Firestone Chief Looks to Have Lost Traction

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Nothwithstanding his heritage as part of culture with long traditions of both lifetime employment and falling on one's sword, the Japanese head of beleaguered tiremaker Bridgestone Corp. is apparently ready for a more American move: canning somebody.

That somebody will likely be Masatoshi Ono, head of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., the company's U.S. subsidiary, according to the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with Japanese business magazine Nikkei Business last week, Bridgestone president Yoichiro Kaizaki would say only that "we will renew Bridgestone/Firestone's top management and the company's organizational structure." But the intimation is clear.

Firestone, of course, is neck-deep in the biggest crisis of its century-long history as a U.S. tiremaker. The recall of 6.5 million SUV tires already under way has been linked to 101 deaths in the U.S. and 50 more overseas; the company is facing suits from U.S. citizens and entire countries (Venezuela), and a distinctly possible abandonment by its biggest customer, Ford. Not to mention a whole new investigation by U.S. regulators, of Firestone Steeltex tires used on Ford and GM trucks, vans and SUVs, which have been involved in 169 driver complaints. The complaints included eight crashes, 12 injuries and two fatalities.

Ono has been at Bridgestone since 1959, a month after he graduated from college, and has headed the U.S. unit since 1993, presiding over a comeback for the brand, which was still reeling from a 14.5 million-tire recall in 1978. Ono also said at congressional hearings last month that he accepted personal responsibility for the recall.

But something big will clearly have to be done to get carmakers and car buyers willing to trust Firestone tires again, which is why some analysts think Kaizaki may break with company tradition and install — gasp — an American at the top of the U.S. unit. Top American executive at Firestone is John Lampe; another option would be marketing veep Shuichi Ishibashi, who is fluent in English and is credited with Firestone's recent market growth.

Whoever the new man is (if indeed there is one), he's going to have a lot of face-saving to do.