NEW ORLEANS-It may not be the same as competing in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament, but Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. is striving for a coveted title of its own. The Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker wants to capture the ``tire industry championship.''
Company officials outlined their game plan for attaining the tire crown Oct. 10 during BFS's annual consumer tire dealer meeting in the Louisiana Superdome, site of three recent NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments.
Speaking on a stage resembling a basketball court, BFS officials drew analogies with championship sports teams in detailing what the company must do to reach the top.
It will take teamwork, dedication to fundamentals, consistency, innovation and superior personnel-qualities of championship teams, they told the 1,200 dealers in attendance.
It calls for gains in market share, innovative products, factory cost reductions and the continued commitment to its family channel of distribution, which is made up of independent BFS dealers and company-owned stores.
``Three years ago, we made the commitment to lead the industry in dealer relations,'' John Gamauf, vice president of consumer tire sales, told the assembled dealers. ``At the time, we were, frankly, way down in the pack.''
Since setting that goal, dealer unit sales have grown annually by double digits at a time when the market has been flat, he said.
They rose 20 percent over the industry in 1993, nearly 12 percent in 1994 and are on target to outpace the industry by 14 percent in 1995, Mr. Gamauf said.
BFS's total consumer tire market share also has inched up-climbing 1.4 percent in 1993, 0.8 percent in 1994 and should rise another 0.7 percent in 1995.
In 1996, BFS will strive for additional market share gains, but will not attempt to ``buy'' it using aggressively low prices, said John Lampe, president of Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Sales Co. Competitors can easily take such gains back through their own low-price strategies, he said.
``Rather, we will continue with our multibrand, multichannel strategy, supporting it with well-conceived promotional programs and the introduction of new products. This is how we have gained market share and held on to it in the past, and this is how we are going to increase our market share in the future,'' he said.
To help fuel its market share objectives, BFS will offer dealers several new replacement tires for 1996. They include, in the Bridgestone line:
Next generation H- and V-rated Turanza touring tires and, for the first time, a Z-rated Turanza. These tires will feature new tread patterns and sidewall designs and will be offered exclusively through the family channel;
The R273 commercial light truck tire, featuring a dual-rib sidewall protector, lighter weight and lower cost than the existing R265; and
The M773 LT commercial light truck tire, which will replace the D661 and features a dual rib, lighter weight and the appearance of a heavy truck radial.
``Both of these new commercial products will provide you higher margins than our existing line-up,'' said Shu Ishibashi, executive director of consumer tire marketing for Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Sales.
New Firestone-brand products for 1996 include:
A Z-rated Firehawk SZ50 featuring the same tread pattern as Firestone's Indy rain tire. This tire will replace the Firehawk SZ and will become the value tire in the Z-speed-rated market, Mr. Ishibashi said.
The F570, a premium, all-season, 60,000-mile passenger tire targeted at import vehicles, to be introduced in late 1995;
Replacement versions of the Firestone Wilderness light truck tire offered at OE and the repositioning of the FR360 passenger tire into the lower segment of the aftermarket; and
The Seiberling associate brand line also will be updated.
``The goal for the Firestone brand is to firmly establish its reputation as the value brand in America,'' Mr. Ishibashi said. ``This involves adding value to the Firestone name, while maintaining a price-competitive position for the Firestone product lines.''
For 1996, BFS will provide its family channel with targeted support programs in specific markets, including bringing show cars into dealers' markets for store appearances.
Dealers also will benefit from the Firestone brand's presence in Indycar racing. In this, its first year back after 21 years, the Firestone brand captured two Indycar victories, two pole positions and two other podium positions.
``Just the live ABC telecast of the Indy 500 alone generated $5 million worth of exposure for the Firestone brand-more exposure than Goodyear received,'' Al Speyer, BFS motorsports manager, told dealers. ``This is exactly what you had in mind when you asked us to return to Indy racing.''
Next year, the Firestone brand will participate in all Indycar racing, including the new racing series known as the Indy Racing League, Mr. Speyer said.
During the three-hour meeting, dealers also learned that:
BFS has made strides in securing original equipment contracts. The company is Ford's largest tire supplier, Mr. Gamauf said, and expects to achieve a 20-percent share of General Motors Corp.'s tire business by the end of the century, rebounding from GM's decision in 1988 to drop Firestone as a supplier.
New OE fitments for the Firestone brand in 1996 include the Ford Ranger and Explorer and the Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, shod with the Wilderness line, and the new Saturn, featuring the Affinity and FR680-02 lines.
Firestone also has secured its first OE contract in years with Honda on the redesigned Civic.
BFS sales are expected to reach $6.2 billion and net income $100 million in 1995, compared with $5.67 billion and earnings of $29 million in 1994.
The goal of the Bridgestone Group is to gain a 20-percent share of the global tire market, making the firm No. 1 in market share. ``This means we want to attain at least 20 percent share in every market,'' said Kenji Shibata, BFS president; and
BFS has embarked on a cost-cutting program similar to Bridgestone Corp.'s in Japan that already has reduced factory costs by 20 percent. The U.S. program, known as C95, ``will enable us to provide (dealers) with cost-competitive products in every segment of your merchandising plan,'' Mr. Lampe said.