AKRON—In order to determine how deep dealer support goes for Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and its Firestone brand, Tire Business contacted some companies that make their livelihood on that tire maker's stable of product lines.
So far, their allegiance has not appeared to wane.
Among TireStarz distributors, S&S Tire Inc. in Lexington, Ky., commands 10 percent of that program's dealer base.
Paul Swentzel, S|&|S president, conceded the recall's had some effect on his 60 TireStarz dealers, but "not nearly as much as I'd anticipated. They're hanging real tough and I'm real proud of them."
Leafing through a file of freshly crunched sales numbers through Sept. 27, he told Tire Business that some 85 percent of his TireStarz dealers "made their quotas" and he predicted, when all the figures are in, at least 95 percent will hit their marks.
Additionally, S&S has signed on at least three new TireStarz dealers since the recall, and sales of the Firestone brand in the distributor's own 20 retail stores have been "excellent," Mr. Swentzel said.
To be a TireStarz dealer, participants agree to dedicate 51 percent of their product mix—or 150 units per month, whichever is greater—to a combination of Firestone, Bridgestone and associate brands including Dayton, Road King, Gillette and Seiberling, depending on what the dealer's distributor carries. Of that, at least 50 percent has to be a blend of Bridgestone and Firestone flag brands.
On the other hand, the tire maker's Affiliated Dealer program requires a 75-percent in-house share of BFS brands.
While convincing some retail customers to buy a Firestone is a tough sale, he has found many consumers still support the brand. "If you take the time to tell the story, you don't have a problem.... The reason for that, first off, is the truth's powerful. And that's what we tell our people."
S&S revenue from Firestone passenger and light-truck tires averages about $30 million annually. Last year, S&S sold about 600,000 Firestone tires, with that brand's ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires in the recalled P235/75R15 size the biggest sellers. In the first half of this year, Mr. Swentzel estimates the company sold 167,000 of those tires and probably about 1 million overall.
As far as adjustments on those tires? "We've never seen the first bad tire. Not one," he said.
Mr. Swentzel sees the battle of the brand fought in two arenas:
"The integrity and public image of Firestone have to be defended by BFS, he believes. The tire maker "has to do that through a national campaign of some sort."
"But the real battle will be fought on the retail floor, and our TireStarz dealers are doing a great job fighting that battle. But to keep them enthused, we have to reward them. You have to have incentives in order for people to believe in you, to take the time to tell the truth—that we've sold millions of these tires and have had no problems."
BFS is giving incentives to customers "to stay on their numbers, to go out there, fight the battle and tell the truth," he added, reiterating: "The truth's powerful."
What do you do when you've got a 3-foot by 12-foot Firestone sign in front of your sole retail store and BFS-made tires are all you sell?
It hasn't been easy for Jeff Voigt, who's owner/manager of Bastrop Tire & Automotive L.L.C., along with his wife, Cheree.
They've seen the initial furor caused by the recall subside somewhat. Still, he said, "I do have people calling in to price tires. Once they find out it's a Firestone, they don't want to buy the product.
"It's been a difficult sale right now, even though I still believe in and think it's an excellent product. But we're finding some customers reluctant to buy Firestones."
Nonetheless, he'll stick with the brand—and keep his Firestone sign up, though he's looking to add some Michelin brands at least temporarily.
Typically, the dealership, in Bastrop, Texas, achieves tire sales growth from 15 to 20 percent every month. "July was phenomenal and August was still pretty good," Mr. Voigt said. But unit sales dropped 20 percent off the pace in September—the first month ever that tire sales fell when compared with previous years' numbers.
The Voigts have, since March 1996, owned the store in central Texas, 30 miles east of Austin. This summer, temperatures soared above 100 degrees for more than 30 days straight—reportedly prime conditions for tire failures to occur.
If other light-truck tire lines including Goodyear, Michelin, Uniroyal and Kelly were held up to the same scrutiny as Firestones, he believes "you'd see an equal, if not greater, failure rate." Practically daily, he has replaced many non-Firestone tires that failed due to tread separations. "The problem right now is that all eyes are focused on Firestone."
BFS "has one of the best programs out there for the independent dealer," Mr. Voigt noted. "They've got good dealer support, the pricing is excellent. There's also availability of other products for my shop, such as chemicals, brakes, filters—at very good buying prices."
As he spoke, there were two vehicles in his service bays getting recalled tires changed.
Many of those tires he's serviced have exceeded their 60,000-mile treadwear warranty. "We've pulled off numerous (recalled) tires in the 70,000-mile range that still have 5/32nds or 6/32nds tread remaining" with no problems. But he also has noticed some Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles running on tires with only 21 or 22 psi.
He suggested dealers begin to keep a log on defective tires they service, to prove that not only Firestones have problems. And he urged BFS to "do some advertising, get the facts out there and try to get some numbers on other brands that are failing.|.|.|. What's happening is, anytime a customer comes in now with a flat, they perceive that as being a defective tire.
"It's become really difficult and tiresome to defend the Firestone line, which I still believe in. But your product is only as good as your public perceives it to be.
"And right now Firestones have a real bad public image problem."
A lot of the approximately 32 TireStarz dealers in northern New England supplied by Colchester, Vt.-based University Wholesalers Inc. are apparently angry. They're ticked about what they perceive as an unjustified beating BFS has taken at the hands of the media and others.
"Most of our TireStarz dealers have been very, very supportive of BFS," said Bob Hepp, University Wholesalers president. "...They feel mad about it—that Firestone has really been taken to the cleaners...and in a lot of cases, not justifiably so.
"I'm seeing total support for BFS, based on the experience that the tires have worked for (dealers) all these years."
Thus far, the distributor has handled close to 9,000 recalled tires and, Mr. Hepp noted, "we have removed and cut up 9,000 perfectly good tires without seeing a single tread separation in any of them."
Besides the Firestone, Bridgestone and Dayton brands, the company also carries Nokian tires.
Among its BFS brands, sales in August were steady but fell off 20 to 30 percent in September. Mr. Hepp said his Dayton brand sales have increased between 5 and 10 percent as some dealers began pushing non-Firestone tires.
But many "still spend a lot of time trying to put Firestones on customers' cars. They believe that's the best product, though some people say they want some other brand."
TireStarz dealers will still have to meet their quotas of BFS-made tires. But through the end of the year, he said, the tire maker doesn't plan to "penalize people for their mix"—if, for instance, they add a higher percentage of Dayton brand.
Shortly after the recall began, Mr. Hepp opened his wallet to the tune of about $1,300 to run an ad that had statewide coverage in the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press. It was co-signed by one of his TireStarz dealers, Terry Sheahan, president of Goss Tire Co. Inc., which has six locations in Vermont and two in upstate New York.
In it, they outlined "Important Facts Concerning the Firestone Recall Here in Vermont." Detailing how consumers should approach the situation, the ad also pointed out: "According to the information available to us from Firestone, Ford and NHTSA, not one account of a failure of this type (tread separation) has been reported in Vermont in the last 10 years."
Mr. Hepp is confident the Firestone brand will survive.
BFS "doesn't deserve this," he said. "They're making good tires. I'm a guy who handles them.
"They've helped me grow my business," he added, "and right now they need our help."
If there is any silver lining to this dark recall cloud, Mr. Hepp believes a lot more motorists are finally paying attention to the proper inflation pressure and maintenance of their tires.