LOS ANGELES—In 2017 Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations is going to focus on the boss.
No, not the rocker Bruce Springsteen, the consumer—specifically the tire consumer.
Gordon Knapp, BATO president and CEO, wants the company to be more boss-centric or know the boss better.
Knapp discussed BATO's plans for 2017 and other topics in an interview during the company's recent Consumer Tire Business Meeting in Los Angeles.
Being more boss-centric "really means making the consumer the center of everything we do," Knapp said. "You're going to see us continue that."
But getting there remains a work in progress.
"It's kind of like training for an athletic competition," he said. "You have to build the muscle before you can take advantage of it."
Looking at this concept more broadly, Knapp said Bridgestone's offerings have to be more than selling "really good, round, rubber, black tires."
The company also must provide solutions, he said, including for its independent tire dealer network, such as a number of selling tools discussed at the meeting.
TireConnect, an online selling solution that allows dealers to get full credit for tire sales;
Tire Navigator, a proprietary data tool that helps predict tire demand in the U.S. down to the micro-market level; and
Tire Connect Side-by-Side, a selling tool that allows the consumer and salesperson to view the point-of-sale screen together.
Bridgestone has similar projects in development in the commercial area for truck, giant OTR and farm tires.
"Some of these are going to start to come to fruition starting next year," he said, without providing details.
Focusing on the boss also includes doing a better job of listening and communicating with the company's independent tire dealer customers.
Dealers face their customers every day, he said. "They understand exactly what works and what doesn't. Because the truth is their customers vote with their dollars so they get an instant result. For us not to listen to them openly and actively is kind of arrogant.
"So we are working pretty hard to do a better job of listening to their concerns, their needs, their criticisms."
Asked about the growing trend of online tire sales, Knapp said some people wonder whether this approach to selling tires will supplant face-to-face or human selling in dealerships.
"We can debate that for a long time," he said, "and we will find out in five to 10 years what the answer is. The issue is, you need to position yourself to take advantage of it, not find out after the fact when you are out of business."
While harsh, he said, that is the way Bridgestone has looked at it.
"We need to position ourselves, and we want to position our customers so that they are prepared to succeed as this world potentially changes.
"We can have a great debate about how fast and how far it will go, but it's very clear it's changing, and so we need to position ourselves to take advantage of the trend if, and when, it gets there."
Boost for Firestone
Bridgestone introduced four Firestone tires during the Consumer Tire meeting, as the company works to build up the Firestone brand.
Knapp said the massive recalls affecting the Firestone Wilderness AT tire line in 2000 were traumatic for the brand and the company's employees.
"I almost sensed that as a result, we withdrew from supporting the brand," he said.
But today "we have a very clear positioning of the brand in North America," with Bridgestone generally occupying the best segment and Firestone the better.
Globally, Bridgestone also is supporting and reviving the Firestone brand. The brand has strong positions in a number of countries, he said, including some in South America as well as other overseas markets where Firestone has strong historical name recognition even if the tires are not available there.
"You are going to see Firestone play a much more prominent role and be much more heavily supported around the world," he said. "Bridgestone sees it as an asset and is moving on that."
To continue to be successful in the future, Bridgestone needs to have access to the consumer, Knapp said. "What that means is we have the ability to sell our brands on that final step to the consumer. And there are multiple avenues that need to be taken advantage of to do that."
Retail is a key part of that, he said, as is e-commerce.
The attempted acquisition of the Pep Boys-Manny, Moe and Jack chain in late 2015 was a unique situation, Knapp said, stressing the company does not have a stated strategy to reach a certain store count number despite statements to the contrary last year by Stu Crum, the former president of Bridgestone Retail Store Operations.
At a press event in June 2016, Crum and other BSRO executives stated the company's goal was to expand to 3,000 or more company-owned retail stores—under the Firestone Complete Auto Care, Tires Plus and/or Wheel Works brands—by opening a net of 45 stores a year while also pursuing targeted acquisitions.
Instead of a specific store-count objective, Knapp said the tire maker is striving to have access to consumers and, as such, is likely to engage in smaller acquisitions more as a defensive move as opposed to offensive.
"We may have a dealer with a small chain that doesn't have a relative or a son or daughter that's interested in continuing with the business," he said. "So those are to be the opportunities we'll act upon as opposed to lose the share and the volume we've enjoyed over time."
But when an opportunity does present itself, Knapp said, "one of the first criteria we always look at is: What would this mean to our independent tire dealer network? Would it introduce new competition? Would this encroach from a proximity perspective on a number of dealers? We are very sensitive to that."