NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Masatoshi Ono's tenure at Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has ended—not with a bang but a whimper.
Mr. Ono, 63, officially stepped down Oct. 10 as chairman, CEO and president of the Nashville-based tire maker, ending weeks of speculation that he would leave following its recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires and the accompanying firestorm of negative publicity.
Succeeding him is John T. Lampe, 53, most recently executive vice president of BFS and president of Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Sales Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Truck Tire Sales Co.
"It's the only place I've ever worked," Mr. Lampe said at the Oct. 10 press conference announcing his appointment. He began his career with the old Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in 1973, changing tires and oil at a Firestone store in Cincinnati. Later he served in management positions in Denmark, Singapore, Brazil and Costa Rica before returning to the U.S. to serve as president of the company's Dayton Tire operations.
Replacing Mr. Lampe as second-in-command is Isao Togashi, 58, currently senior vice president of tire production and product technology for parent firm Bridgestone Corp. in Japan. Mr. Togashi, part of a new management team Mr. Lampe said he will form over the next several weeks, will head manufacturing and development at BFS as well as serving as vice chairman.
Mr. Ono was not present at the press conference. Mr. Lampe said his former boss was "in the process of returning to Japan," and was still a member of the Bridgestone board of directors. He also said Mr. Ono would discuss his future role at Bridgestone with Chairman Yoichiro Kaizaki when he returned to Tokyo.
This marked a sad departure for the man who received wide credit for rejuvenating Firestone, increasing profits from $6 million in 1993 to $546 million in 1999.
Among other things, Mr. Ono was given credit for expanding the Bridgestone subsidiary's customer relationships; promoting communication among its 22 business units; revitalizing the Firestone brand by re-entering Indy car racing; and leading company efforts to increase productivity.
None of these accomplishments apparently made any difference, however, when last month Mr. Ono faced hostile questioning from congressmen and senators who demanded to know why he allowed the manufacture of tires whose tread separations—according to the latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—allegedly have resulted in the deaths of at least 119 Americans.
Just as Firestone has been Mr. Lampe's sole employer, Mr. Ono has never worked for any company except Bridgestone, joining the Japanese tire maker in 1959, where he held many production and manufacturing jobs.
He was named to Bridgestone's board in 1987; came to the U.S. as executive vice president of manufacturing and technology for BFS in 1991; was named BFS president in 1992; and became BFS chairman and CEO as well as executive vice president of Bridgestone a year later.
Deposed Oct. 9 by attorneys seeking class-action certification for lawsuits against Ford Motor Co. and BFS, Mr. Ono said he offered to retire in September, citing poor health.
Mr. Lampe confirmed this at the press conference, saying Mr. Ono asked Mr. Kaizaki several weeks ago if he could retire and return to Japan, but "Mr. K. asked him to wait."
During the eight-hour deposition, Mr. Ono also said the apology he made to the American people at congressional hearings should be construed only as "a sympathy expressed for those individuals who operated vehicles using our products and got into accidents," and not as an admission that the products themselves were defective.
Mr. Lampe, who also was deposed Oct. 9, expanded on Mr. Ono's statements at the press conference. "We acknowledge and accept responsibility that we have performance issues in a very small percentage of our tires," he said. "To call them defects would indicate you know what they are. We continue to investigate, but we don't know the root cause or combination of causes."
Answering a question about Ford's insistence that BFS alone is responsible for tread separations on the Ford Explorer, Mr. Lampe said: "I'm tired of hearing that the whole blame rests upon the tire. Everybody who's looked at the statistics...or reviewed the government data realizes only a very small percentage of rollovers have been attributed to tires."
During the press conference, he also said he had spent "the past 60 days" talking to BFS employees, customers and dealers.
"Their sense of loyalty to this company has been amazing and very, very gratifying," he said. "But the question has come up: What's going to happen to the company?"
He predicted BFS would bounce back stronger from its current troubles, though it needed "to be realistic" about the challenges it faces in light of people around the world "questioning our integrity and the safety of our tires. And we know that we can't blame anyone else for people losing faith in Firestone products.
"I want my first act as the new CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone to be an apology to those who have suffered personal losses or have had problems with our products," he said. "The burden is on us to earn your trust all over again. But it will take more than words. It will only be through our actions that people will once again think well of Firestone."
Mr. Lampe announced a three-pronged action plan to help the company regain its reputation, including:
Placing "No. 1" priority on finishing the recall. He said more than 4.2 million recalled tires have been replaced so far, and that he was "confident that we will complete this initiative during November." He also said Mr. Kaizaki estimated Bridgestone will have to take another $100 million charge against earnings to account for the costs of the recall, in addition to the $350 million charge already taken.
Assembling a new management team for BFS, led by Mr. Togashi, who will conduct a thorough review of the company's manufacturing and process controls, research and development and quality assurance activities.
Focusing on innovation—"and by innovation I mean a fresh approach to the way we do business," Mr. Lampe said. "One important area is data. It is clear we need to think differently about how we collect and analyze information."
Elaborating on this in the question-and-answer session, Mr. Lampe said the tire maker ought to have "a better (data) reporting system." The problem is that the company has many departments generating data. "We need to make sure our data gets back to one place responsible for data collection," he said.
BFS also needs to take a good look at how it interacts with its original equipment tire customers, Mr. Lampe said. "Previously, we would design tires to meet our customers' specifications. But we didn't look at how the tire relates to all the aspects of the vehicle."
One idea Mr. Lampe rejected out of hand was changing the Firestone name.
"Firestone has been here for 100 years," he said. "It has a tremendous history. Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were the best of friends, working together to create the auto industry as we know it.
"We just celebrated our centennial, and we had fourth-generation employees at the celebration.|.|.|. No one is willing to give up the name of Firestone."