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'We're putting more emphasis on our major brands': Mark Emkes has seen the world. Now it's time to take care of business in the U.S.

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'We're putting more emphasis on our major brands': Mark Emkes has seen the world. Now it's time to take care of business in the U.S.

The year was 1976. Mark Emkes, armed with a master's degree from the American Graduate School of International Management and an undergraduate degree in economics, joined Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

He spent his first three months on the job mounting and balancing tires.

Since then, he has worked his way through the system by succeeding overseas. He has visited 45 countries. He speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese, which has helped him earn executive positions in Spain, Mexico and Brazil.

Emkes was president of Bridgestone/Firestone Latin America before his promotion to chairman, CEO and president of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire LLC (BFNT) in September. He will be in charge of BFNT's sales organization, plus its product development and manufacturing.

Modern Tire Dealer sat down with Emkes during, appropriately enough, the International Tire Expo, to find out how Bridgestone/Firestone plans to proceed in 2003.

MTD: What are your brand plans in 2003?

Emkes: We're putting more of an emphasis on the major brands, Bridgestone and Firestone. Bridgestone will be the presenting sponsor for CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) in 2003. And we'll get much more exposure with Firestone in the IRL (Indy Racing League), now that we've signed up for four more years. So we will continue to have a big focus on motor sports, in particular, open wheel racing with CART, IRL and Formula One.

Also, Bridgestone and Firestone billboards will be in Times Square for New Year's 2003. That's where people start the year, and they will start with our brands.

MTD: Can you quantify the benefit of being in Formula One?

Emkes: That's not easy to measure, but with Formula One racing in Indianapolis there's no doubt it helps our brand awareness. And I think it creates an excitement among our dealers.

MTD: What new products can we expect to see in 2003?

Emkes: We haven't put the finishing touches on our new products. One of the things we have to do is to make sure our dealers can compete and make money in the marketplace. We'll have more high-end products.

MTD: Will you be expanding the Firehawk Indy tire line?

Emkes: I think that's a fair statement.

MTD: What about the Dayton brand?

Emkes: That's part of our 'good' concept in the 'good-better-best' philosophy. Dayton was the tire sponsor of the Indy Lights Series before it ended. Promotional plans for the Dayton brand will be forthcoming later this year or early in 2003.

And that sort of leads me a little bit into the TREAD (Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation) Act. We, as a company, are thinking there will be more of a trend toward tire enhancement coming down the pike with the TREAD Act. We think the act will have more of an impact on the cost of a lower-cost private brand than it will on a major. So our 2003 marketing plans are more directed on major brands.

MTD: How will the TREAD Act's early warning reporting provisions affect you?

Emkes: What the TREAD Act has proposed is complicated, but even though it's not real clear, we have a feel for what is coming down the pipeline. We're ahead of the curve because of the actions we implemented over a year ago, with initiatives in our "Making it Right" campaign. From what we know at this time, the cost of complying with the TREAD Act provisions is considerable.

MTD: How do both large and small independent tire dealers fit into Bridgestone/Firestone's philosophy of doing business?

Emkes: It may sound simple, but if our dealers are successful, we will be successful, and if our dealers are not successful, then eventually we will not be successful. We will focus on their success. We have jobs because dealers buy tires. We better listen to them and take care of them. Our Affiliated Dealer and TireStarz programs cater to all types of dealers.

MTD: What channels do you distribute tires through?

Emkes: We have the family channel which includes dealers and the company-owned stores and then the mass merchandisers like Sears and Costco. The family channel accounts for about 85% of our business. Some of the business we do with muffler shops and car dealers go through tire dealers.

MTD: Will you expand your company-owned store chain?

Emkes: As a general statement, there is going to be calculated growth in our company-owned store channel. But our stores are run by BFS Retail and Commercial Operations LLC, a different division not under my supervision. Still, there is a lot of synergy between the two.

MTD: One of our readers wanted me to ask you about fill rates. He said he needs more product because he sells all he gets.

Emkes: I've heard that, too. The answer for that is our sales have exceeded expectations. How are we addressing that? In July, we began an 8,000-tire-a-day expansion at our plant in Costa Rica, which we are going to run seven days a week. We're also expanding in Mexico; by the middle of 2003, we'll be producing 2,000 more tires a day, seven days a week. We'll also increase production in Brazil by mid-2003. We have wonderful working relations with workers in those countries.

MTD: But is any of that growth targeted at the U.S.?

Emkes: Yes. We realize we have to put more capacity in place. We will continue to import more product from Japan. Right now, my focus is on sourcing. We are running our plants in the U.S. at full capacity.

MTD: Thank you, Mark.
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