NASHVILLE, Tenn.—If Bridgestone/Firestone got anything positive out of the tire recall mess that started in 2000, it´s that the company now has two strong brands.
Five years ago, the Firestone brand accounted for roughly 80 percent of its aftermarket passenger and light truck tire branded business, according to John Gamauf, Bridgestone/Firestone president of consumer replacement tires. Now, though, the two brands are fairly equal in terms of sales.
"I guess out of any adversity in your life, you always try to make the best out of anything, and what actually came out of this is that we have two strong brands," Gamauf said.
While sales of the Firestone brand dipped from 2000-02, the brand has seen rising sales since.
"I think a lot of our (dealer) customers knew the Bridgestone brand was a very good brand, but they were so comfortable selling Firestone, that was easier to do," Gamauf said. "Then when the situation happened, they started to take on Bridgestone. But they still love Firestone, so now we´ve got the best of both worlds as far as a mix of business."
The BFS executive foresees the brand equilibrium to continue for the time being, but may sway even more toward Bridgestone in a couple of years because of the firm´s emphasis on targeting premium original equipment fitments.
Help from dealers
While some predicted the Firestone brand would fade into history, Gamauf said dealers really are responsible for keeping it alive. "The people who were saying that were analysts in New York who didn´t know what was going on," he said.
While dealers saw all of the bad news revolving around BFS on television, most never saw it in their businesses because it was such a small sample of tires involved, he said. But BFS couldn´t tell its dealers to keep selling the Firestone brand simply because that´s what the company wanted. In the end, the dealers still had to believe in the brand.
So when a customer came in hesitant to buy a Firestone tire, the dealer would explain about the influence of tire pressure and load on tire failure. "When all was said and done, the customer often would say, ´Go ahead and put on the Firestones,´ " Gamauf said. "If we didn´t have the dealer doing that, we wouldn´t be here today."
And BFS works hard to repay that loyalty, he said. "We will do anything for our customers because they stood up for us."
That includes making sure there are few territory disputes between its independent dealers and its network of about 2,000 company-owned stores, giving each its own opportunity at market share. "We try with the most sensitivity to keep that advantage for the retailer in the marketplace," Gamauf said.
Bigger is better
Looking at market trends, he said the move to larger-rim tires has been the biggest phenomenon over the past several years. In his 36 years in the tire business, the BFS executive said this is the first time where the replacement market truly has driven OE.
"About 10 years ago, people started putting on big tires to start making their vehicles look exciting," Gamauf said. "Everyone kind of ignored it. Then, all of a sudden, people were buying cars right from the car dealer and—before taking possession—were saying they wanted big wheels and tires, and to roll that into the payment."
At first it was an issue of looks. But from the car makers´ perspective it also became a safety issue because the non-specification tires and rims might not be in synch with braking and suspension systems. Just in the past year or two, though, the auto firms are catching up, with rims of 20-22 inches now available on OE.
Gamauf said BFS now has good fill rates for its consumer lines, except in tires 17 inches and larger. That will be aided, he added, when the firm´s new tire plant in Mexico opens, because the facility will be 100-percent dedicated to the aftermarket and will concentrate on large-rim sizes.