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Les Schwab left indelible mark on industry

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PRINEVILLE, Ore.—Les Schwab, who founded and built one of the nation's largest, best-known independent tire dealerships, died May 18 in Prineville. He was 89.


The company made the announcement, noting Mr. Schwab had been in declining health for many months.


Starting his dealership in 1952, Mr. Schwab built Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc. into one of Oregon's best-known businesses, according to the Prineville-based firm, which operates more than 410 stores throughout the West and employs 7,700.


“Les was not just a great businessman, he was a great man,” said Phil Wick, the dealership's chairman, in a prepared statement. “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 right.”


Mr. Wick said that with the promotion of Dick Borgman to CEO of Les Schwab Tire Centers late last year, the company is well positioned for future growth and expansion.


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


Saying that Mr. Borgman will carry on Mr. Schwab's vision, Mr. Wick added that “Dick worked for 17 years with Les and myself and clearly understands the importance of our programs, employees and customers.”


Mr. Schwab's family members will continue to own the business. The company said 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.”


Mr. Schwab was born in Bend, Ore., in 1917. Both of his parents died when he was 15 and still in Bend High School, from which he graduated. Early in life he developed the entrepreneurial spirit that served him well in the tire business, supporting himself by distributing the Oregon Journal newspaper, eventually controlling all nine paper routes in Bend.


Shortly after graduating high school Mr. Schwab married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Harlan. After working his way up the ladder at the Oregon Journal, he left to become circulation manager at The Bulletin newspaper in Bend.


During World War II he served with the Air Cadets.


In 1952, Mr. Schwab bought OK Rubber Welders in Prineville, according to Les Schwab Tire, and started his company in little more than a shack 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,” Mr. Schwab explained.


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


The company, once a driving force in passenger tire retreading, now offers customers a variety of products and services, including tires, chains, brakes, shocks, wheels, batteries and vehicle alignments. Its signature red and yellow Les Schwab Tire signage is on locations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada and Utah.


With an industrywide reputation for unwavering attention to customer service, Mr. Schwab referred to his business philosophy as following the “Golden Rule” by always “treating people right.” His employees are known for literally running out to his outlets' parking lots to greet customers as they pulled up, an experience that often surprised and impressed new customers, the company said.


Mr. Schwab drummed the message into employees to take “pride in performance” and instituted a written warranty policy for customers under the name, “If We Can't Guarantee It, We Won't Sell It.”


The dealership said that long before many companies offered “great perks,” Les Schwab Tire became known for its strong employee programs. It instituted a profit sharing plan, employee retirement accounts, funding for education, health and dental care, and the payment of an annual dividend. Fifty percent of company profits are distributed to employees through those programs, the company said.


With his trademark white cowboy hat, Mr. Schwab was a familiar sight in the media and appeared for many years in the dealership's radio and TV commercials. Yet, the company said, “he never stopped crediting the people around him,” often saying: “We created an excellent program for customers and an excellent program for employees, and they just took it from there.”


Mr. Schwab was preceded in death by his two children, Margaret (Margie) Denton and Harlan Schwab. He is survived by his wife Dorothy; grandchildren Diana and her husband Matt, Alan and his wife Rene, Leslie and her husband Dean, Julie and her husband Brad; and 11 great-grandchildren.


A public memorial service was held May 31 at the Redmond County Fairgrounds Expo Center. Mr. Schwab's family requested cards and condolences be addressed to the Les Schwab Family, in care of Shirley Jacobs, P.O. Box 667, Prineville, Ore. 97754.

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Previous | Published February 1, 2019

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