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Firestone, Harvey S. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Harvey S. Firestone

tire company rubber tires

(1868-1938)
Firestone Tire & Rubber Company

Overview

Industrialist Harvey Firestone established a rubber tire company with only a little cash and a fairly new patent in the rubber capital of the world, Akron, Ohio. A pioneer in the mass production process, Firestone created a company that became a major force in the industry and at its peak was counted among the “Big Five” tire manufacturers in the United States.

Personal Life

Born December 20, 1868, Harvey Samuel Firestone was raised on a farm in Columbiana, Ohio. His family was descended from immigrants from the Alsatian region of France. Firestone’s early education was in a one-room school house. He graduated from high school, and then completed a business course at a Cleveland college. At the age of 27, Firestone married Idabelle Smith of Jackson, Michigan. The couple had five sons: Harvey S. Jr., Russell Allen, Leonard Kimball, Raymond Christian and Roger Stanley; all of the siblings worked in their father’s business.

Firestone was a hard worker, but he enjoyed escaping from the rigors of business from time to time. He lived during an era that produced a number of great innovators. Some became his friends. It was not uncommon for Firestone to take long camping trips to remote regions with automaker Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison and naturalist John Burroughs. The foursome particularly enjoyed traveling through the countryside, and always without their families. According to the Akron Beacon Journal , these trips “were caravans that included cars and trucks carrying servants, equipment and a fully equipped kitchen. The dining table they hauled with them had room for 20.” On one famous trip, Edison, Ford, Firestone and Firestone’s son, Russell, motored to Plymouth, Vermont, to visit President Calvin Coolidge at his farmhouse. The last trip took place in the summer of 1920, a year before Burroughs died. Ford, Firestone and Edison continued to take the road trips, but did so with their families.

Even after Firestone became a wealthy and famous industrialist, he remained rooted in the country, spending much of his free time working on his farm in Columbiana. He was also a staunch Republican and devoted Episcopalian. And he even made time to serve as president of the Ohio Federation of Churches.

Firestone’s interest in the rubber tire industry developed while he was working at his uncle’s Columbiana Buggy Company in the early 1890s. During that time, Firestone grew to believe that the future was in rubber wheels and not buggies. His suspicions were confirmed when his uncle’s firm went bankrupt in 1896. In that year he set out to establish his own rubber tire company. He continued to play an active role in the company well past age 65, and served as its chairman until his death on February 6, 1938 at the age of 69. He died in his sleep in his oceanfront retreat in Miami Beach. By the time of the funeral, more than 12,000 people had come to Akron to pay their respects, according to the Akron Beacon Journal . The funeral was well attended, with members of the Ford and Edison families, White House officials, and other dignitaries on hand. The observances lasted two days in Akron; a special viewing was then held in his hometown, Columbiana.

Career Details

After the bankruptcy of his uncle’s buggy manufacturing firm, Firestone left Ohio and launched a company that sold tires. Three years later, in 1899, Firestone sold that venture to a competitor for more than $40,000 in cash, a sizable profit in those days. Firestone, however, was intrigued by the tire industry and, even more so, the growing automobile industry. The U.S. auto industry was launched in 1896, the year the Duryea brothers built more than one vehicle from the same design. From that point on, other manufacturers were determined to get a piece of this promising business. Firestone pursued tires, and acquired a patent for a method of attaching them. He set his sights on Akron, which was already the hot spot of the tire industry. Interestingly, tire makers were mostly manufacturing solid tires for buggies and pneumatics for bicycles; the U.S. automobile industry was still in its infant stages. Still, Firestone knew he had to be in Akron to become a player in the tire manufacturing field, which he predicted would soon take off with the rising popularity of the automobile. So in 1900 he moved to Akron and, at age 31, organized the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company with $10,000 in cash and a patent for a method of attaching tires to rims.

The business was off to a slow start until two major events propelled Firestone to the forefront of the tire industry. First, the firm began to prosper when it began manufacturing its own products in 1903, allowing it to substantially cut costs and boost production. This was key, as the automobile industry was looking to tire makers for improved ways to move its vehicles. Firestone was there to respond to their needs. The second big break came when Firestone, in 1906, received a huge order for 2,000 sets of tires from automaker Henry Ford. Ford was even at that time a major player in an industry brimming with small manufacturers. Ford’s order signaled the start of a long business relationship with Firestone that led to a personal friendship as well.

Financially, the order was the boost Firestone needed to jump-start his company. In 1907 the company sold 105,000 tires at a $538,177 profit. But Firestone knew that new advances in technology would keep his company competitive. A year after Ford placed his big tire order, Firestone began offering a “dismountable rim,” which allowed quick replacement of a worn tire to a spare. That was a breakthrough for Firestone, and he aggressively marketed these tires. Firestone was on a roll now, realizing a number of successes as he continued to introduce better and improved tires. His efforts paid off handsomely: company sales rocketed to $15 million in 1913, up from only $100,000 just 12 years earlier.

