FINDLAY, Ohio (May 11, 2001)–John Fahl has grand plans of visiting faraway lands when he retires June 1 as president of the tire group at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., but he won't sever his ties to the region he's always called home.
Born and raised in Arlington, Ohio, 10 miles south of Cooper's Findlay base, the 46-year Cooper veteran attended Denison University after graduating from high school but returned to his native city a short time later. “There was this young lady back home, and I was just in love,” he said. Mr. Fahl married when he was 19. He had begun attending the local college but soon quit to take a job working in the labs at Cooper. “What I really wanted was to get into coaching and teaching,” he said. “But obviously, I needed to get a job.”
He worked his way through the company, becoming director of purchasing a decade later in 1965. Times were tough then as consolidation in the tire industry took off. Cooper's suppliers often asked Mr. Fahl whether the company would survive. “Then here comes Bill Fitzgerald and Pat Rooney,” the first two presidents of Cooper's tire group, he said. “By 1993 when Pat turned it (the tire group) over to me, we were probably one of the most successful tire makers in the world,” with tire sales of $999 million and $154 million in operating profit.
As the third president of Cooper's tire group, Mr. Fahl said it was a little intimidating to follow in their footsteps. Like them, he advanced tire sales, up to $1.8 billion last year. But he also took the group down a global path through the 1997 acquisition of Avon Tyres Ltd. and the 1999 strategic alliance with Pirelli S.p.A.
Mr. Fahl was instrumental in signing Arnold Palmer as Cooper's spokesman. “What Arnold did was bring instant recognition to Cooper Tire,” he said. “The Cooper brand, since we signed him (in 1997), has grown almost four-and-a-half times what the industry has grown.” In 1993, 46 percent of all of the tires the firm sold were Cooper brand. Last year, 62 percent were, Mr. Fahl said. “I have said internally that's probably the one thing I'm proudest of.”
Perhaps the greatest legacy Mr. Fahl feels he will leave behind is the people at Cooper. “I'm probably more optimistic about the future of Cooper today than I've ever been,” he said
During a recent visit with one of his friends, John T. Lampe–Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc. chairman, president and CEO–Mr. Fahl said the two discussed what has changed most about the tire industry over the past four-and-a-half decades. Consolidation, certainly, has honed the number of U.S.-owned tire makers from about 12 in 1960 to two today. And the number of plants also has dwindled. “But the biggest change that I've seen in this industry is the quality of products,” Mr. Fahl said. “There's absolutely no question that the quality of the products produced by our industry is absolutely the best it's ever been.”
Although he will resign his position on Cooper's board of directors at the end of May, Mr. Fahl will remain on three non-rubber boards and will keep busy helping out with the small, family-owned travel business his daughter-in-law runs in the area. “I've also been asked to continue to do some consulting work in the rubber industry,” he said.
Under the heading of fun, Mr. Fahl is drafting a list of 100 things he wants to do “before the Good Lord says, 'Why don't you come up here with me?' ” Items on the list include playing more golf with his 14-year-old grandson; enjoying the home he and his wife are building in Naples, Fla.; remaining a resident of Findlay; and taking a trip to Africa with his wife Janet, Dick White, the former president of Bayer Chemical, and Mr. White's wife Joan.
“I really want to do some fun things because I think that's part of what keeps you young,” he said.
Not surprisingly, he also plans to stay in touch with his friends at Cooper. “I'm not going to miss getting on another plane or spending the night in another hotel, but I'm desperately going to miss the people I worked with, (and) the dealers I came in contact with,” Mr. Fahl said. “I can't tell you how much I'm going to miss them.”
Ms. Begin writes for Rubber & Plastics News, a sister publication of Tire Business.