Tire industry icon Les Schwab dies at 89

May 18, 2007

Les Schwab, the founder of arguably the most respected independent tire store chain in the United States, has died. He was 89 when he passed away in Prineville, Ore., home of the headquarters of Les Schwab Tire Centers.

Schwab had been in declining health for many months.

In a prepared statement, the company said Les Schwab's family members will own the business. The family agreed that the best way to honor Les Schwab's memory is to continue to build the company's success the same way he did, by building trust with employees and customers.

After starting his company in 1952, Schwab built Les Schwab Tire Centers into one of Oregon's best-known businesses. The company and its 7,700 employees operate more than 410 stores throughout the western U.S.

"Les was not just a great businessman, he was a great man," says Phil Wick, chairman of Les Schwab Tire Centers. "There will never be another Les. He was a visionary, and all of us who worked with him will stay true to his vision of integrity, service and treating people


With the promotion of Dick Borgman to CEO, the company is positioned for future growth and expansion, according to Wick, who has reduced his work schedule. (Borgman previously held the position of president, Les Schwab Holding Co. Division.)

"Dick worked for 17 years with Les and myself and clearly understands the importance of our programs, employees and customers," says Wick.

"Les built one of the greatest companies, with some of the best employees, not just in the West, but in the world. He left us a remarkable legacy, and we are all committed to seeing that it thrives."

Les Schwab was born in Bend, Ore., in 1917, and graduated from Bend High School. (The dealership's new 120,000-square-foot corporate headquarters will be located in Bend. The company expects the building to be finished by the fall of 2008.)

Both of Schwab's parents died when he was 15 and still in high school. He supported himself by distributing the Oregon Journal newspaper and eventually controlled all nine routes in Bend.

He married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Harlan, shortly after graduating high school.

After working his way up at the Oregon Journal, he left to become circulation manager at The Bulletin in Bend.

He served in World War II with the Air Cadets.

In 1952, he bought OK Rubber Welders in Prineville, Ore. He started in a shack of a building, with no running water and no toilet. "I had one hired man, and the two of us were the total crew. So I learned the tire business from the bottom up," said Schwab.

Within one year, the company's sales grew from $32,000 to $150,000. In 2006, total retail sales passed the $1.6 billion mark.

It now offers customers a variety of products and services to meet their driving needs, including tires, chains, brakes, shocks, wheels, batteries and vehicle alignments. Its signature red and yellow signs stand over locations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada and Utah.

The company won acclaim for its unswerving attention to customer service. New customers -- and visiting tire dealers -- were often startled to see employees literally running up to greet them.

Schwab referred to his business approach as following the Golden Rule and always "treating people right." His message to employees was to take "pride in performance." He instituted a written warranty policy for customers under the motto "If We Can't Guarantee It, We Won't Sell It."

Employees were a crucial part of the Schwab story. Long before many other companies offered great perks, the company became known for its strong employee programs. Schwab instituted a profit sharing plan, employee retirement accounts, funding for education, health and dental care, and the payment of an annual dividend.

Through these programs, 50% of company profits are distributed to employees.

Les Schwab was a familiar sight in the media, appearing for many years in the company's radio and television commercials. But he never stopped crediting the people around him, saying "We created an excellent program for customers and an excellent program for employees, and they just took it from there."

Les Schwab Tire Centers was ranked the best passenger-vehicle and light-truck tire retailer in customer satisfaction for four years in a row, according to the J.D. Power and Associates Retailer Customer Satisfaction Study.

In 2000, Les Schwab was named Modern Tire Dealer's Tire Dealer of the Year.

Les Schwab often said, "There are three types of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask what happened." Les Schwab was a man who made things happen.

Funeral services will be private. Les Schwab's family has requested that cards and condolences be addressed to the Les Schwab Family, c/o Shirley Jacobs, PO Box 667, Prineville, Oregon 97754.