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Helluva guy

rainey

Bear with me. There is a point.

In Bend, Oregon in 1949, I was an eighth-grader. Late afternoons, I was a carrier for The Bend Bulletin, the local daily.

It was the worst in-town delivery route, stretching the length of Newport Avenue (about four miles) from Wall Street downtown all the way to where the college is now. Except, in 1949, there was no college. One subscriber way out there. Just his house and Juniper forest. And the last mile of road was gravel.

Bend has winters! Real winters with lots of snow. Couldn’t ride a bike. So, loaded my carrier bag – front and back – and hiked the route, at times, in below zero weather and a foot or more of snow.

One afternoon, I was in the carrier room folding the papers I’d deliver. The circulation manager, as he often did, was in the middle of all of us, helping fold. Out of the blue, he said “Rainey, you’ve carried that damned Newport route for nearly two years without a lot of complaining. How’d you like an inside job in the printing plant?”

He didn’t have to ask twice. I was apprenticed to the linotype guys to work with the hot lead they used to make the type. Still have the scars on my wrists and fingers 70 years later. But, I loved it. Also learned composing and writing filler material. Stayed there until high school graduation in 1954.

In December, 1951, that circulation manager who helped shape my future lifetime career in the media with an act of kindness, quit to mortgage everything he had to buy an OK Rubber Welders franchise store 30 miles away in Prineville. Took every dime he could raise.

But, by 2007, he personally owned 410 stores in the western U.S. with annual sales of $1.6 billion. Half of each store’s profit went to employees who also were allowed to invest in buying the land under the store where they worked. And he only promoted from within the company. All the way to the top.

People tried many times to buy him out. Michelin tried twice. Even Warren Buffet. They always got a “NO!” He wanted his family to run it all. And they have since his death in 2007.

That circulation manager’s name was Leslie Bishop Schwab. Or simply, Les Schwab. A man I’ve admired all my life. And probably the most successful person I’ve ever known. In all ways.

His son and daughter, both company directors and well-schooled in how Les operated, died prematurely. Son of cancer; daughter in a car wreck. Les was a broken man when he passed in 2007. The grandchildren have no interest in running the business. So, now the remaining family has decided to sell it all. Bloomberg News is forecasting the company will go for “at least $3 billion!”

His slogan “If We Can’t Guarantee It, We Won’t Sell It” is recognized through out the West. Even today, employees run out to welcome customers, tire checks are free, guarantees are “rock solid” and staff treats people better than any kind of store I know.

Les was also generous in every community in each of the 13 states in which he invested. Hard to find an athletic facility for high schools or universities without a “Les Schwab Tire Centers” sign or banner. And, more often than not, a check to help things along.

In Bend, Les and his wife gave the Les Schwab Amphitheater to the city. His generosity was well known but I suspect much of it was done anonymously and we’ll never know the true extent.

Les had the most remarkable memory for names and miscellany. In his prime, he could go into nearly every store, call employees by name, knew many of their kids’ names and special things going on in their lives like college or the military. He shook more hands than any politician I’ve ever known. And I’ve known many.

Les was truly “one-of-a-kind” in business, philanthropy, personal relationships with employees – top to bottom – and fair-minded in everything he put his hand to. I’m certain he had a very positive influence on hundreds – if not thousands – of lives. Like mine.

It’s been probably 40 years since I last saw Les. He was still in his prime. And after years of being apart, he still remembered my name and those days folding newspapers behind that Oregon printing plant.

I’ve had a lot of cars and trucks in my life. Lots. And, I’ve bought lots of replacement tires. But, always at a Les Schwab Tire Center.

Our most recent car will need replacement tires one of these days and we haven’t found a Les Schwab Tire Center in Phoenix yet. If we haven’t found one by the time the need arises, we’ll take a run on Interstate 10 to Nevada.

Extra effort. Extra expense. But, if Les were there, I know he’d say “Thank You.”

Helluva guy.
 

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