Bridgestone/Firestone's top priority for 2004 is to make its North American Tire unit profitable, according to Mark Emkes, the newly named chairman and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Holding Inc.
Mr. Emkes, 50, who takes over the top jobs at Bridgestone Americas April 1 from the retiring John Lampe, said getting North American Tire back into the black will require improvements on several fronts, including completing negotiations for a new labor contract, reshuffling the firm's original equipment product mix, redoubling its Firestone brand promotion and continuing to build good relations with its independent dealers.
Mr. Emkes should have clear insight as to the task ahead of him: he's been chairman, CEO and president of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire L.L.C. for the past 15 months.
``The last time I checked, banks don't take market share, but they will take cash,'' he said, commenting on the need to focus more on profits and less on market share.
He pointed out that while Bridgestone Americas has been profitable the past two years, the earnings came from Latin America, the company's Firestone retail store network and the non-tire diversified products businesses. North American Tire, which comprises manufacturing, aftermarket distribution and original equipment business, is still operating in the red.
Mr. Emkes anticipates the unit will get close to breakeven in 2004 and will be profitable in 2005.
At this point, Bridgestone/Firestone and the United Steelworkers of America have no new contract talks scheduled, but Mr. Emkes said he's confident the two sides can get back to the bargaining table ``in the not too distant future.''
``It's key to get both sides sitting in the same boat,'' he said. ``We need to be competitive in North America, and there are various ways to be competitive. We need to look at those ways.''
As for the OE market, Mr. Emkes said BFS is rethinking its presence with the North American auto makers and being more selective in order to improve that business' ability to operate profitably.
Although BFS was relatively quiet at the recent North American International Auto Show, Mr. Emkes said the firm has several new OE products in the pipeline for selected 2005 and '06 models, including a 20-inch fitment for General Motors Corp.
At the same, though, Mr. Emkes pointed out BFS has turned its attention more to the tuner market, developing larger and larger diameter sizes and even creating a new brand, Fuzion, to tap into the edgy market niche.
``We're even starting to see the development trend of OE leading replacement being interrupted by the tuner market,'' he said, ``and the OEMs adopting tuner styles to their future products.''
In the aftermarket, BFS intends to ``throw more money at Firestone'' this year, reviving the ``where the rubber meets the road'' advertising campaign and other promotions.
``I've had the opportunity to visit with lots of dealers the past 12 months, and they've been telling me to revive the Firestone brand,'' Mr. Emkes said, noting that Firestone brand sales were up in 2003 over '02 without a lot of extra promotion effort.
Mr. Emkes said a key to North American Tire's success this year and in years hence will be the continued growth of the Family Channel and TireStarz retailer support programs.
``It's very important for us to do everything possible to help dealers make money,'' he said, ``because if they're successful, we will be successful.''
Mr. Emkes is in his 27th year with BFS, having started at Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in 1976 as a retail store manager in Baytown, Texas, after graduating from the American Graduate School of International Management (Thunderbird).
Thereafter, he spent most of the next 23 years in international assignments, including stints as president of Bridgestone/Firestone de Mexico (1990 to 1997) and Bridgestone/Firestone do Brazil (1997 to 2000). He returned to the U.S. in late 2000 to accept the assignment as president, Bridgestone/Firestone Latin American operations. He took the reins at North American Tire in late 2002.