Watching Masatoshi Ono, CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone, sweat under the nasty glare of Congress during last week's tire-recall hearings, you almost had to feel sorry for the reserved Japanese executive. Ono, a lifelong company man and engineering whiz who joined Bridgestone straight out of university more than 40 years ago, has spent the better part of the past decade propping up the sagging fortunes of Firestone, the U.S. company Bridgestone paid $2.6 billion for in 1988. Now here he was, the prime suspect in the the biggest consumer scare since the Tylenol-tampering case, linked to at least 88 deaths and 250 injuries in the U.S. alone.
"I am more than a little nervous," he said in his tentative English, as three female Japanese interpreters in brightly colored suits hovered nearby. Ono offered a sharp contrast to the carefully scripted performance of Ford boss Jac Nasser, who would later pin the blame squarely on Firestone's tires. He was visibly uncomfortable, expressing regret on one hand, denying any tire defect on the other. And his watered-down apology incited a harsh response. Senator Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, summed up the general sentiment by asking, "What does it take to put a company on notice that perhaps they've got a defective product out there?"
While Ford is expected to come out of the pileup dented by a few hundred million dollars, the 100-year-old Firestone brand could be completely totaled. Thanks to a generally dreadful crisis management, marked primarily by silence and denials, the Firestone brand has very little credibility left. The public is becoming increasingly skittish about any of Firestone's tires the vast majority of which are safe.
As if that weren't bad enough, even Firestone's spin doctors have apparently lost faith in the company; last week, in the wake of the company's refusal to expand the recall to include an additional 1.4 million tires, its p.r. agency, Fleishman-Hillard, quit, reportedly tired of clashing with corporate lawyers. In a statement, Fleishman said it didn't think it could be of further service, refusing to elaborate. "I personally think Firestone is toast," says veteran marketer Jack Trout of Greenwich, Conn., who has previously worked with the company. "It's really a second-tier tire brand with low consumer loyalty."
Not surprisingly, Firestone, which survived the 1978 recall of 14 million defective tires, sees things differently. "We're going to have to struggle a bit to rebuild consumer confidence," Bridgestone/Firestone executive vice president John Lampe told TIME last week. "[But] we definitely feel the brand can be saved."
Significantly, Firestone isn't likely to lose its contracts with major carmakers, although Ford has decided to split its business for the 2002 Explorer among Firestone, Goodyear and Michelin. In fact, GM and Nissan have come to the defense of Firestone, pledging to keep it as a crucial supplier. But officials at Toyota, at least privately, have expressed some reservations.
The much larger, more lucrative replacement market is another story. Only 4% of drivers say they would replace their existing tires with Firestone's, and 58% of suv buyers think Ford should drop Firestones from its vehicles altogether, according to a new survey by CNW Marketing and Research. Firestone will have to convince consumers that its brand stands for something beyond corporate doublespeak.