Bullish on Bridgestone

Jack Nerad's exclusive interview with John Lampe was made possible through the assistance of our sponsor, Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc.

Tough times bring out the best and the worst in us. They test our mettle, check our guts and determine if we have the right stuff. John Lampe, president and CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., knows what it is like to be over a barrel: The firestorm of controversy that has surrounded Firestone tires and the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle has gone on for more than a year now.

Under the media microscope, in a business crisis of the highest magnitude, Lampe has led his company with a resolute straightforwardness that has gained respect across the globe. Taking the reins of the company in the worst possible climate, he has addressed problems decisively, accepted blame when due, and made the hard business decision of voluntarily recalling some 6.5 million tires in an attempt to rebuild the credibility of one of America's most-trusted brands.

What is lost in much of the general media coverage of this story is the nuance, and in this story the nuance is all-important. It is easy for the media to report that Firestone recalled 6.5 million "defective" tires. The fact of the matter, however, is a very tiny percentage of the recalled tires showed any vague sign of defect. Though Firestone has admitted a very few tires it built did exhibit problems, the company went to the unprecedented step of replacing each and every one of the 6.5 million tires at no charge to its customers.

"We had an extremely, extremely small percentage of tires that we had seen with any sort of issue," Lampe told Driving Today, "but because we were so concerned about public safety and we wanted to make sure we did the right thing and did it quickly, we went ahead and announced a full-blown program to make sure we would capture that very, very small percentage, and I think we were very, very successful in doing that."

Further, while some members of the media and the public saw the voluntary recall as a huge blow to the Firestone brand, a significant number of customers actually affected by the recall were impressed by the action and the efficiency in which it was carried out.

"We were actually able to complete about 90 percent of the replacement program within the first four months, and it's virtually, for all practical purposes, complete as we speak," Lampe said. "We had a number of customers who couldn't believe we were going to replace their tires that had 60, 70, and 80,000 miles, that had their tires for five or six or seven years and never had an issue or a problem, and I think they appreciated the fact that we did this voluntarily, that we did this at absolutely no charge to the customer when we replaced them in our stores, and we got them back on the road again with new tires. So we had a lot of very, very pleased people."

Ironically, one of the potential causes of tire failure might be the advances in tire technology that have made today's tires so good many consumers are prone to neglect them. Lampe noted one car-owner responsibility that is ignored all too often is a simple tire pressure check. Firestone recommends that motorists check their tire pressure at least once a month, because all tires tend to lose some air pressure naturally over time. This can result in under-inflation, which in turn can lead to heat build-up, the mortal enemy of any tire. To reinforce this and other important safety issues with the public at large, Bridgestone/Firestone created Tiresafety, a Web site filled with important tips related to tire maintenance and use.

In addition to Tiresafety, Bridgestone/Firestone is also taking decisive efforts in its own stores and with its dealers to restore consumer confidence in the Firestone brand. As part of this consumer education effort, Firestone has given out more than two million air gauges to its customers, accompanied by information on choosing the right tire for the right application.

"It's not going to be a 24-hour program," Lampe said. "It's a long-term program to regain the trust and confidence of the people who have trusted our products for so long."

As to the results of these efforts, Lampe says he is encouraged by both the responses he has received from consumers who have decided to stick with the brand, and from consumers who might have wavered in their loyalty but now are returning to the brand.