a group, the dealers are supportive of Firestone. Whether they are flying the Firestone flag or only occasionally buy Firestone, most professional tire people realize this is a smokescreen put out by Ford."


  Very few dealers sell only one brand of tire, so they have something besides Firestone to offer customers leery of the name. In some cases, Nordness acknowledges, defending Firestone "is too much of a battle."

Paul Swentzel, CEO of S&S Firestone Inc. in Lexington, Ky., is one of the country's largest dealers, selling $150 million worth of tires annually in retail and wholesale operations across the South. "There is not a tire dealer out there who has lost faith in the Wilderness tire," Swentzel asserts, acknowledging -- "no doubt about it" -- that his own Firestone sales will be down this year. Last year, he sold his daughter's Ford Explorer after seeing the news reports of rollovers and tread separation. He thought the vehicle was unsafe. "I knew it wasn't the tires," Swentzel says. "I've sold more than a million of those tires and had no problem."

Firestone fared well in the 2000 Tire Brand Study, in which Tire Review magazine annually polls 500 tire dealers nationwide to gauge dealer perceptions of the brands they carry. That poll was done in June, two months before Firestone's recall began.

Jim Smith, editor of Tire Review, doubts last year's recall will effect how dealers rate Firestone tires this year. But he acknowledges it could have a big impact on how consumers regard them.


  "Both Ford and Firestone have a black eye in the mind of the consumer," says Smith. The break with Ford should have come sooner, he believes, and Firestone should be working hard to pinpoint the problem with the Explorer, if it exists. "This is far from over, and it is becoming a high-stakes game," says Smith. With last year's recall and the current one, "you're dealing with 19.5 million tires and a very bitter public divorce and you have little more than chart-flinging going on."

In announcing the recall May 22 of some 13 million Wildnerness all-terrain tires on its vehicles, Ford said the company based its decision on analysis of data from Ford, Firestone and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which it said indicates the Wilderness all-terrain tire "will probably experience elevated failure rates at some time in the future." CEO Jacques Nasser, in a written statement, said: "While some of the tires we are replacing do not have a substantial failure risk, we are offering to replace all Wilderness AT tires to avoid any confusion among our customers and eliminate any doubt about the quality of their tires." The company also distributed Transportation Dept. data showing that the Explorer ranked at or near the top in safety ratings among SUVs in its class, based on accident history.

Both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford have given data to the House Energy and Commerce Committee blaming one another for safety issues with the Explorer.

As Congressional hearings on the issue continue, the tiremaker is relying on its huge "Making It Right" ad campaign, launched in April and featuring CEO John Lampe, to reassure dealers and consumers that Firestone products are safe. "We want to get the message out that if any dealer or consumer has a question, we're willing to talk to them," said Phil Pacsi, director of Consumer Tires Brand Marketing for Bridgestone/Firestone.


  That's not enough, Smith says. "You have a $170 billion company beating up on a $7 billion company," he says, angry at Firestone for "playing the good supplier" for too long during the dispute.

Katz also believes the tiremaker is being unfairly bloodied, but he thinks it's probably necessary. The fact that Ford is a corporate giant compared to Firestone is precisely the issue, he says, noting that the Explorer represents close to one-third of the automaker's profits. "Can you imagine if Ford had to refund the cost of all those Explorers?" The economy, he says, "would be having a heart attack."

It remains to be seen how Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and consumers will diagnose the pain.

By Theresa Forsman in New York

Edited by Robin J. Phillips