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Editorial: A bike company with a heart passes on

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by Tim Johnson
From VeloNews Vol 23, No 4, Early April 1994:
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As you will read on page 14 of this VeloNews, we're losing Bridgestone as a bike company in the United States. It will quit selling bikes for pure business reasons. But, of the bike outfits big enough to operate outside some niche wherein idiosyncrasy serves as a sales tool, Bridgestone Cycle (USA) conspicuously never did things for business reasons. Bridgestone operated on human reasons.

Those who knew the Bridgestone people will feel the loss deeply. We suspect the company's dealers and enthusiasts across the country will feel the same way. We worry about what they'll do next, and hope they stay in the bike business, where we need them desperately. We wonder if they'll ever again make the humanizing impact on so many people as they did at Bridgestone.

and people shone as a beacon to remind us what cycling is all about --- lest in the bewildering din of commerce, hype and personal drivenness, we might forget.

Bridgestone sold bikes but reminded us that it was always the experience that mattered, not the products. The company never offered bikes that would draw crowds, bikes you'd buy with the intent to impress, bikes that offered flash and "features," rather than function and value. A Bridgestone ad might focus with pride and wonder on a single item --- a fork crown, maybe, that most bike shoppers would never notice --- an item that Bridgestone types would quitely appreciate as an example of the company's pursuit of perfection in the details.

A list of Bridgestone's favorite adjectives would include: solid, serviceable, wool, versatile, steel, environmentally harmless. Its ad models were always actual cyclists, people you could ride with: Pineapple Bob, Pineapple Karen. Bridgestone ads and catalogue copy understated everything. In an era of Mountain Bike Action-style rad, thrashin' hyperbole, Bridgestone slogans sound almost bashful: "We make bikes you are sure to like," and "Thrilling to ride, pleasing to own."

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Bridgestone ads and catalogues resisted the industry's rampant bike categorization. Other companies want to sell you specific bikes for every imaginable purpose; Bridgestone told you you could tour without a touring bike, that every bike was multi-purpose.

Most companies want you to lust for the latest, to believe in the inevitable obsolescence. Bridgestone was a notable exception, the "retro-grouch" outfit that honored old stuff, that wouldn't let suppliers dictate equipment choices, wouldn't spec th latest whizbang widget if its only benefit was salability.

Bridgestone stubbornly swam against the current, following its better judgment, its more human, more seasoned-bikie judgment. It never tried to sell you that first giddy week with your new "super-bike." They offered bikes you would live with for years, bikes that'd work and work with you, making you perhaps a better, happier, more adventurous bike rider.

Rider, not merely owner. Rider. Bridgestone promoted cycling whatever you rode. The company continued to care what happened to Bridgestone buyers after the "deal" was done --- when rubber met road. It instituted a club for its owners and fanciers, offering members hard-to-get items --- some merely rare, some rare and desirable --- through the club newsletter. That newsletter, like the wonderful annual catalogue, showcased terrific technical and philosophical essays by some of our most provocative writers.

Some of Bridgestone's ad messages did not promote its bicycles. The company liked to remind us that, here and there in the world, folks make do with less than they need in the way of material goods, including transportation tools.

Some of those people, more than a few really, do not have a new 16-valve Honda Civic and three bicycles. They may never own a set of suspension forks. We, who have more than we need, should think of those people now and again, how we might be able to lend a hand; but we're busy, we have full lives.

Bridgestone used to buy occasional, expensive ads to remind us about those materially less fortunate people. THe company would offer to help us help them, to make it easy to do --- so our lives wouldn't get fuller, only our hearts.

company had a heart. We regret its passing, yet hope that its spirit can be injected into other companies througout the bicycle industry.

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Pg. 14:
Bridgestone to close in September

morning staff meeting on February 28, and the directive, mandated from corporate headquarters in Japan, would take effect September 30. That day the doors would close permanently at Bridgestone Cycle (USA). The result: 23 full-time employees would be out of work, 500 dealers would be looking for a new supplier, and an untold number of U.S. Bridgestone consumers would ponder the loss fo a company that took pride in offering hype-less bikes.

One week after the announcement, marketing director Grant Petersen, who had been with the company (some in the industry viewed him as the comapny) for nearly a decade, was witty if not upbeat. "I'm in a healthy frame of mind," he said. The company's closure, Petersen said, is due to international currency exchange rates. "The fact is, if the dollar was strong, we would be doing quite well," he noted. "There isn't anyone to blame... it's just the way it is. This sounds like a regurgitated answer, but it really is related to the weakness of the dollar to the yen.

"We liked to build bikes that we and our friends would ride... You can't go to war with the giants of the industry --- and that's a lower case "g" --- and use the same weapons."

Had there been earlier indicators of Bridgestone Japan's concern over the financial situation of its U.S. company? "Inklings? Yeah," Petersen said. "Our first real year was 1984, and in the middle of '85 the bottom fell out of the dollar and that made it very difficult." Eleven years ago a U.S. dollar would purchase 230 yen; today that buck buys only 105 yen.

On the heels of quickly circulating news within the industry of Bridgestone's demise were the speculative scenarios on how the company could save itself. One idea was for Bridgestone employees to license the name from the Japanese, much as Dash America licensed the Pearl Izumi name when that apparel was initially pulled from the U.S. market in 1988.

"We would all be happy to do that," Ptersen said. "If there were a way to keep the name around, we would jump on it. Individually and collectively, the employees don't have the money to make that happen."

Petersen also had positive news for current Bridgestone fans: A new company will be established to handle warranties for existing Bridgestone owners; the distribution and sale of 1994 models will continue; and publication of the BOB Gazette will be ongoing.

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