AKRON—"The news media has gone crazy.... It's like a feeding frenzy." That's how Joe Kay, manager of Northland Tire and Service in Southfield, Mich., described news media coverage of the Firestone tire recall.
On Aug. 9, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced a voluntary recall of 6.5 million light truck and sport-utility vehicle tires, the majority of which were original equipment on the Ford Explorer SUV.
In the weeks since, this story has generated a huge amount of national media attention, perhaps more than any tire industry story in the last two decades.
Mr. Kay and several other tire dealers told Tire Business that Firestone's brand name has been seriously compromised—they say unfairly—in the court of public opinion.
"The news media are scaring everybody to death," he said.
"Nothing's been proven (against Firestone)," said Mark Rhodes, president of Plaza Tire Service Inc. in Cape Girardeau, Mo. "That needs to be brought up."
Dennis Mangola, president and CEO of Am-Pac Tire Distributors Inc., blamed Ford Motor Co. for a lot of the adverse media coverage Firestone is receiving. "Ford is trying to protect their name at the expense of Firestone," he said.
Mr. Mangola said: "Someone needs to ask (Ford CEO) Jacques Nasser, `Why is your car (the Ford Explorer) the only one that's rolling over?' "
"Ford has at least as much blame," said Bruce Jergensen, general manager of Import Tire Co. in Glastonbury, Conn. "They (Ford) think the Explorer is the safest vehicle on the road."
"What about Ford?" asked Terry Westhafer, president and CEO of Central Tire Corp. in Verona, Va.
It will take some time to determine how the recall and the media attention will affect the bottom line at BFS. Since the recall, dealer reports regarding sales of other Firestone tire lines have been mixed.
Am-Pac is the largest BFS distributor in the western U.S., Mr. Mangola said, and the company's sales of Firestones were off in August, but less than he expected. "I'm amazed at how well it (the Firestone brand) did," he said.
At Import Tire, which has four retail stores and wholesale customers in New England and New York, Firestone-brand sales in August fell 20 percent from August 1999. "Dealers are a little concerned Firestone tires will sit on the shelves," Mr. Jergensen said. Firestones were about 30 percent of Import Tire's total tire sales before the recall.
Overall tire sales at Northland Tire were off about 13 percent in August, Mr. Kay said, and most of that he attributed to lower demand for Firestones—the dealership's primary tire brand.
Barry Steinberg, president and CEO of Direct Tire and Auto Service in Watertown, Mass., said he visited a Firestone company-owned store recently and there were no cars inside being serviced. Across the street, a Goodyear store was "rocking," Mr. Steinberg said, with all its bays filled.
But other dealers reported little change in Firestone sales considering the adverse publicity.
Angelo Scaglione Jr., vice president of King Bear Auto Service Centers, reported the dealership has seen very little impact on Firestone sales in the New York City area. King Bear is a BFS affiliate dealer and the recall "is not really hurting us," he said.
At a Winston Tire outlet in Mesa, Ariz., Firestone tires represent about 40 percent of total tire sales. "(Firestones) are not doing so bad," said Sewall Sachs, assistant manager.
In the Midwest, Randy Haas, president of Heafner Tire Group Inc.'s T.O. Haas Division, said Firestone brand sales have not dropped off.
Some industry analysts have predicted the demise of the Firestone brand name, but most of these dealers don't foresee that. However, they are concerned with the long-term effects of this situation on the tire industry as a whole.
Mr. Jergensen said the fact that the future of the Firestone brand has been cast into doubt is unfair, because Ford has at least as much blame, and the recall "is going to fall down on the whole (tire) industry."
King Bear's Mr. Scaglione said his dealership is standing behind the Firestone brand 100 percent. "In the long run, I don't think this will hurt that much," he said.
Direct Tire's Mr. Steinberg said a customer asked him how many plies were in a Dunlop tire because the customer had heard about tire plies on news reports about the recall. He said the general public now is questioning the integrity of the tire industry and not just Firestone tires.
"I think it will permanently damage the Wilderness line," said Bob Bleakley, owner of Crystal River Firestone in Crystal River, Fla. "I don't know how the company's going to be five or 10 years from now."
Will the adverse publicity hurt Firestone? "Yes," said Plaza Tire's Mr. Rhodes, answering his own rhetorical question. But will it cripple the company? "I don't think so," he added.
The Firestone brand still has equity and survived the 1978 recall of the Firestone 500, Mr. Haas said. The resurgence of the brand "depends somewhat on whether there are any more recalls," he said.
Mr. Mangola believes the fate of the Firestone brand is in the hands of independent tire dealers. He said the leadership of BFS initially tried to handle the crisis in the Japanese manner—as parent Bridgestone Corp. might have done.
"They (BFS) tried to keep everyone happy, but they got beat up in a U.S.-style street fight by Ford," he said.
"If the independent dealers fully understand what happened, what Ford and the media did to move the blame onto Firestone, then the Firestone brand will survive," he said.
Tire Business staff writers Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk and Vera Fedchenko contributed to this report.