When Edouard Michelin stopped by a Chicago-area tire dealership in 2004, the dealership family covered their conference room tables with fine linens, ordered French pastries from 40 miles away and brewed the best coffee available in anticipation of the leader of Group Michelin.
During his visit, Mr. Michelin noticed a vintage check-writing machine in the dealership's office.
``He looked at this machine and said, `Oh, I see you have nothing but the latest, most high-tech equipment,''' said Julie Scroggins, vice president of Waukegan Tire & Supply Co. Inc., laughing at the memory. ``It just cut the tension and he had this pleasant, unexpected sense of humor that just caught you off guard.''
That down-to-earth quality, Ms. Scroggins said, impressed her and her father during Mr. Michelin's trip to their dealership. Mr. Michelin was in Chicago to receive the Golden Plate Award from the Academy of Achievement. Other recipients that year included author Norman Mailer, blues guitar legend B.B. King, Google Inc. founder Larry Page, writer John Updike and David Oddsson, prime minister of Iceland. But Mr. Michelin barely mentioned the award, mostly asking about Waukegan Tire's business.
``It was a very memorable experience,'' said Jerry Nerheim, president of Waukegan Tire. ``Of all my years in the business, this was the highlight of it, to have the sincere, warm feeling we felt from Edouard. I'm fighting back tears today talking about it.''
Mr. Nerheim and Ms. Scroggins said they and the dealership's employees were devastated to hear of Mr. Michelin's death in a boating accident May 26 off the coast of France. Ms. Scroggins said she first heard of his death on May 27 when she received a Tire Business news e-mail. She said she re-read the piece several times, not believing it.
``He was just so friendly, just an amazingly warm, nice person,'' Mr. Nerheim said. ``I can't imagine a worse loss for his family, friends and company.''
Waukegan Tire's relationship with Mr. Michelin all started at an awkward lunchtime gathering.
Mr. Nerheim was unable to attend the Michelin Americas Small Tires dealer meeting in Phoenix in 2001, so Ms. Scroggins went instead. Being virtually the only woman in the group among much larger dealership executives who were gathering with their friends, Ms. Scroggins sat at an empty table during lunch on the second day.
A gentleman asked if he could join her and then mentioned he was Mr. Michelin, the great-grandson of the global company's founder. Ms. Scroggins said she felt guilty to be there instead of her father, who she knew would have loved to meet Mr. Michelin.
``To compensate for that I just really talked about my dad and as I would talk about my dad, he would talk about his dad,'' she recalled. ``And we were obviously coming from two different worlds completely, but he didn't make it feel that way. And he really appreciated our loyalty to the product.''
During the dealer meeting, Mr. Michelin referred to Waukegan Tire, commending their loyalty. He also related other personal stories, including a flat tire on his minivan when he was on a vacation with his family and the ensuing trials of getting it repaired.
``He told this story and you get this feeling that he doesn't know who he really was,'' Ms. Scroggins said, referring to the uptight and standoffish approach of some big-time CEOs. In fact, in a 2003 interview with Business Week, Mr. Michelin was coy about his role in the worldwide company.
``I'm very much against the star-ification of CEOs,'' he told the magazine. ``What's most important is the team.''
In 2002, Mr. Nerheim was interviewed by Business Week for a profile on Mr. Michelin, in which he praised the company. Mr. Nerheim-who has sold Michelin tires for more than 30 years-is on the Michelin Alliance Customer Council. ``We have a wonderful relationship (with Michelin),'' he said. ``Our customers love their product.''
That business relationship was strengthened by their personal interactions with Mr. Michelin, Ms. Scroggins said.
``It put a face on Michelin, and I will never look at Michelin the same after meeting him,'' she said. ``It made me so much more fond of the Michelin product.''
Ms. Scroggins said all the aspects of his personality that she found so admirable are the same traits that will make any other leader of Michelin not quite the same.
``Everybody here is so saddened,'' she said. ``I can't imagine anyone filling his shoes because of those qualities. Those aren't qualities that you can bring to a person.''