What Jac Nasser Learned at the Tire Party

PARIS — Jac Nasser stood at the cocktail party preceding the Ford Motor Trustmark Dinner at a swanky restaurant near the Champs-Ely sees Wednesday night before the media opening of the Paris Motor Show, huddled with ravenous reporters wanting to know about tires, not the new Mondeo.

The media were hardly ravenous for the Norway lobster and filet of beef in puff pastry. They were starved for rubber. Any information about tires they could get. Nasser, far from hiding out or avoiding the sharks, met them head on. He never swayed from answering tough questions that would surely take the spotlight off the new Mondeo. He had to be dragged away by his handlers.

It was, after all, the Trustmark dinner. The first word of that marketing buzzword now in the Ford lexicon of public relations is "trust." And Nasser, more than ever before in his 30-plus years at Ford, has learned what trust means in the last six weeks since he forced Firestone's hand into a recall that we now was maybe three years overdue.

Ford is not without fault in the matter. But Nasser says he has learned.

"When things first started to hit, I took a look at the Tylenol case, and what Johnson and Johnson did," Nasser admitted. "And what I saw was that we could not possibly let these tires stay on the road for the nine months or so that Firestone was talking about. Johnson & Johnson had gotten the Tylenol off the shelves right away. That was it. We couldn't do that with tires. But I saw that we would have to move faster than the spring. And we will get this done by the end of November. That's the fastest recall of this kind in history."

Nasser says he also knows that you can't ever trust one source of data. He admits that the company was wrong not to look at more data and more sources of data, including the pesky lawsuits. It's all there, he says now, in the warranty data, the claims data, and the insurance data.

Taking Audi to school

He also went to school on Audi. Also at Paris was Dr. Jens Neumann of Audi, who, when asked about the awful drubbing Audi took at the hands of an irresponsible 60 Minutes in the mid-1980s, said, "We never lost a court case, or a regulatory action, but we totally mishandled it from a public relations standpoint…that's what cost us."

Ford Explorer sales were near a record in August, and Ford's early reports as of Friday were that sales would be as healthy or almost as healthy in September. Ford, despite the fact that it still has some "splainin'" to do in Washington about tire pressure and suspension design, has kept this a

Firestone problem.

Not that I, or any reporter covering this story, thinks it is entirely a tire problem. But Nasser went to school, while Firestone's management sat outside in the schoolyard trying to figure out how to change the test it was taking.

As the 2002 Explorer advertising takes shape in the coming months, look for much more attention paid to the Michelin and Goodyear tires on the new version, as well as the wider and longer wheelbase, than in the ads that had been planned by J. Walter Thompson back in July. And Jac says he is trying to see how he came make the stability system on the new Explorer, which is only going to be available by mid to late 2001, available sooner and as standard equipment.

While his product planners and public relations folks yabber on about it only being an option, Jac is readying to swoop in and make it standard, looking every bit the hero he did when he said "Spring is unacceptable!" to USA Today after his own flacks said it looked like spring before tires could be replaced.

"Given the current climate, I think it makes sense to advertise it more," said Nasser.

TV leadership

Jac is no fool. And it was smart of him, and for the future of his leadership at Ford, to have appeared in the TV ads. Some Wall Street types wondered if Bill Ford should have done them. You know, put the guy out front who is American, and whose family's name is on the car. But Jac did it right. If he had handed that task over to Bill, it would have been the first step to losing the company.

Oh, I happened to ask one of the key people who handled the Tylenol debacle for Johnson & Johnson back in the early 1980s how Jac has scored lately. He is retired and says he doesn't like to be named in this story because he doesn't want to come off as a crisis guru, second guessing people that are walking in the shoes he wore. His words: "For a guy whose company most assuredly shares the guilt in this thing, he has handled as well as you can when you stop to consider that you can't just yank tires off trucks overnight like we could with pills. (A+) since the recall. Probably (C ) before."

Why is that? About five years ago, GM began handling all warranty data, including tires. That way it didn't entrust its disgruntled customers with bad tires on new vehicles to tire store people while they are still under warranty. Ford said it researched the same idea, an dismissed it because "consumers didn't find it a value," according to a Ford spokesman.

As someone who has sat through a lot of focus groups and scanned a bunch of consumer research, that is as bad an interpretation of research as I have ever seen. A company can't evaluate the collection of warranty information in the same manner that it addresses how many cupholders the consumer wants. Consumers don't know what they don't know. Would you not come up with a stability system to help prevent rollovers if consumers said they weren't worried about rollovers?

Nasser can't be blamed for that entirely. It may never even have crossed his desk. Alex Trotman was in charge then. But GM is looking good right now in this tire fiasco.

Come to think of it, so is Ford. They are just having to work a bit harder right now to look that way.

It pays to study.

Let's hope Jac's forthrightness works when the truth comes out about the Explorer. That Ford turned an existing Ranger platform into the Explorer and left it practically unchanged for the most part until now. Almost a decade. Do you have any idea of the profits that come from using a ten-plus-year-old platform for a best-selling vehicle?

That is the culprit. Profits. The Explorer does have some suspension problems, and always has had them. If the company had built a sport-utility vehicle from the ground up at first, designed to be an SUV and not a pickup truck with a house on it, I doubt Ford and Firestone would be in this mess.

And if Ford wasn't hammering Firestone on costs over the past eight years, and went with Michelins and Goodyears for a few extra bucks per truck, they wouldn't be in this mess.

That's basically what went wrong. And Nasser has a brand new Explorer that takes care of all the worries people might have. Meanwhile, Bridgestone/Firestone has to decide what the hell to with its second name.

Related Articles:

Congress Stays on Ford, Firestone (Sept. 25, 2000)
Ford Faces Second Tire Recall (Sept. 19, 2000)
Firestone: What Went Wrong (Sept. 18, 2000)
Congress Grills Ford, Firestone (Sept. 9, 2000)
Ford, Firestone Battle over Tire Recall (Aug. 28, 2000)
Feds May Broaden Firestone Recall (Aug. 28, 2000)
Ford, Firestone Battle over Tire Recall (Aug. 21, 2000)
Firestone Recalls Millions of Tires (Aug. 9, 2000)
Firestone Faces NHTSA Investigation (August 7, 2000)

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