Firestone success based on innovation

The moment is carved in time, like a tire track across the automotive landscape.

The day Henry Ford found his way down a busy Detroit street and into the Columbus Buggy Works building is the prelude, the climax and the denouement of automotive history, all rolled into one.

It isn't the starting point; it is the turning point. And not only for an industry, but a whole new century.

Ford had one request for the unassuming clerk at the front counter:

"I'm here to see Harvey Firestone," he said.

It was 1895.

Mark the moment and you'll see how the world changes. You'll see how Firestone, then an agent for Columbus Buggy Works, met Ford, a man who was building his first automobile. Ford was using bicycle tires for a car that weighed 500 pounds. Not viable, Ford knew at the time.

Mark the occasion and you'll see how Ford approached Firestone to inquire about obtaining some solid-rubber tires as a substitute. And how Firestone told Ford he had just begun creating some new tires that were softer.

"They were pneumatic tires," Ford would remembered later. "I had him order me a set."

Harvey Firestone's career, and the path of an industry, was forever altered.

How did Firestone put himself in this position and what did he do following it? Firestone's own tracks tell all.

They show a man who was a legend because he had grand visions. They show someone who would alter the way employers treated their workers. And a man who would ultimately rub elbows with Ford and Thomas Edison and botanist Luther Burbank, all legends in their time.

Born in 1868 in Columbiana, Ohio, a tiny town just south of Youngstown on State Road 422, Harvey Samuel Firestone lived the American dream. He grew up in love with land and the farm he was raised on. He was a farmer at heart, but he was also a businessman with a wealth of ideas.

He worked his way up through a number of different buggy companies and then opened his own shop at age 22.

With very little money, Firestone had created a set of rubber tires for his own buggy. While riding around one day on those new tires, he impressed a friend so much they began discussing the idea of running their own shop producing these rubber tires. With a third partner in tow, they raised the $1,000 it took to open the shop, known as the Rubber Tire Wheel Co. and an agent for Columbus Buggy Works. They had one employee.

Firestone's vision was simple: Mass produce a tire that would reduce the jolt transmitted through the steel wheel. Ford was his launching point.

It was kismet for both men. Ford would create his car; Firestone would eventually create the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, out of nothing but one large contract and 17 employees.

Within a decade, Firestone was making rubber tires for the automobile that everyone wanted, in a factory that was the envy of the new economy. He was as progressive in his management of men as he was in his business. Firestone knew that if he ensured the welfare of workers, his company would be a success.

His factories were a model of efficiency. Firestone employees received medical and dental services, free life insurance and all the benefits of the Firestone Club House, a $350,000 building constructed in 1915 that offered employees a restaurant, swimming pool and a library.

The company also purchased nearby land and helped workers build and finance their own homes.

In 1916, with his business booming, Firestone was one of the first to introduce the eight-hour day in his Akron rubber factories. He even revised pay rates so men earned as much in eight hours as they had in 10 or 12. Firestone set aside company stock for employee purchase and promised that those in his company who served in World War II would have their job "or a better one" when they returned.

During the war, Firestone developed a new tire that made truck transport more efficient and reliable. When it was over, more than 600,000 trucks were in use in the United States, thanks to his "Ship By Truck" campaign that encouraged private industry to take advantage of the efficiency. That then led to the "good roads movement" and the beginning of the national highway system.

Firestone knew manufacturing was important, but also understood his business would survive if it controlled the supply of rubber from trees. At one point, Firestone had a rubber plantation in Liberia that covered more than 1 million acres.

He was a man for all seasons.

Firestone loved to vacation and used to spend his free time with Ford and Edison, the other leaders in American industry. They would set out in a caravan of cars with camping equipment and travel across America.

Right up until his death in 1938 at age 69, Firestone was constantly in search of better solutions. He would create a better farm tire, the culmination of a dream to put "the American farm on rubber." And he would never forget where he came from or whom he met that day in 1895.

Both men had simple goals. Both lived the dream.

"You get the best out of others when you get the best out of yourself," Firestone once said.

Something says he lived every word of it.

Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.