For two decades I’ve worked with some of the world’s top companies and seen some very dramatic changes in economic times and unforeseen obstacles. By and large, those that pull through have at least one critical thing in common—the wisdom and courage to risk significant changes to create different outcomes. One such story involves Mike Gorey, former president of Bridgestone’s North American consumer tire business as well as CEO and president of Firestone Diversified Products, Bridgestone’s non-tire arm. He is the current CEO of Propex, a global leader in soil and erosion control, but is known within the Bridgestone community as “Mr. Fix-it.”
Tony Jeary: You helped Firestone survive after its tires were blamed for serious, sometimes-fatal car crashes and recalled in 2000. How did the company battle negative press and shore up consumer confidence?
Mike Gorey: Swift action to get the high-profile legal claims out of the news was critical. Then we introduced new products.
Next we reassured our dealer network we were in this for the long haul and that we would work to rebuild their confidence. We launched a campaign called “Making it Right” that we used in commercials, in the marketplace and at the point of sale. The message said in a nutshell, “We’re going to do the right thing.” We owned it when we said “we will make it right.”
We supplied replacement tires, including competitors’ tires. We redesigned our product for a higher margin of safety and established earlier warning systems. And we hired the very credible Mario Andretti to encourage people to check tire pressures as a public safety precaution.
TJ: In 2009, when you led Bridgestone’s North American tire business to its first profit in 21 years, what were some of the innovative things you did that other businesspeople can adapt to their own situations in a languishing economy?
MG: The first step is don’t be “wedded” to your strategy—it may need to be adapted. Certainly, when it came to the consumer tire business, we had to change the way different branches of our team worked separately to fight the same problems. We took a long look and assessed our ultimate customers. The voice of the consumer became more relevant. Social media was used as a means to capture a lot of that voice—this was previously a complete void to us.
Next, we made the brand strategy more visible internally so we could get more energy in the organization rallying around all the elements of the brand. The other priority for us, with the great recession in full swing, was to meet the needs of the consumer looking for value. The market had moved to a safer, cheaper ground. So we offered three new Firestone product lines to capture incremental business, which brought more production back to the factories. All of this served to build a new confidence with the customer.
TJ: As a specialist in rescuing companies in crisis, what would you say are the steps a business leader needs to know and take?
MG: First and foremost, understanding the significance and threat to the company is critical to balancing planning with action. The threat we faced at Firestone required more immediate action, and planning further responses came later. A lot of people will jump right into action and end up making a huge mistake. There are others who like to plan ad nauseam, and the crisis consumes them.
There’s a bit of instinct and experience required, but understanding the true size of the peril can mean the difference between success and failure. Addressing the sources of threat to the company and planning the longer-term changes will improve your survival rate.
TJ: During the crisis eras at Bridgestone and Firestone, how did you keep people motivated and raise morale?
MG: There were a few key things. We had high visibility of leadership—we didn’t hide—which instilled confidence internally. And more than that, we believed we could turn things around. People will know if they see fear or a lack of belief.
We lived by the “Making it Right” campaign, which came to include shirts at work, posters, slogans, you name it.… It was everywhere. It really helped with morale. We also made sure all our people knew we were being accountable and also defending ourselves—we needed to show our commitment to them.
And one of the biggest things we did when we lost money two years in a row was to pay out small bonuses. That went a long way to let people know we really appreciated them, their loyalty and their sacrifices. Appreciation was a key factor.