Firestone, Harvey Samuel

views updated Jun 11 2018


Harvey Samuel Firestone (18681938) was an inventor and innovator, as well as a shrewd businessman. The company he founded in 1900 has been one of the largest in its industry, surviving two world wars and the Great Depression. Firestone personally pushed many of the industry's innovations, including vertical integration of rubber production in tire manufacturing and product retailing strategies.

Harvey Firestone was born December 20, 1838, in Columbiana, Ohio. His parents, Benjamin Firestone and Catharine Flickinger, were farmers from an Alsatian family residing in Ohio since 1807. Young Firestone was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Uncommon in pioneer families, Firestone graduated from high school and completed a business college course in Cleveland before working as a bookkeeper and a salesman. His lifetime career in transportation and tires began with a job at the Columbiana Buggy Company, where he worked for his uncle, Clinton Firestone.

Firestone's salesmanship abilities earned him district responsibilities, and by 1892, he was in charge of the Michigan district. The buggy company went bankrupt in 1896, and Firestone decided the future was in wheels rather than carriages. With a friend's help and investment, Firestone established a rubber wheels company in Chicago in 1896. He sold the company in 1899 and pocketed $40,000. Taking this cash and a patent for attaching rubber tires to wheels, Firestone moved to Akron, Ohio, then the center of rubber tire manufacturing. With $10,000 of his own cash and his patent, he established the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, retaining 50 percent ownership of the company.

For the first few years, Firestone had others manufacture his tires, and the company did not do well. In 1903 the company began to manufacture its own product and improved its performance. Firestone decided to cater to the needs of the fledgling automobile industry, and he began to produce a pneumatic tire for autos. In 1906 Henry Ford (18631947) placed a large order for tires for his new automobiles, and Ford and Firestone established a sound personal and business relationship that would last for many years.

Firestone's innovations included the 1907 "dismountable rim," which allowed the wheel and tire to be removed together. The spare tire was born. Firestone promoted his tires through support of the racing industry, piggy backing his product with the rising popularity of the new sport. By 1913 the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company's sales topped $15 million, and it joined the ranks of the "Big Five" of the tire industry, along with Goodyear, Goodrich, U.S. Rubber, and Fisk.

After World War I (19141918), the depression of 19201921 hit Firestone Tire and Rubber hard. The company had a debt of $43 million, and Firestone's answer was to cut prices to increase sales, while cutting wages to decrease costs. Decreasing wages was, of course, unpopular, but Firestone was still able to fore-stall unionization until the 1930s. By 1924 the debt was paid off, and Firestone's company was again in good financial shape.

Firestone promoted the use of motor driven trucks, the building of the American highway system, and the elimination of railroad grade crossings. In 1923 he introduced the balloon tire, which shortly became the standard for motor vehicles. From 1922 to 1924 the price of rubber became a critical problem for the tire and automobile industries. Great Britain controlled a majority of the world's rubber supply via the Crown Colonies, and it tried to restrict rubber production to drive up prices. To combat the problem, Firestone and Henry Ford worked together to develop rubber plantations in the African nation of Liberia.

Firestone's efforts in Liberia helped break the rubber cartel. It also made him a major player in the economy of the African nation. Firestone made improvements to the harbor in Monrovia, loaning the Liberian government millions of dollars, and built quarters for his workers that included sanitation. Despite his efforts there, allegations of slave traffic and worker exploitation were made against Firestone and his operation in Liberia. At the end of the controversy, a 1930 League of Nations inquiry exonerated Firestone and his labor policy.

Another of the innovations Firestone brought to the tire and rubber industry was that of the "one-stop master service store," which he designed to provide tires, gasoline, oil, batteries, and brake service through a single outlet. Firestone's plan, which was first put in place in 1928, was to build these establishments throughout the country. Eventually, the stores included auto parts and provided even more services.

Through sound business management, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company made it through the Great Depression (19291939) without suspending dividend payments. Firestone even managed to expand his operations through the 1930s, and by 1937, his firm had one-quarter of the tire market in the United States and showed over $9 million in profits on sales of over $156.8 million. Firestone Tire and Rubber Company had twelve factories in the United States and five plants abroad making rubber, steel, and textile products. Firestone stepped down as president of his company in 1932, but remained chairman of the board until his death in 1938.

Harvey Firestone was active in Republican politics and the Episcopal Church. He served as president of the Ohio Federation of Churches. He married Idabelle Smith in 1895, and they had five sons: Harvey S. Jr., Russell Allen, Leonard Kimball, Raymond Christian, and Roger Stanley. All of Firestone's sons were active in his business. Harvey Firestone died February 7, 1938, in Miami Beach, Florida.

See also: Tire and Rubber Industry


Bowman, John S., ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1995, s.v. "Firestone, Harvey."

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998, s.v. "Firestone, Harvey."

Ingham, John N. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983, s.v. "Firestone, Harvey."

Lief, Alfred. Harvey Firestone: Free Man of Enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951

The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography. New York: McGrawHill Book Co., 1973, s.v. "Firestone, Harvey."

Harvey Samuel Firestone

views updated May 29 2018

Harvey Samuel Firestone

The American industrialist Harvey Samuel Firestone (1868-1938) organized the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, a leading firm in the rubber industry.

Harvey Firestone was born at Columbiana, Ohio, on Dec. 20, 1868, the son of a prosperous farmer. During the 1890s he held various positions in the buggy industry. In 1896 Firestone established a tire company; it was sold 3 years later. In 1900 he founded the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, which was already a center of the tire industry catering to the bicycle.

Now Firestone shifted his attention to the automobile industry and the pneumatic tire, which replaced the solid tire. He obtained a substantial order from Henry Ford in 1906, and this became the foundation of a business and personal relationship. Firestone became one of the "big five" in rubber: the others were Goodyear, Goodrich, United States Rubber, and Fisk.

Firestone responded to the 1920-1921 business decline by reducing prices and refusing to participate in a price agreement with his competitors. Wages were cut in an effort to trim costs (like most mass production industries, the rubber industry was not yet unionized). In 1923 Firestone brought out the balloon tire, a product innovation which was widely copied.

The rubber tire industry was at this time completely dependent on imported raw material. The price of rubber, like that of most raw materials, fluctuated greatly: it rose during World War I and went down during the postwar depression. Under the sponsorship of Great Britain, which owned colonies producing much of the world's rubber supply, a short-lived cartel was started in 1922 to raise the price of rubber and restrict its output. Complaints from consumer nations arose, particularly from the United States, which, in the midst of an automobile revolution, was the largest consumer of rubber. In response, in 1924 Firestone and Henry Ford began to develop their own rubber supply in Liberia, Africa. The size of Firestone's Liberian rubber plantations made him an important factor in the economic life of that country. In 1930 a League of Nations inquiry into the slave traffic exonerated Firestone's labor policy there.

Firestone died on Feb. 7, 1938, in Miami Beach, Fla. His family-controlled company concentrated on a single line of products—rubber tires.

Further Reading

Firestone's Men and Rubber, in collaboration with Samuel Crowther (1926), presents his reminiscences. Alfred Lief wrote the popular biography Harvey Firestone: Free Man of Enterprise (1951) and The Firestone Story: A History of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (1951). The Liberian venture is examined in Wayne C. Taylor, The Firestone Operations in Liberia (1956). □