(From the Aug. 8, 2011 issue of Rubber & Plastics News)
AKRON (Aug. 12, 2011)—Ever hear about “editor's prerogative?”
I might have just invented the concept, but I'm taking full advantage of it—the “right” that comes with being editor of Rubber & Plastics News to list what I, ahem, believe are the most important stories we've covered in the past four decades.
This exercise is completely subjective. I've spent quite a number of years reporting on the rubber business, and researched all the issues of RPN before my time with the publication. The listing is based on what I perceive are the stories' news value, importance to the industry and our readers, or just plain interesting to me. Talk about pompous.
Feel free to make up your own list. We've done the research for you, a piece starting on page 10 summing up major stories of the industry each year as they appeared in RPN. Have fun.
Here's my list, in no particular order:
1) Goodyear takeover attempt by James Goldsmith. After mighty Goodyear was raided, and paid through the nose to make the—OK, I'll just say it—scumbag go away, I realized that anything can happen in this business.
2) The chemical and rubber suppliers' price-fixing scandals. Again, I was caught off guard: No way everyone and his brother were trying to cheat their rubber processor customers by fixing prices and dividing up “territories.” Nobody's that stupid, thinking they'd never get caught.
They were. This was one time I wished I'd been a prosecutor, wreaking vengeance on these—all right, I'll say it one more time—scumbags. This scandal did prepare me for future unthinkable events, like the mortgage and banking crises, and verified my belief that “anything can happen in this business.”
3) Firestone 500. Having a tire that was failing all over the place was bad enough. Firestone's brain trust decided that just saying “no” to NHTSA or anyone who dared take on the huge rubber company would make the problem go away. It didn't, and initiated a decline that ended in the company's sale.
4) Firestone Wilderness, ATX tire recall. Lightning apparently can strike twice. You had to feel sorry for Bridgestone, since Ford disingenuously heaped all the blame on the tire maker, which dutifully took most of the heat. The recall sparked the TREAD Act, got lots of air time for self-righteous congressmen, and opened the entire industry up to an era of class action suits by ambulance chasers Ã I mean, trial lawyers.
5) The great strike of 1976. Led by the colorful Peter Bommarito, the United Rubber Workers virtually shut down the tire industry for 141 days. Ultimately the URW won the battle and got pay and benefit enhancement, but lost the war as the Akron tire makers began a long process of moving production to non-union areas and overseas.
6) Consolidation. It's only natural that an industry would undergo consolidation over a period of decades. The changes in the rubber industry, however, were rampant and continuous. Actually, are continuous.
When I started here Akron was the Rubber City, the Tire Capital, with the Big 3 tire makers; Polysar and DuPont were major synthetic rubber producers; the Rubber Manufacturers Association annual meeting drew 200 tire and many non-tire rubber company bigwigs, and took place at the luxurious L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington. All long gone, or changed, now—although the hotel remains.
7) Radialization. The switchover from bias-ply tires to radials was a long-running event with a huge impact on the tire industry. It caused an enormous number of plant closings and massive job losses, and the U.S. tire makers' frantic effort to catch up with Michelin spawned serious problems (see Firestone 500).
8) “Foreignization” of the U.S. tire industry. Other than Michelin, the U.S. tire manufacturing terrain for decades was all-American. Globalization, aging plants and high costs wreaked havoc on the U.S. tire makers, and foreign companies swooped in and bought nearly all of them. The same thing happened in much of the non-tire sector, particularly with automotive suppliers.
9) Globalization. Rubber always had a global character to it. I used to tell people that a flood in Malaysia could affect the price of a tire made in the U.S. It's way beyond that now. Just about anything can and will be made wherever the lowest possible costs exist, although transportation expenses and quality issues remain a saving grace for some Made in North America products. Globalization opened up new markets and production opportunities for rubber industry companies, yet killed even more businesses and hammered unions and eliminated many well-paid jobs. Such is the world today.
10) I join RPN. Well, I did say this is subjective. I was working three jobs to support a growing family and was editor of a statewide business publication (now long defunct), living in Columbus, Ohio. I knew and admired Crain Communications, the owner of RPN. My publisher/salesman received Advertising Age, which I liked a lot, and from my childhood I'd been familiar with another Crain publication, Automotive News. My father had been in management at Ford, and as a kid I would avidly pour over the auto sales and production figures in AN, which I considered akin to baseball batting averages—“Go Ford, beat Chevy.” Weird, yes, but we definitely were a Ford family.
I read that Crain was starting a publication in Cleveland, and contacted the man in charge of that project, Ernie Zielasko, seeking a job. Crain's Cleveland Business was far from getting off the ground, but Ernie told me he had an opening for managing editor at his own baby, RPN.
And that, in summation, is my history. The history of the rubber industry—which always seems to be in turmoil—is much more interesting, at least to this journalist.
Noga is the editor of Rubber & Plastics News.