NORTHFIELD, Ill.-John J. Nevin, who died May 23 at age 79 of an apparent heart attack, was the most polarizing person in the rubber industry during his tenure as head of Firestone.
He was feared and despised by many as he took over a failing company, slashed jobs and plants and sold operations. In total, he axed 34,000 jobs, closed 12 factories and sold various business units that employed 20,000 before finally engineering the sale of the tire company to Bridgestone Corp.
Yet he had plenty of admirers-and not just key people with whom he worked, or the financial community. "Nevin was a scapegoat," said Mike Stone, onetime president of the United Rubber Workers, in a 1996 retrospective about Firestone under Nevin. "If he hadn´t closed those plants, there´d be other plants at other companies closed because there simply was too much capacity."
In the same story, Bob Troyer, Firestone´s chief spokesman for many years, said Nevin´s decisions saved the company. "There´s absolutely no doubt about it. Firestone, and the industry as well, was in a situation of drastic overcapacity and was hemorrhaging cash. What was done had to be done."
Nevin came to Firestone in December 1979 to revive a company heading toward bankruptcy. One of the original Akron tire makers, Firestone never had recovered from the Firestone 500 radial disaster, a huge recall that cost millions and tarnished its reputation.
The company had a $250 million loss the year before Nevin came aboard. In a 1996 interview, Nevin said overcapacity was the prime problem.
"I don´t think there´s a single plant shutdown I would attribute to the Firestone 500," he said. "We simply had a monopoly on over-aged bias tire plants. If there was a critical shortage of them, we would have made a fortune."
Rather than dwell on the job cuts, he said the closings secured the jobs of 53,500 Firestone workers worldwide whose jobs were in jeopardy.
"Anyone who finds joy out of closing plants is a nut," he said. "It was a very tough decision but it was absolutely essential. Most of those plants should have been closed five years earlier."
Three months after coming to Firestone from Zenith Radio Corp. and after bringing in outside consultants, Nevin surprised even senior managers by announcing in one day the closing of five North American tire plants and one synthetic rubber facility and the elimination of 8,500 jobs.
Many more changes followed-plant closings, the divesting of various divisions, even the sale of Firestone Country Club in Akron, which appalled eventual buyer Bridgestone.
"Bridgestone officials thought I should be shot for selling the club," Nevin said.
By 1987 Firestone had completed its downsizing and was prepared to begin talks with Bridgestone, which led to the company´s sale in 1988. The Japanese tire maker´s first offer was countered by a Michelin-Pirelli bid, and Bridgestone increased its bid and ended up buying Firestone for $80 a share.
Firestone was selling for $9 a share when Nevin came aboard.
Nevin made out on the deal, too, netting what he said was about $20 million. He was criticized by union members who said he made a fortune while they took concessions or lost jobs. But Nevin said he felt no guilt, and noted he took stock options for 10 years, and no one said a thing about it until Bridgestone bought the firm.
"And that money came out of Bridgestone´s pockets, not Firestone´s employees´ pockets," he said.
Nevin, who further alienated people in Akron by moving Firestone´s pared-down headquarters to Chicago in 1987, retired in 1990.
Nevin was CEO of Zenith when he came to Firestone. Before serving there for five years, he had spent 17 years with Ford Motor Co., and also had worked for Standard Oil.
He is survived by his wife Anne; seven children; eight grandchildren; and a sister.