NASHVILLE, Tenn.—If anyone has his work cut out for him these days, it's John Gamauf, vice president, consumer tire dealer sales for embattled Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
In the wake of the company's recall of 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT P-metric light truck tires, he's the guy on the front lines, providing Firestone dealers with updated recall information, enough tires and—perhaps this is the hardest part—a positive attitude despite the blizzard of bad publicity about the brand.
While the number of retail customers suffering from "recall fever" has apparently begun to diminish somewhat, BFS execs are finding that there isn't any magic chicken soup-type elixir for the weakness in Firestone sales some dealers are experiencing. And telling dealers to "pop a couple of aspirins and call me in the morning" just won't cut it.
Firestone comprises the bulk of the major brand sales of BFS, and Mr. Gamauf pledged that the tire maker has "every intention of rebuilding the brand."
The 31-year company exec has been buoyed by support BFS continues to receive from what he calls the "best dealer base in the industry."
In his trademark upbeat yet "take-no-prisoners" style, Mr. Gamauf vowed: "We'll survive. Not only because of our good dealers, but because they believe.|.|.|in the company."
But the weeks since the voluntary recall was announced Aug. 9 haven't been easy ones.
The way Mr. Gamauf sees it, persons working in a retail tire store have two approaches to a customer who explicitly doesn't want Firestones: "They can take the path of least resistance and sell another brand. Or take the time to ask about why the customer doesn't want a Firestone and talk about it."
Of the brands BFS sells direct to customers through its Affiliated Dealer program, Firestone has always topped the list, accounting for 50 to 55 percent of the product mix, followed by 25 percent for Dayton and 15-20 percent for the Bridgestone brand.
While total August sales were off 6 percent, Mr. Gamauf said sales that month for the affiliated group rose 15 percent overall vs. the same 1999 month—with those of the Firestone brand accounting for 51 percent (up 3 percent) of the dealers' total volume.
For the year through Aug. 31, sales in the dealer channel were up almost 750,000 units over the same 1999 period, he said, and that figure does not include recall adjustment tires.
Total brand sales in September were off about 15 percent vs. 1999, he said, and early indications are that October sales are down by between 15 and 20 percent.
As for the TireStarz program that BFS rolled out through wholesale distributors in late 1998, August payouts to distributors for the Bridgestone and Firestone brand were up 6 percent over those of July. That, he believes, translates to solid support for the brands.
TireStarz currently has 30 distributors across the country. They, in turn, service some 513 dealers.
Bill Pace, manager of TireStarz USA, said while "some people say we're dead in the water, to the contrary, we're still signing TireStarz dealers—at least four in September alone." He has seen "a lot of effort taken by our distributors to go out and calm down our (dealer) customers" about the recall.
TireStarz field staffers have been working counters alongside TireStarz dealers and with TireStarz distributors, Mr. Pace said. Anything to help out. "We elect to look up instead of down, and our TireStarz people are real clear about what we need to do to help our dealers."
Mr. Gamauf said he understands the frustration of many dealers who "want us to stand up, fight for ourselves and talk about this situation being something more than just a tire problem."
Dealers who "are `gum-dipped'—who live and breathe selling our brands—are totally committed," he said.
They've also sent letters to BFS brass. One, obtained by Tire Business, was written by the head of one of the nation's largest dealer marketing groups. In it, he told Bridgestone/Firestone's then-CEO, Masatoshi Ono, of "panicked customers" tying up service bays and the Firestone name provoking fear in the public's mind.
"We're doing all we can to take care of the customer in a professional manner," he wrote, "but we're consistently having to defend ourselves against an avalanche of bad publicity. We need your help."
The dealer went on to ask for a concerted effort by BFS to "neutralize the bad publicity immediately" and "disseminate unbiased, candid information through a national advertising campaign...."