AKRON-On Aug. 1, 2000, a dozen tire dealers and a couple of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. executives boarded a ship, baited their fishing hooks and cast their lines into the cold waters off the Alaskan coast.
The four-day expedition netted 60 pounds of salmon and 150 pounds of halibut just for John Gamauf, BFS vice president of consumer tires, and even more fish for current BFS Chairman John Lampe, who was then executive vice president. The two men were enjoying their outing in Alaska, unaware of the gathering storm clouds in Washington that would overtake Bridgestone/Firestone only eight days later.
``Our biggest concern on Aug. 1 was how we were going to get our fish home from Alaska to Nashville, Tenn., so that I could get it home in my freezer before it would thaw,'' Mr. Gamauf said. ``I wasn't worried about recalling any Wilderness tires.''
Since the 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT recall on Aug. 9, Mr. Gamauf has been reeling in a much bigger catch-the support of BFS dealers. He has crisscrossed the country, rallying BFS' troops around the company's products-and the strategy has resulted in overwhelming loyalty from independent dealers who are now praising the tire maker's decision to end its supply relationship with Ford Motor Co.
As the front man in BFS' communication with its dealers, Mr. Gamauf has met with them to explain how the company has addressed its recall and how it will rebuild the Firestone brand. On May 22-the day Ford announced its 13 million tire replacement program and one day after BFS cut its ties with the auto maker-Mr. Gamauf did not change his plans. He spoke to approximately 400 dealers in Ontario, Calif., then prepared for a May 23 talk with about 100 dealers in Phoenix.
``Ford made their decision to do what they needed to do, and life goes on,'' Mr. Gamauf said. ``It's like a divorce.''
By mid-June, BFS expects to have reached more than 5,000 dealers through these grassroots meetings-which for now have replaced the large-scale, annual dealer gatherings held in past years. With smaller audiences, Mr. Gamauf has been able to talk to dealers individually as well as collectively, emphasizing the quality of Firestone products and urging dealers to do the same with customers.
``They encourage me,'' he said. ``Every meeting I go to, I get more handshakes, more pats on the back. It's like a revival meeting. It's awesome.''
If necessary, he said he will continue the meetings during the second half of 2001. So far, Firestone brand sales in May are on track to exceed the first four months by 500,000 tires, putting BFS within 10 percent of the Firestone sales numbers it posted for the same period in 2000, Mr. Gamauf reported.
``I don't have to sell dealers on the quality of our products,'' he said. ``They all know it. They all know we got screwed on this deal. They're all willing to continue to sell our products even if it takes extra effort.''
Customers may not know whether to trust BFS or Ford, he said, but they know they can trust their independent dealers with whom they've done business for years, and ``those are the people who are going to help us fight the fight and win the battle.''
Though the long-range effects of the BFS-Ford split still are uncertain, he said the tire maker does not plan to alter its ``Making It Right'' ad campaign launched in April, nor its new ad campaign featuring Indy-car drivers Mario and Michael Andretti touting the quality of Firestone tires.
And BFS will not watch business slip away without a fight, he added. ``One thing we're not going to be doing is sitting in Nashville, Tenn., in our offices. We're going to be out talking to our customers.''