Akron Beacon Journal writers Steve Love and David Giffels said this about Firestone: “The blue-eyed, diminutive Firestone—he was 5-foot-6—would spend his mornings walking the grounds of the rambling Harbel Manor, his West Akron estate, now the site of the Georgetown Condominiums and environs. His body was there, walking among the flowers and trees, but his mind was on the rubber company as he thought through his daily plans.” Typically, Firestone arrived at the office around 10 a.m., but had already been busy with work.

Firestone was a good ideas man, but had little interest in actually inventing things. He left such technical details to the engineers. One example of this occurred in 1908, when Firestone came up with a concept for a “non-skid” tire with a diagonal tread pattern. “He sketched out the idea on a note pad in his office. The designers made it work, and the company still points to the non-skid tire as one of its proudest developments,” reported the Akron Beacon Journal.

Throughout the 1920s, Firestone prospered as one of the “Big Five” tire companies, standing in line with Goodyear, Goodrich, U.S. Rubber, and Fisk. Firestone, however, took nothing for granted. The postwar depression of the 1920s prompted Firestone to slash prices and cut wages in an effort to trim costs. He kept wages low during the expansion years of the 1920s and throughout the Depression, which helped the company maintain healthy profits. Surprisingly, Firestone, along with the other tire companies, was able to stall unionization of its manufacturing plants until the 1930s, a move that also kept wages low.

Social and Economic Impact

Certainly, Firestone was a force in the industry. His innovations were renowned in the rubber tire and automobile industries, and greatly influenced the direction of rubber technology. In 1923 Firestone introduced the balloon tire, which quickly became the standard for most types of motor vehicles. He was also a proponent of using motor driven trucks, extending the American highway system, and the elimination of railroad grade crossings.

Making tires was not Firestone’s only concern. Having the materials to build tires was equally important. So when the British government in 1922 implemented the Stevenson Plan, which restricted the production of crude rubber on plantations in British possessions throughout the world, Firestone responded. The Stevenson Plan drove up crude rubber prices, greatly effecting the profits of the tire industry. Firestone, however, refused to be a victim and, joined by his friend Henry Ford, set out to establish an American-controlled supply of crude rubber. In 1924 the two men began developing their own rubber supply in Liberia, in western Africa. By 1926 they had leased rights to a maximum of one million acres. As a result of his huge investment, Firestone became a force in Liberia’s economic fabric. Firestone was quite successful in Liberia, and achieved his goal of an independent rubber supply. Firestone even contributed to that country’s economic and social growth. He improved the Monrovia harbor, loaned the Liberian government several million dollars, and developed a sanitary work and living site for his native employees. Despite these efforts, Firestone was criticized for paying low wages to Liberian workers and for having too much influence in Liberia’s affairs.

In the United States, Firestone was busy developing new strategies to keep his company prosperous. In 1928 Firestone began opening a chain of “one-stop master service stores” throughout the United States to supply the public with the company’s tires and gasoline, oil and batteries, and brake and general equipment service. In later years, the service centers included auto supplies, and the name was changed to “auto supply and service stores.” Just 14 years later, there were 650 of these stores in operation across the United States. Moreover, by the late 1930s, Firestone employed more than 45,000 people. He operated 13 plants in the United States and five plants abroad. By 1942, Firestone had the largest rubber plantation operating under single management in the world, employing 30,000 laborers, with 80,000 acres planted.

Chronology: Harvey S. Firestone

1868: Born.

1892: Sold buggies for buggy manufacturer.

1896: Established first tire company.

1900: Founded Firestone.

1906: Received huge tire order from Henry Ford.

1926: Developed rubber supply in Liberia, with Ford.

1928: Established service center stores.

1932: Stepped down as company president; continued as chairman.

1938: Died.

That is just half the story. Firestone had indeed built an empire, and it was hugely profitable. The Great Depression of the 1930s did not diminish the health and strength of this company. During that bleak period, he never suspended dividend payment and even continued to show improvements in the business. Near the end of the Depression, in 1937, the company had a capital of $108 million and sales of $157 million, with profits of $9 million. Firestone had an impressive share of the market, as one-quarter of all tires sold in the U.S. wore the Firestone badge.

Robert Koch is a retired Firestone vice president believed to be the last person alive to have been hired directly by Firestone himself. He said in the Akron Beacon Journal, “I think the thing that was outstanding about Mr. Firestone was that he had long-term vision,”. And Koch credits Firestone’s conservatism during the Great Depression as the reason for the company weathering that storm.

However, Firestone was ultimately not equipped to adapt to changing circumstances. After World War II, industries grew bigger and stronger, and required a certain level of management expertise. Firestone had always run his empire as a closely-held family business. As the company grew, he was unable to make the hard decisions to keep it current and competitive. It soon lost its leadership in tire production to Goodyear, which had better marketing and management abilities. Another troublesome spot: Firestone never diversified beyond tire production. He acquired textile mills and rubber and cotton plantations, but these were all to aid the production of tires. All of the ingredients needed to build his tire empire later backfired and led to its demise. In the late 1980s, Japan’s Bridgestone acquired Firestone, which is now part of Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone Corp.

Firestone, Harvey S. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Harvey S. Firestone [next] [back] Fireman, Paul - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Paul Fireman, Social and Economic Impact

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