Loyal independent tire dealers. They helped Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. weather the voluntary recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires last August.
And they will help the beleaguered tire maker overcome the latest recall storm-this one a Ford Motor Co. additional replacement of 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires.
The ongoing loyalty of Bridgestone/Firestone's 8,000-strong independent tire dealer network is one of the untold stories in the Firestone-recall saga of the past year.
Firestone dealers, for the most part, have rallied around their tire supplier and continue to support the brand.
This is due in no small part to the efforts of Bridgestone/Firestone executives, who have been meeting with dealers across North America during the past few months to talk about the recall and explain the company's position.
The loyalty of Firestone independent tire dealers is important in trying to understand what may happen with the brand in the future. There are lots of ``authorities'' predicting the demise of the Firestone label.
But most of these people have reached their conclusions without taking into account those on the front lines-the independent retailers who sell and service the tire-buying public. Many consumers rely on independent tire dealers to guide them in their purchasing decisions.
The key word here is independent. Tire dealers today have many brands to choose from in their businesses.
They don't have to stick with a brand if they're not satisfied with it-and they won't unless they have confidence in it.
If Firestone dealers believed the tires they were selling were unsafe, they wouldn't continue to stock and sell them to the public. Why put their company's future in such jeopardy?
Instead, they likely would shelve the brand and pick up one of the many others available in the market.
The fact that they haven't speaks volumes.
The latest recall by Ford will test Bridgestone/Firestone's independent tire dealers once again.
Ford said it has lost confidence in the Wilderness AT tires and is replacing them at a net cost of $2 billion. Bridge-stone/Firestone claims the tires are safe and shouldn't be recalled.
Concerned customers will be visiting their local independent tire dealerships seeking replacement tires and looking for answers and assurances.
What dealers have to say in response will go far in determining the future of the Firestone brand. Don't be surprised if Bridgestone/Firestone dealers-most of whom have never seen a tread separation in a Wilderness AT tire-remain overwhelmingly positive.