‘Sheer will to succeed’ set tire magnate apart

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: June 01. 2007 5:00AM PST

REDMOND – Entering the main auditorium at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center on Thursday, guests streamed past mementos of the man they were there to honor: Les Schwab’s golf cart and clubs, the typewriter on which he tapped out his autobiography, framed articles about his career and four J.D. Power and Associates awards his company won for customer satisfaction.

About 4,500 people – including local politicians, family members and hundreds of Les Schwab Tire Centers employees – gathered Thursday to honor a man who had come to symbolize the spirit of entrepreneurship in Central Oregon and the Northwest.

Packed into the expo center, the crowd remembered Prineville tire magnate Les Schwab, who died May 18 at age 89 after months of declining health.

During the hourlong service, associates recalled Schwab as an astute businessman who cared for his employees and remained a humble, down-to-earth member of the community despite his astronomical success. The audience was mainly hushed, with scatterings of applause, laughter and tears.

Speaking in the darkened, candlelit auditorium, Les Schwab Tire Centers Chairman Phil Wick held back tears as he described Schwab as “like a second father to me.”

“The greatest honor of my life, after marrying my wife and having our children, was being his protege,” said Wick, who noted he has worked for the company for almost 42 years. “To be able to work side by side with someone like Les was the greatest thing — he was my teacher and my friend.”

Onstage behind the speaker’s podium, flower displays were set up inside rings of tires and Schwab’s Jeep sat amid a faux-High Desert landscape. Wick told several stories about working with Schwab on his ranch near Paulina, eliciting laughs from the crowd.

“Les and this black Jeep up here … were a legend up at the ranch,” he said.

A video that played during the service included clips from Schwab’s television commercials and recordings of interviews with him, as well as photos from throughout his life. Schwab’s widow, Dorothy, and other family members attended the service, but did not speak or appear onstage.

Dick Borgman, who took over from Schwab as chief executive officer of the company in December, talked about Schwab’s vision, intelligence and “sheer will to succeed.”

“But what really set him apart was that despite all those gifts and talents, Les always, always remained genuine and humble,” Borgman said.

Borgman also joked about Schwab’s experiences on his ranch.

“The real secret of his success as a rancher was owning a chain of tire stores,” Borgman said Schwab told him once.

Both Wick and Borgman pointed to Schwab’s dedication to his employees, which included a generous health plan and profit-sharing program, as evidence of his giving nature.

“He never treated employees like employees,” Wick said. “They were part of the company and a partner in its success.”

In a statement after the service, Borgman said that Les Schwab Tire Centers has reason to be optimistic about its future despite the loss of its founder.

“Les Schwab always said that when he left this world he wanted two things: to not be in debt and for the company to continue,” Borgman said. “He did an excellent job on both counts.”

Borgman noted that the company continues to add new stores and plans to move into new headquarters in Bend next year.

The company will continue to be family-owned, according to a news release shortly after Schwab’s death. Schwab leaves behind his wife, four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. His son, Harlan, died in 1971 and his daughter, Margie, passed away in 2005.

“Les was a legend and he leaves a legacy that we must continue,” Wick said. “Les did not want a school named after him or the wing of a hospital, he wanted the company that he loved so much to continue just as it is now, and we will do that.”

Longtime friend shares memories

REDMOND — Shortly after thousands of people remembered Central Oregon businessman Les Schwab at a public memorial service Thursday, Dick Mann sat in his home north of Redmond recounting a more personal connection.

“I think I might have been one of the very first customers Les Schwab had when he bought the O.K. Rubber Welders in Prineville, so we go back a long way,” Mann said.

Schwab bought the small tire store in Prineville in 1952, renaming it a few years later. At the time, Mann said, he was in the construction business in Redmond and went to Schwab to have the tires on his truck retreaded.

Mann, 82, said that in the mid-1950s he built a shop for Schwab’s in Redmond and then put up his own business, Mann Construction Co., right next door. At first, he said, he doubted Schwab’s ability to make money through the tire shops.

“Back in those days I knew exactly what I was doing, but I felt sorry for Les,” he said. “So many times I wanted to tell him, ‘You can’t make any money selling tires in those little towns.’”

He lost touch with Schwab for some time, but they reconnected several years ago through Mann’s work as a charter governor with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Oregon. Schwab was always willing to donate money to support the organization, Mann said. He added that the last time he saw Schwab was about two years ago.

“Les told me when he first started — I remember this just like it was yesterday — he said, ‘Dick, people love to be sold new tires,’ and I found out he was right because I would go in and get four new tires and I’d be on top of the world,” Mann said. “It gives you a sense of security, you know, and Les figured that out in the early years. I think that was one of the keys to his success.”

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