NASHVILLE, Tenn. (June 21, 2001)—“It didn't have to come to this,” said John T. Lampe, president, chairman and CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., about the volcano of controversy that has erupted over his firm and Ford Motor Co.
Bridgestone/Firestone at least is owning up to its share of the blame in tread separation accidents, mostly on Ford Explorers, that took the lives of 203 U.S. motorists, according to Mr. Lampe. He believes that Ford is not doing so, and that was one of three messages he said he wanted to get across to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing June 19.
Mr. Lampe, in one of a series of phone interviews he granted to the business press June 20, indicated he was pleased with the testimony he gave at the joint hearing of two Energy and Commerce subcommittees. One point that came across clearly, he said, was that “our tires are safe and perform well in all conditions.” Another was that “we need to understand the Ford Explorer” and the role Bridgestone/Firestone believes its design played in causing the accidents.
“We need to have solid answers to tough questions,” he said.
But Mr. Lampe particularly stressed the lack of cooperation his firm received from Ford, both in his testimony and in the next day's interview.
“We've been trying to work with Ford since last fall on tire and vehicle issues,” he said. “But we contacted them and contacted them with evidence about the Ford Explorer, and they never answered us, so we had to go it alone.”
The constant negative publicity about the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires—fueled by Ford's unilateral recall of 13 million Wilderness AT tires on top of Bridgestone/Firestone's original, 6.5-million-tire recall—has hurt Bridgestone/Firestone badly.
Pending litigation—more than 200 personal injury lawsuits consolidated in Indianapolis federal court, as well as various non-federal actions including a $1 billion suit just filed in Florida—alone is a major threat to the Nashville-based tire maker. But Mr. Lampe insists the company's wounds are not fatal.
“It's no secret that this past year has been a struggle for us,” Mr. Lampe said at the hearing. “But I believe, with all my heart, we're going to make it.”
Expanding on this in the interview, Mr. Lampe said the Firestone brand's original equipment business is “tracking very close to last year as to market share. The whole industry is a little off this year, but we've been doing very well.” As for replacement sales, “Firestone has been impacted, there's no denying that. But the Bridgestone, Dayton and Road King brands are way up from last year.
“I believe in the Firestone brand, as do 45,000 co-workers and thousands of Firestone dealers,” he added. “In 1992, the Firestone brand was stagnating, but by 1998, we had doubled its sales. We're going to do the same thing this time.”
Mr. Lampe credited the loyalty and support of the Firestone dealer organization for the company's continued strong performance. “Last year it was all doom and gloom, and everybody said our dealers would drop us like flies,” he said. “That just hasn't happened.”
Firestone dealers have had to deal with a lot of fear and confusion in the past year, Mr. Lampe noted, particularly since the controversy over Firestone tires doesn't reflect their experience with the brand.
“You know our dealers are selling millions of tires, and they never see a problem,” he said. Mr. Lampe said his testimony should help dealers, because it helped to clear the air about the brand. “I've heard from a number of dealers today, and they were all very, very pleased with my testimony,” he said.
Asked why the public should believe Bridgestone/Firestone's story instead of Ford's, Mr. Lampe said all you need to do is compare the testing both companies performed and funded.
Regarding the study by Dennis Guenther of Ohio State University, which concluded that Ford Explorers suffer from significant oversteer, Mr. Lampe said Mr. Guenther's tests are easily replicable and involve normal driver behavior at normal highway speeds.
On the other hand, Ford's testing of Firestone tires “was done at such an extreme level that of course the tires would fail,” he said. “But not everybody's going to understand that. We welcome any private or government third parties to do the dynamics testing done by Dr. Guenther, because they'll be able to very easily replicate Dr. Guenther's findings.”