By TODD ZAUN and NORIHIKO SHIROUZU
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
TOKYO -- The president of Japan's Bridgestone Corp. indicated he will
ask for the resignation of Masatoshi Ono, the head of the company's
U.S. subsidiary, for his handling of the much-criticized recall of Firestone
tires in the U.S.
Mr. Ono's departure, though not yet official,
would come at a time of deepening crisis for the
U.S. unit, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., whose
Firestone brand has been a force in the U.S. tire
industry for about a century. Regulators and
congressional investigators are probing Bridgestone/Firestone's
handling of its massive recall of tires, allegedly linked to 101 deaths in
the U.S. and more than 50 deaths overseas.
Bridgestone/Firestone also is caught in a nasty battle with its biggest
U.S. customer, Ford Motor Co., and is under attack in South America as
well, where Firestone officials are being pressed along with their
counterparts from Ford to compensate people who had accidents linked
to tire failures. Many of the tire failures occurred when treads separated
on tires mounted on Ford's popular Explorer sports-utility vehicles.
Bridgestone President Yoichiro Kaizaki last month told The Wall Street
Journal that he was considering changing the top management at
Firestone in the aftermath of the recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX
II and Wilderness AT tires. He declined at that time to comment on
which executives might be replaced. But in an interview with Nikkei
Business, a Japanese business magazine, published Friday, he went a
step further by confirming that Mr. Ono, Bridgestone/Firestone's
chairman and chief executive, would leave his post as a step toward
restoring the Firestone brand name.
"To start with, we will renew
Bridgestone/Firestone's top management and the
company's organizational structure," Mr. Kaizaki
told Nikkei Business, referring to how he will
respond to the tire debacle.
A Bridgestone spokesman in Japan didn't dispute
the basic contents of the interview, but said Mr.
Kaizaki didn't say "directly" that Mr. Ono would be
asked to leave.
"Mr. Kaizaki said he wants to 'decide on a new
person and on Bridgestone/Firestone's personnel
and structure,' " said chief Bridgestone spokesman
Taiji Nishijima. "I can't deny the nuance of his statement," Mr. Nishijima
said, adding, "there has been no decision yet regarding management" at
A Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman said Mr. Ono wasn't available to
comment. Mr. Ono, who also serves as executive vice president of
Bridgestone itself, said at congressional hearings last month that he
accepted personal responsibility for the recall.
Mr. Ono, 63 years old, joined Bridgestone in 1959 as section
manager/electrical engineer only a month after graduating from
Kumamoto University in Japan. He moved to the U.S. unit in 1991. In
1993, he was named the unit's chief executive, succeeding Mr. Kaizaki in
that post, and three years later was named chairman. During his
tenure, the Firestone brand, severely damaged in the wake of an earlier
recall of 14.5 million Firestone tires in 1978, was revitalized with
expanded dealer outlets and a re-entry into Indy car racing.
Based on past practice at the company, it is considered most likely that
the person who succeeds Mr. Ono will come from the parent company in
Japan. However, one former Firestone executive believes the tire
maker's dire situation may prompt the company to try something
radically different, possibly promoting an American manager. The top
U.S. executive currently at the U.S. unit is John Lampe, executive vice
president, who is well-respected in the tire industry.
Another option might be promoting Shuichi Ishibashi, vice president of
marketing for the U.S. unit. Mr. Ishibashi is fluent in English, already
established at the company's U.S. subsidiary and widely credited with
helping expand Firestone's market share in recent years. But some
consider him, at 46 years old, too young for the job.
Mr. Ishibashi didn't respond to a request for comment. A company
spokesman said Mr. Lampe wasn't available to comment.
Firestone said Monday that it produced about 27.5 million Steeltex tires
between 1991 and 2000 at five of the company's manufacturing plants
in the U.S. and Canada. A company spokeswoman said Firestone isn't
sure whether the latest complaints concern tires produced in a particular
location or during a specific timeframe. "NHTSA hasn't given us a copy
of the complaints," said the spokeswoman.
The report of the management shake-up coincided with new signs of
trouble for Bridgestone/Firestone, as U.S. federal regulators said they
are investigating another brand of the company's tires used on Ford
and General Motors Corp. sport-utility vehicles, pickups and vans. The
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week that it had
received 169 complaints involving Firestone Steeltex tires. The
complaints included eight crashes, 12 injuries and two fatalities.
Bridgestone's shares have lost about half their value since just before
the recall was announced two months ago. The stock fell 20 yen to
1,280 yen in Tokyo Monday.
-- Timothy Aeppel in Pittsburgh contributed to this article.
Write to Todd Zaun at firstname.lastname@example.org and Norihiko Shirouzu at