NAPLES, Fla.—You might think Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s competitors would be gloating over the recall problems of the Nashville, Tenn., tire maker.
But in separate speeches at TBC Corp.'s annual marketing meeting, executives from Goodyear, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and TBC each touched on the recall topic but refrained from taking shots at their ill-fated competitor.
Instead, they spoke about the recall's impact on the industry as a whole and defended the quality of tires it produces.
"One thing I've noticed is that all of Firestone's competitors have shown restraint in pointing the finger at BFS," said Larry Day, TBC president and CEO, in his "annual report" speech to the company's distributors in Naples Jan. 14-17.
"Is it because Firestone is so lovable? No. If anything, Firestone's pricing and marketing practices during the last several years have created more enemies than friends in the industry.
"The real reason," Mr. Day said, "is that, for once, I think all of us see how devastating an episode like the one surrounding Firestone and the Ford Explorer can be."
Bridgestone/Firestone voluntarily began recalling 6.5 million P-metric light truck tires last August after learning they may have been linked to accidents, some of them fatal, and mostly involving Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles.
"You may be surprised that I'm not choosing this moment to really put it to our competitors from Bridgestone/Firestone," Mr. Day told the more than 300 dealers and distributors gathered at the meeting. But "when every tire marketer and indeed every tire is looked upon with suspicion, it's everybody's problem."
That theme echoed throughout the speakers' comments.
Cooper Chairman and CEO Tom Dattilo said the industry welcomes any event that stimulates sales, "but not the way it happened last August at the expense of an old and proud competitor."
While Cooper competes keenly with BFS, he said, "I am extremely sympathetic to the situation at Firestone, and our entire industry has suffered as a result."
Cooper, he noted, also is the subject of a series of class-action lawsuits. "These lawsuits are being advanced by lawyers who are using scare tactics to alarm the public and use the tire publicity to make a huge paycheck for themselves," Mr. Dattilo said.
"This is legal extortion, plain and simple, and we won't stand for it. We will defend ourselves, and our industry and our customers vigorously."
Mr. Datillo assured those in attendance of Cooper's technology strengths, noting the company has made more than 300 million radial tires since 1990 that collectively have been driven 15 trillion miles.
In that time frame, "we've never lost a final judgment in a product liability lawsuit," he said.
Nor have there been many complaints about tire problems. From 1990 through September 2000, the Findlay, Ohio-based tire maker has had only 47 complaints filed against it with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "the lowest in the industry," Mr. Dattilo said.
John Polhemus, Goodyear's president of its North American Tire operations, never mentioned Bridgestone/Firestone by name in his speech, but he, too, addressed the subject.
"We all know what happened in the past several months to bring the topic of tires to the tops of minds of consumers, media, tire and auto makers, regulatory agencies, politicians and yes, even plaintiffs' attorneys," he said.
"All of this scrutiny has put the integrity of the entire industry under a microscope, quite unfairly I believe."
The industry, Mr. Polhemus explained, has seen major strides in tire performance and durability and he predicted scientific breakthroughs are coming that will offer even greater tire safety.
These include: conventional extended mobility systems, special wheel/tire run-flat systems, vehicle cornering systems, sensor-based and wheel rotation-based low pressure warning systems, built-in tire pressure supply devices and electronic heat and traction measurement systems.
But even without such technology, tires themselves have never been better, he said.
Of the more than 822 million tires driven a total of 2.4 trillion miles on U.S. roads in 1999, "only 645 accidents were determined to be tire related," Mr. Polhemus said. The leading cause in these incidents was underinflation followed by overloading, he said.
"As an industry we take every one of these accidents seriously, but this extremely low incidence rate does reflect an exceptional safety record for our industry."
Each year, the tire industry spends billions of dollars on research and development to improve tires and make them stronger and safer, Mr. Polhemus said.
The thought that consumer safety "isn't foremost in everything we do as tire companies is an absolute outrage," he said.
While the recall has generated unwanted publicity for the tire industry, it's also created an opportunity for tire dealers.
"Your customers are thinking about tires, tire safety, inflation pressure, vehicle operation and highway conditions more than they have in years, and for a responsible marketer of replacement tires, that can only be good," TBC's Mr. Day said.
With customers thinking about safety and reliability, "we should sell them safety and reliability, rather than just price," he said.
The industry also must do a better job of educating consumers about tires, Mr. Polhemus said.
Supporting the Rubber Manufacturers Association's new consumer tire safety campaign, Be Tire Smart, Play Your PART—an acronym for Pressure, Alignment, Rotation, Tread—is one way dealers can play a role, Messrs. Dattilo and Polhemus said.
Launched last November, the multi-million-dollar campaign seeks to heighten consumer awareness of the importance of taking care of tires.
As part of the program, the RMA launched a Web site, www. rma.org/tiresafety, that provides motorists with helpful hints about the need to maintain tires properly, including periodic alignments, rotation every 6,000 miles and checking air pressure every month.
"Anything we can do to promote consumer safety is in everyone's best interest," Mr. Dattilo said.