LAS VEGAS—It lasted almost seven times as long as the 33.5-minute Tyson-Holyfield slugfest. But the news coming out of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s annual consumer dealer meeting—that the tire maker was greatly boosting production to fill surging product demand—still packed a heavyweight wallop.
Some were calling it the ``Thriller in Las Vegas''—the meeting, not the fight—though at times it was hard to tell whether the more than 2,000 tire dealers in attendance were witnessing a prize fight, a meeting or a slick Hollywood production. Sometimes, it was all three.
With all the flash and glitter befitting its Vegas backdrop, BFS intertwined a series of ``major announcements'' like the lacing on a pair of Everlast gloves. Based on a pugilistic motif, the ``eight-round'' meeting, which also featured a big ride-and-drive event, was geared at pumping up the enthusiasm of company execs and dealers alike.
And if dealers wondered how they were going to ``Prepare to Win!''—the meeting's theme—BFS left them few doubts.
But the tire maker did take its jabs. It admitted numerous times that dealers have clamored for more supply. Though an enviable testament to increasing unit sales, product shortages still have left many BFS dealers a bit punchy.
To meet that growing domestic demand, BFS President Kenji Shibata said the company will expand production in its U.S. and Canadian plants by 4.7 million passenger and light truck units next year, and will import 1 million more consumer tires from its Japanese parent company, Bridgestone Corp.
BFS will expand its Joliette, Quebec, plant in order to produce 1 million more units there; will add more equipment and molds at its plants in Decatur, Ill., and Oklahoma City to increase production at each by 1 million units; and will bump up production at its La Vergne, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., factories. All that to the tune of $430 million in capital expenditures in 1997 and 1998.
The increased production is necessary, Mr. Shibata said, even though BFS has boosted output by 18 million passenger and light truck units since 1991.
In convincing boxing-match spirit, dealers at the meeting's general session, held in the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, whistled and cat-called as, one by one, BFS executives garbed in boxing shorts, their ``fighter names'' emblazoned on the backs of satin robes, entered an actual boxing ring set up on the auditorium's main floor.
Along with Kenji ``The Enforcer'' Shibata, there was John ``The Kansas Tornado'' Lampe, president of Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Sales Co. (BFTS); Shu ``The Intimidator'' Ishibashi, BFTS executive director of consumer tire marketing; and John ``The Bull'' Gamauf, BFTS vice president of consumer tire sales.
As each entered the ring to discuss upcoming plans, he followed a scripted ``interview'' conducted by Jack Arute and Paul Page of ABC-TV sports, or ESPN's Roy Firestone.
Mr. Lampe announced BFS is launching new information technology systems—a major project examining every facet of its business, from billing, to physical distribution, to manufacturing.
The primary goals, he said, are:
Providing dealers with the right products at the right place at the right time;
Reducing the time between a dealer's tire order and when it's delivered; and
Making BFS customer support systems more user-friendly.
``When a dealer calls our customer service department to place an order, our rep should have automatic and immediate access to any information the dealer requires,'' Mr. Lampe said.
BFS has posted four straight years of sales and market share gains, Mr. Lampe said, and is expected to achieve sales this year of $6.5 billion, up from $6.1 billion in 1995. Net income is expected to reach $180 million—$50 million more than last year.
Dealers also were told the company plans to kick off a major network TV advertising campaign next spring to promote its ``Uni-T'' tire technologies, as well as a new Firestone passenger tire.
To provide dealers with a more comprehensive multi-brand program, Shu Ishibashi said the marketing efforts of BFS' Dayton Tire subsidiary have been combined with those for the Bridgestone and Firestone brands.
Dayton and BFTS sales forces will not be combined, he explained, but will work together to determine which dealers are ideally suited to carry which BFS brands.
``We will provide more comprehensive point-of-sale and retail promotion support to our family dealers,'' he vowed, including a consumer-oriented Uni-T video by April 1.