DETROIT — Bridgestone-Firestone chief executive John Lampe appears prepared to go down with the ship judging by last week’s manic decision to flout the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and threaten to go to court to prevent recalling a few million more tires.
Sources with knowledge of the Bridgestone-Firestone organization say Lampe has been cut loose by Japanese parent Bridgestone Corp. to do whatever he wants as far as saving the Firestone brand. “He has nothing more to lose at this point with Firestone,” said the executive. “So, now the game is to keep fighting and see if the Bridgestone brand can be built up more, and maybe even the Dayton brand. The Firestone consumer business, though, is a write-off.”
With NHTSA prepared to side with Ford in calling for a recall of at least some of the tires Ford is replacing on its own based on its own data analysis, the Firestone brand is on a ventilator at best.
“Our consumer business is down,” said Lampe last week in a conference call with media. “But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think there were a lot of people out there who believed in Firestone.”
The big no
Following a meeting last week between NHTSA officials and Lampe’s team in which NHTSA asked the company to voluntarily recall what sources say are about three to four million Wilderness AT tires, Lampe refused the agency’s request and went public before NHTSA could.
The Federal agency is now expected to spend another week or so making sure its findings are bulletproof, since those findings will be made public and be used in inevitable court proceedings.
Said NHTSA in a statement: "Firestone was asked to recall some of the tires and they refused to do so. Therefore, NHTSA will issue an initial defect decision, the next step toward a forced recall.”
"It is premature to discuss the initial decision in detail. NHTSA's responsibility is the safety of the American people, and we will adhere to a process that will ensure the recall of unsafe tires,” said the agency’s statement.
In making its case to the media, Firestone took the extraordinary step of testing and evaluating its own tires, including those picked up as scrap on Arizona highways, against Michelins, Goodyears and other makes. It presented comparative data to reporters showing that its tires are better than or equal to the leading competitors.
The other tiremakers were surprised. “Firestone is in no position to be an unbiased source of competitive evaluation," said Michelin North America Spokesman Michael Fanning, who reviewed Firestone's report and called the company's analysis methods "extremely dubious."
He particularly singled out Firestone's analysis of scrap tires from Arizona. "To take a minute sample of tires whose cause of alleged tread separation is unknown and extrapolate it to the universe of tires in the U.S. is preposterous." Michelin dominates the tire industry for customer satisfaction and quality awards. In addition to Michelin tires, the company also markets BF Goodrich and Uniroyal tires.
A lack of well-considered third-party unbiased analysis is what this case has lacked since last summer. Ford’s analysis, while well-presented and compelling, is hindered by Ford’s extraordinary self-interest in keeping it a tires issue. Firestone’s far less compelling analysis is its own, bought and paid for by the tire company.
NHTSA, undermanned and under-funded, is moving at a glacial pace through hundred of thousands of documents trying to be the umpire. And like in many a baseball game, nobody likes the ump.
More brands where Firestone came from
That tire companies today handle several brands under the same roof comes as a surprise to many consumers. But it is what is keeping Bridgestone-Firestone alive. It has been playing up its Bridgestone brand since last year, and tire dealers have been selling as many Bridgestone and Dayton brand tires as they can to people who would rather not trust the Firestone brand.
General Motors, for example, at the end of 1999 began planning for more Bridgestones as original equipment. That effort is still underway. GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan says the company continues to monitor how many consumers taking delivery on GM vehicles are rejecting Firestone-brand tires, and says it is not that many. GM sent its dealers a how-to kit on the proper way to explain to customers that GM Firestone tires are different than Ford Firestone tires and have not experienced the same problems.
All of that is helpful, but it does not counterbalance the constant drum beat of negative publicity, nor is it enough to offset the extraordinary gamble Lampe is undertaking by thumbing his nose at NHTSA.
Ford was almost mum about last Thursday’s proceedings.
“As far as we know, NHTSA has not completed its engineering analysis into Firestone Wilderness AT tires. We continue to work closely with the agency, but it would be premature to speculate on the outcome of its Firestone tire investigation,” said Ford safety chief Sue Cischke.
“Ford Motor Company began replacing suspect Firestone Wilderness AT tires on our vehicles in May to ensure the safety and trust of our customers and their families,” said Cischke. To date, Ford says it has replaced almost three million Wilderness AT tires.
Besides NHTSA’s findings that claims and other data the agency examined is enough to warrant a recall, Lampe was upset that the agency did not make its analysis available to the tire company for review.
“As this matter moves forward, the company will use every available step in the process to prove the safety of its tires, including public hearings, and if necessary pursuing this issue in the courts,” said Lampe.
Lampe last week continued his “Pac-Man” strategy with Ford, blaming the Ford Explorer for the high numbers of tread separations as Ford blamed the tires. Ford, by the way, took a $2.1-billion hit to its second quarter earnings reported last week.
“If the real issue at hand is the safety of the driving public – and we believe it is – then taking more of our tires off the road is not the solution. It doesn’t solve the real problem: the vehicle,” Lampe added.
“We now know this to be a fact: you can take every Firestone tire off every Explorer and the rollovers and fatal accidents will continue. We’ve seen it in Venezuela, and we are now seeing it in the U.S.”
Lampe’s continued citation of Venezuela as a proving ground is costing him credibility. Ford has already found numerous reporting errors in at least half the cases of alleged Explorer rollover accidents cited by the Venezuela consumer agency as having occurred in the last 12 months after Ford replaced Firestone tires with Goodyears.
It is truly an act of desperation to turn to the Venezuelan government for support when your own is backing you into a corner you don’t like.