By Archana Mehta
If what comes to mind when you hear the word Firestone is rubber tires for cars and trucks, then you’ve missed the rich history of a brand founded more than a century ago by a man who was motivated by a desire to serve.
December 20, 2018, marked the 150th birthday of Harvey Firestone, the founder of the eponymous brand. Firestone revolutionized how goods were delivered across the United States.
In the late 1800s, when farm tractors were just invented, farmers bumped around their fields riding on metal wheels across the rough terrain. Firestone, a farm boy who knew firsthand the difficulties of driving a tractor with steel wheels, founded Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1900 when he saw the demand for rubber tires for automobiles as well as for farm equipment. According to Christine Karbowiak, Executive Vice President, CAO, and CRO of Bridgestone Americas, Firestone’s company quickly became the preeminent brand in agricultural tires. This demand was due to the clever design: It was the first pneumatic rubber tractor tire, with a wide surface and a chevron tread. The design created advantages in fuel economy, performance, and driver comfort. Firestone’s personal friendship with Henry Ford also helped the company gain traction and market share when Ford chose Firestone as an original equipment manufacturer to supply tires for his automobiles.
Firestone’s success in the 1920s earned him membership into an exclusive group: The Millionaire’s Club. It was an honor he shared with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
But beyond his success, and innovations in tires and rubber, Firestone created a company that reflected his philosophy: to serve his community and to do the right thing. His motivation to serve and devise ways to improve the lives of others inspired the Ship by Truck movement. Firestone’s approach — a novel one at the time — was to ship goods short distances via trucks instead of trains. In the early 1900s, this country had little infrastructure and hardly any decent roads or highways, especially for interstate travel. Most roads were dirt and many went nowhere in particular. Although railways spanned the nation, most railroads didn’t have hubs in every city and branches of the rail system left large swathes of the countryside not easily reachable. Farmers had a difficult time getting produce from farms to cities, and manufacturers of goods ran into trouble distributing their products.
Firestone realized that the great issue at hand was that progress was impeded by the country’s inefficient transportation network; industries couldn’t grow without a pathway for distribution. In 1918, Firestone began running ads for the Ship by Truck movement. Karbowiak says that this media campaign was able to demonstrate that trucking was more efficient than the current system in place. “It could take two and a half days by train to move goods from Detroit to Toledo. But it only took six or seven hours by truck, which makes moving things like produce a whole lot more feasible. You were able to move things forward and so you were able also to reduce prices.”
Firestone’s approach to shipping goods by truck slashed delivery times from days to hours. Farmers and small retailers were able to expand their reach and grow. Faster shipping prevented perishables from going bad in transit, and prices of goods dropped.
The hundred-mile radius,” Firestone was quoted as saying, “belongs to the truck.”
Firestone’s desire to improve things extended to his local community and, as the company grew, to the greater community. In the 1930s, in his living room and with a donation of several thousand dollars, Firestone was instrumental in founding what is now the Urban League of Akron. Karbowiak says it is just another example of the man focusing on more than the bottom line, “providing the kind of quality and community activities that were important.”
Fast-forward to 1988, when Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was sold to Bridgestone. Giving back to and doing good in the community were common – and important – themes for both companies. In fact, carrying out these ideals is what has allowed the new corporation to thrive and move forward. The founder of Bridgestone, Shojiro Ishibashi, had a motto that Bridgestone Americas adopted as its mission statement: Serving society with superior quality.
Karbowiak notes an important point about Ishibashi’s motto: “It’s not serving society with superior quality product. It’s serving society with superior quality, which impacts every aspect of the way that we operate. How do we interact with our community? How do we interact with our constituencies? Then how do we interact with our customers or our end users?”
In 2017, the company launched a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitment called Our Way to Serve that embodies both Firestone’s and Ishibashi’s spirit of giving back. Our Way to Serve focuses on three primary areas: Mobility, People, and Environment. According to its website, Bridgestone aims to “accelerate mobility innovations through advanced technologies and solutions,” enhance the communities it touches through safety initiatives and accessible and free education, and “ensure a healthy environment for current and future generations.” Karbowiak says that Our Way to Serve is really the “embodiment of what both founders had focused on way back, back in the early days.”
The company’s mission statement of Serving Society with Superior Quality reverberates throughout its worldwide operations. Bridgestone’s employees have immense loyalty to their company and its full portfolio of brands. In fact, a group known as the Gum Dippers is made up of retirees who worked originally for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company for 30, 40, or even 50 plus years. Not surprisingly, the membership evolved to include those who worked under Bridgestone/Firestone as well. After all that time, they remain devoted to the company, both Bridgestone and Firestone brands, and hold annual conventions to bring former employees together. Says Karbowiak, “I think that really says everything that you need to know about the company,
The dramatic impact of Firestone’s leadership in the automotive and transportation industries is foundational to our daily lives today. Firestone’s pneumatic tire, which wore far better than the solid rubber or metal tires of the time, changed how we drive. Through a winding path, he is said to have inspired President Dwight Eisenhower to endorse the creation of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways — the Interstate Highway System we hop on to drive across the nation or across the state line today. Rubber tires on our everyday vehicles — for all seasons or for mud or snow — were made popular thanks in part to Firestone. Trucks rolling on rubber still deliver most of our goods along that last crucial mile. Firestone’s vision continues to influence and facilitate innovation even today.