AKRON-Taking the tack that the best defense is a strong offense, Goodyear has come out swinging against a TV investigative report that allegedly found overselling of parts and repairs at a number of the tire maker's corporate and independently owned auto service centers nationwide. The ABC News program 20/20 aired a segment Oct. 14 on the findings of a seven-month, ``major investigation of some of the biggest names in the automotive repair business,'' including Goodyear, Kmart Corp. and Firestone Tire & Service Centers.
An undercover team armed with a hidden camera began the probe last winter after the TV network said it spent nearly $2,000 getting a 1991 Chevy Lumina ``in perfect working order.'' It then had the vehicle examined by inspectors from the New York Department of Motor Vehicles.
Based on the premise that, through ``incompetence or just plain dishonesty,'' the auto repair business rips off thousands of motorists, the report keyed heavily on Goodyear.
It alleged that of the 12 corporate and six independently owned Goodyear shops 20/20 visited, 22 percent (i.e. four shops) made unnecessary repairs.
Five Kmart service centers escaped unscathed-though 20/20 said it suspected mechanics were tipped off about the impending investigation. It did, however, note the retailer is the target of a class action lawsuit alleging widespread auto service fraud.
Two Firestone company-owned stores passed the investigation with flying colors.
But another outlet with a Firestone banner, though not directly affiliated with the company, sold what 20/20 claimed were unnecessary repairs.
A statement issued from Goodyear's Akron headquarters blasted the report as outdated, ``slanted and a gross misrepresentation of Goodyear policy and practices.''
It claimed the ``seriously flawed'' hidden-camera footage was obtained by using untruthful descriptions of auto problem symptoms and rigged automotive parts and systems to deceive mechanics.
``Where is the honesty and fairness in that kind of reporting?'' questioned Goodyear Chairman and CEO Stanley C. Gault, pointing out that during the time it took the news show ``to compose the two very questionable cases it aired,'' Goodyear stores were satisfying more than 4 million customers across the country.
To stanch the anticipated flow of bad publicity, Goodyear ran a number of full-page print advertisements nationwide emphasizing the firm's trustworthiness.
After the 20/20 vehicle had received a clean bill of health from the show's automotive experts, it was taken to an independent Goodyear shop in New York's Bronx. There, the undercover team was told it would take $300 in repairs to fix a leaking transmission and replace bad struts. The car's struts had been replaced prior to the visit.
In another case, a 20/20 staffer loosened a fuel injector plug, then told another Goodyear shop the car was running roughly. A mechanic replaced a fuel injection module, but the problem persisted, 20/20 reporter Tom Jarriel said.
More than $300 later, the hidden camera showed the shop's mechanic reconnecting the plug. The service manager later insisted the new module was probably needed.
``Our own earlier investigation into the charges made by 20/20 revealed a satisfactory explanation for the very few customer transactions that 20/20 has chosen to air,'' Mr. Gault responded.
``We know that honest mistakes can and do occur. We want to thoroughly investigate all of 20/20's allegations. Unfortunately, 20/20 has refused and denied us access to its unused video and sound tapes of those customer transactions that would help us do so.''
To obtain a sampling of shops nationwide-and to not put undue wear on the car-it was shipped by trailer to various locations.
A mechanic in a Goodyear shop in Scottsdale, Ariz., told 20/20 the vehicle's strut-which he said ``holds up the weight of the car''-needed replacing, although Mr. Jarriel pointed out the strut had fewer than 400 miles on it.
Jerry Rosebluth, an auto expert used by 20/20 and the Arizona Attorney General's office, called the mechanic's statement a ``misrepresentation of gross caliber.''
But 20/20 said it received a letter from Goodyear defending the strut repairs.
The ABC news program also said that, 48 hours before a scheduled interview between 20/20 and Goodyear to discuss the results of the investigation, the tire maker dropped its long-standing policy of paying sales commissions to auto service technicians in its more than 900 company-owned service centers nationwide.
While the company did change its practice June 1-opting to pay mechanics a base hourly rate plus an amount based on their commission history-Goodyear said the revision was long-planned, not precipitated by 20/20.
Nevertheless, with their identities concealed, several current Goodyear mechanics said on camera it's still ``business as usual.''
One told 20/20 he's forced to ``oversell as much as possible to maintain quotas and keep productivity up,'' while another said that, although Goodyear changed its commission policy, ``after a couple weeks it was back to selling as usual to maintain quotas.''
Goodyear countered that the TV show ``knowingly slanted the circumstances to suggest such managerial actions encouraged over-selling.'' It said ``a number of former Goodyear employees-including some with an ax to grind,'' were contacted ``in the hope of getting them to say something negative about Goodyear policies.''
A spokesman for Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said the company was proud of its two corporate stores, which ``gave exemplary service'' to 20/20's car.
However, Lou's Service Center-a North Arlington, N.J., service station that 20/20 said sold it a major tune-up although the car had just had one-is not an authorized Firestone MasterCare center, the BFS spokesman said.
At BFS's request, shop owner Lewis Campanaro has agreed to remove any MasterCare or Firestone Tire & Service signage or other identification associated with company-owned outlets.
However, the shop is an approved Firestone dealer through a BFS-Sun Oil Co. agreement.