Brett C. Smith
There are many pitfalls to writing a column on what is still a breaking story when the column is due. But the enormity of the Bridgestone/Firestone-Ford tire recall is too important to pass without comment. As of early September, the situation had become critical and somewhat chaotic. Ford executives were faced with the reality that they would be required to testify to Congress regarding the tire debacle. As the two companies scrambled to point figures and blame, the death toll continued to climb. Ford tried in vain to distance itself from its longtime supplier, as if to say, "It is not our responsibility." I believe that there is no way that Ford can accomplish this, nor do I think it should even try. A Ford family member of a previous generation was reportedly often heard to say something along the lines of, "My name is on the building; I can do what I damn well like."
I strongly believe that a spin on that phrase may be applicable to William Clay Ford, Jr., today, for it is his name that is on the (all-too-often upside down) Ford Explorers, and no matter what the reason, it is essential to the credibility of the Ford brand and to the Ford name that Ford make a rapid, decisive action. This would have to be an action that would calm the fears of the buyers, show that Ford is outraged by the supplier's actions, and show that it is willing to go the extra step to insure the safety of its valued customers—no matter what the cost.
An associate who happens to be an Explorer owner suggests (and he speaks from experience—having just bought new tires) that Ford immediately mail $600 vouchers to all Explorer owners. This voucher could be used to buy any brand of new tires. The goodwill garnered would begin to offset the harm done over the past several months. It would also get the dangerous tires off the road. "Ah," you say, "but would that be an expensive fix, and wouldn't that be admitting guilt?" The response to that is; "Yes, it would be expensive, along the lines of a couple of billion dollars. But as my associate pointed out, it would be less expensive than the cost of buying Land Rover, and which brand would you rather spend money on: the Explorer, which has been a license to print money for a decade, or Land Rover, which has not been so profitable in recent years?"
As for the admission of guilt assumed by such action, I may also disagree with that. Since the voluntary recall in mid-August, there have been several more deaths attributable to tire failures. One of the more lasting memories of this tragic story will be an Associated Press photo of a father huddled over the body of his dead 10 year-old son. The two are in the shadow of an upside down Explorer. While it is certainly arguable whether Ford is responsible for the tragedy, one thing is certainly clear: Its product is the most identifiable thing in the picture. Ford is already guilty in the eye of the many, if for no other reason than that it failed to prevent those accidents after it knew about any problems.
Ford Motor's actions through August have been text-book defensive. It was out to cover their liabilities. Whether it was Martin Inglis, vice president of Ford North America, reading the text of a Firestone/Ford press release to 1,200 automotive executives at Dave Cole's automotive conference in Traverse City, or Jac Nasser making a statement (plea?) of concern during a Monday Night Football telecast, the company has been forthright, but rather insincere. These actions are traditional responses that would be expected of an old-line company, not the progressive, customer focused company that Nasser wants us to believe Ford has become. What was needed was a bold action that speaks louder than any words—an action that starts to right a terrible wrong. And what a better way than to have the man whose name is on the building take the lead role? Then, once calm is restored, Ford could go after the causes of the problem and eliminate them!