To many Bridgestone/Firestone dealers, John Gamauf is known as much for his wardrobe of many colors and outgoing, straightforward personality as he is for being the face of the tire maker to dealers during the dark days of the Firestone tire recall in 2000.
During that time Mr. Gamauf, then vice president of consumer tires, traveled extensively-some 300 days out of the year-to assure dealers that Firestone tires were safe and that the brand would survive.
``You can't do anything from the ivory tower,'' he recently told Tire Business.
Mr. Gamauf committed to visit as many dealers as possible to ``spread the gospel'' and listen to concerns and questions. His efforts during the recall count among his biggest accomplishments, Mr. Gamauf said.
``What I'm really proud about that is our customer base,'' he said. ``Our dealers, our stores believed in the product quality that we had, so when (then-Chairman John) Lampe went to Washington and Gamauf went to the field, we had the dealer support, we had the store support behind us.''
Christine Karbowiak, vice president of public affairs who sat in on Tire Business' interview with Mr. Gamauf, credited him with ensuring that the tire maker didn't lose a single dealer during the recall.
``That's because John was out there preaching the gospel,'' she said.
``OK, OK,'' Mr. Gamauf said, wanting to move on from a discussion all about him.
But as he prepares for his May 1 retirement, his accomplishments and signature style are indeed in the limelight.
BFS announced in January that Mr. Gamauf, president of consumer replacement tire sales and vice president of Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire L.L.C. (BFNT), would be succeeded by John Baratta, vice president, North American consumer tire sales. Mr. Gamauf will remain as a director on the BFNT board.
Mr. Gamauf, 55, joined the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in 1969 at age 17, making $1.60 an hour as a tire buster. He thought his hard work was rewarded after a couple of weeks by a 20-cent raise, but it was only a minimum wage increase.
He rose quickly in the company. After he graduated with a degree in business management from Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., in 1973, he served as a manager in a company-owned store then as zone manager for the Northeast zone. In 1984, he climbed the ladder on the wholesale side, eventually becoming director of Dayton-brand sales, then director of Firestone replacement tire sales and national manager of affiliate brands. Dealer sales appointments came in the 1990s. He was named to his current position in 2003.
``I've had challenges,'' he said of his trip up the ladder. ``Every three to four years I've had new assignments.''
The most challenging? Running a store. That person, he said, has to worry about making employees and customers happy and keeping the business in line.
Mr. Gamauf has never worked for another company, and he doesn't plan to change that after his retirement.
The changes that retirement are sure to bring, however, have made his decision an emotional one.
He chose to retire now, he said, because the company is doing well and he feels confident in his successor.
``We have sustainable profit,'' Mr. Gamauf said. ``We're not going to lose money next year. Every year from now on to all I can see, we're going to have profit. We've fixed all the issues we had to fix.''
He also plans to move to Arizona where his wife Kimberly lives. The two married last year on a BFS dealer trip to Australia. He also plans to spend more time with his mother Irma, who lives in Chicago, and his daughters from a previous marriage. He's been asked about his health since announcing his retirement, but he told Tire Business it's ``great.''
For the past 28 years, Mr. Gamauf has traveled about 200 days a year. ``I know that there's other things in life,'' he said.
Still, the tire industry has been a major part of his life. Except for a neighbor in Arizona Mr. Gamauf waves to from time to time, all of his friends are in the industry, he said. The best man and maid of honor at his wedding? Steve Gray, owner of Gray's Wholesale Tire Distributors Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, and Jeri Helmle, who's with Tires Warehouse Inc. in Corona, Calif.
``The difficult part is knowing that every day for the last 39 years I've been involved in a very close situation and there's going to be some days where I'm not going to see these people,'' he said. ``That's the most difficult part. These are all my friends and that's going to be tough. That's where the emotions came from.''
He plans to keep commitments to visit some dealer friends, and he will go to dealer meetings as the company and Mr. Baratta ask him along. He also will continue along the racing circuit.
``I want to be where the action is,'' he said. ``You can't just cut that off cold.''
Mr. Baratta, in his post-college career, also has been with Bridgestone/Firestone only, working for Mr. Gamauf for the past 15 years. Mr. Baratta joined Firestone in 1983 as a retail store manager at a company-owned store in Charleston, S.C.
``He's kind of been my mentor,'' he said of Mr. Gamauf. ``(He) spent a lot of time with me and exposing me to pretty much everything.... He's the most passionate person I've ever met.''
Mr. Gamauf taught Mr. Baratta about the particulars of the business-understanding the products and how they fit in the overall plan-as well as the more intangible aspect of building relationships.
``He can look at a situation where you may want to look at it black and white, a lot of times he looks at it gray,'' Mr. Baratta told Tire Business. ``He has a gut feel for things. Just being around him as much as I have, you kind of get some of that by osmosis. You start thinking the same way.''
So much so that he said he often asks himself, ``What would Johnny G do?''
Mr. Baratta acknowledges his personal style probably won't fill Mr. Gamauf's shoes. Or, rather, those flamboyant jackets.
``John is obviously his own unique individual, and his fashion taste is maybe slightly different than mine,'' he said, joking diplomatically. ``I think that's a great part of who he is. He's known for that, and I'm going to let him be his own man.''
Otherwise, Mr. Baratta said he hopes to make a seamless transition but otherwise not make many changes for dealers.
``I think the game plan we had over the last 15 years that I've been on this side of the company, the consistency has been there,'' he said. ``More than any other tire company, we try to be consistent.''
Listen to excerpts from Tire Business' interview with Mr. Gamauf-including the history of his ``infamous'' periwinkle jacket-at www.tirebusiness.com under TB:Live.