DETROIT- A year ago, he was a hero. Jacques Nasser, the high-energy CEO of Ford Motor Co., had created the image of a company on the rise.
Not any more. Ford is hobbled as the Firestone tire fiasco tarnishes Jac Nasser's reign. He has had to defend his record and to declare-more than once-that he is on good terms with Chairman William Clay Ford Jr.
The 11-month tire crisis has eroded the notion that Ford is the auto maker of the future in Detroit.
Mr. Nasser himself acknowledged the Firestone burden. ``We were distracted by Firestone,'' he recently told stock analysts. ``There is no question the recall of 6.5 million bad tires had a tremendous impact on everybody.''
Before the Firestone crisis broke last August, Mr. Nasser talked boldly of galvanizing Ford's global work force to think single-mindedly of the customer. He ventured into cyberspace, pushing e-commerce initiatives at Ford. Mr. Nasser earned great press by pocketing Volvo Cars and Land Rover.
In October 1999, Mr. Nasser was pictured on the cover of Business Week. Inside, a headline said: ``Remaking Ford. In his quest to make Ford a more consumer-oriented powerhouse, Nasser is off to a fast start.''
Today, the climate at Ford is vastly different. Mr. Nasser is struggling to protect the Explorer, the company's profit maker linked in press reports with fatal rollovers. The Ford executive is engaged in a mudslinging contest with John Lampe, chairman of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
On the defensive, Mr. Nasser must regroup his forces, reeling from back-to-back crises.
Ford vehicles fell in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates quality ratings, ranking seventh behind General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler A.G. and four other auto makers.
``I am hoping to see some quality improvement this year, but it isn't going to be an instant turnaround,'' Mr. Nasser told the analysts.
The Firestone crisis was compounded by a critical miscalculation at Ford before it decided in May to recall 13 million tires at a cost of $2.1 billion. Ford vastly underestimated Bridgestone/Firestone's Mr. Lampe.
In the August recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, Ford outplayed Bridgestone's Japanese management in the court of public perception, successfully protecting the Explorer.
Today, Ford faces Mr. Lampe, a newly promoted corporate gunslinger who is firing back. He refused to join Ford in the current replacement of 13 million tires, placing the blame on the Explorer. He fired Ford, declining to enter into new original equipment contracts with the car maker in the Americas.
Defying Firestone's 96-year history with Ford, Mr. Lampe asked the Department of Transportation to investigate some Explorer models for a handling defect.
Faced with the attack and lackluster sales, Ford was forced to overhaul advertising for the 2002 Ford Explorer just weeks into a campaign created to promote the vehicle's first redesign in 10 years. Year to date through May, Explorer sales were off 21 percent, partly due to slow production during the model changeover.
Despite earlier denials by Mr. Nassar that a Ford management shakeup was in the wind, the auto maker on July 12 announced the reassignment of seven of its top vice presidents and the naming of Nick Scheele, previously chairman of the firm's European operations, as group vice president in charge of all North American operations. Ford said the move will ``more closely integrate key operations in North America and sharpen the company's focus on the customer.''