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May-18-2007 19:01printcomments

Oregon Tire Icon Les Schwab Has Died

Les Schwab often said, “There are three types of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask what happened.” Les Schwab was a man who made things happen.

The late Les Schwab
Images courtesy: Les Schwab Tire Company

(PRINEVILLE, Ore.) - After many months of declining health, Les Schwab died today in Prineville, Oregon. He was 89.

After starting his company in 1952, he built Les Schwab Tire Centers into one of Oregon’s best-known businesses. The company now operates more than 410 stores throughout the West, with 7,700 employees.

“Les was not just a great businessman, he was a great man,” said Phil Wick, Chairman of Les Schwab Tire Centers. “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.”

Wick indicated that with the promotion of Dick Borgman as CEO of Les Schwab Tire Centers, the company is 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. He left us a remarkable legacy, and we are all committed to seeing that it thrives.” Wick further stated that with his reduced work schedule, Dick is there to see that Les’ vision continues, “Dick worked for 17 years with Les and myself and clearly understands the importance of our programs, employees and customers.”

Les Schwab’s family members will own the business. 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.

Les Schwab was born in Bend, Ore. in 1917. He graduated from Bend High School. Both of Schwab’s parents died when he was 15 and still in high school. He supported himself by distributing the Oregon Journal newspaper and eventually controlled all nine routes in Bend. He married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Harlan, shortly after graduating high school. After working his way up at the Oregon Journal, he left to become circulation manager at The Bulletin in Bend.

He served in World War II with the Air Cadets.

In 1952, he bought OK Rubber Welders in Prineville, Ore. He started in a shack of a building, 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,” Schwab said.

Within one year, the company’s sales grew from $32,000 to $150,000. It now offers customers a variety of products and services to meet their driving needs, including tires, chains, brakes, shocks, wheels, batteries and vehicle alignments. Its signature red and yellow signs stand over locations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada and Utah. In 2006, total retail sales passed the $1.6 billion mark.

The company won acclaim for its unswerving attention to customer service. New customers were often startled to see employees literally running up to help them. Many people who became Les Schwab customers remained so for decades. Schwab referred to his business approach as following the Golden Rule by always “treating people right.” His message to employees was to take “Pride in Performance.” He instituted a written warranty policy for customers under the name “If We Can’t Guarantee It, We Won’t Sell It.”

Employees were a crucial part of the Schwab story. Long before many other companies offered great perks, the company became known for its strong employee programs. Schwab instituted a profit sharing plan, employee retirement accounts, funding for education, health and dental care, and the payment of an annual dividend. Through these programs, 50 percent of company profits are distributed to employees.

Les Schwab was a familiar sight in the media, appearing for many years in the company’s radio and television commercials. But he never stopped crediting the people around him, saying “We created an excellent program for customers and an excellent program for employees, and they just took it from there.”

Les Schwab Tire Centers was ranked the best passenger-vehicle and light-truck tire retailer in customer satisfaction for four years in a row, according to the J.D. Power and Associates Retailer Customer Satisfaction Study.

Les Schwab often said, “There are three types of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask what happened.” Les Schwab was a man who made things happen.

Funeral services will be private. Les Schwab’s family has requested that cards and condolences be addressed to the Les Schwab Family, c/o Shirley Jacobs, PO Box 667, Prineville, Oregon 97754.




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