Within business circles, Stanley C. Gault was somewhat of a legend. He left General Electric after a three-decade career when he lost out to Jack Welch for the top position and landed in his hometown of Wooster, Ohio, as CEO at Rubbermaid Inc.
His legend grew there during his 11-year tenure, with a relentless focus on costs and customers leading the house wares firm to a decade of higher earnings and profits. Gault's Rubbermaid was a regular on Fortune magazine's annual list of the most-admired corporations.
He retired from Rubbermaid in 1991, but a little more than a month later let fellow board members at Goodyear convince him to take the reins at the struggling Akron-based firm. His predecessor at Goodyear had made many of the cuts and moves needed following a 1985 takeover bid.
But Goodyear lacked something. It needed a spark and Gault provided that and more. Five years later, Goodyear once again was relevant in the global tire and rubber product market.
Along the way he garnered numerous awards, including becoming the first two-time winner of our publication's Rubber Industry Executive of the Year award—once in 1990 while at Rubbermaid and then in 1995 as he was about to retire for a second time.
I have a confession to make. In 1990, I voted against Gault for our Executive of the Year award. I argued that Rubbermaid, despite its name, was more a plastics company and not a rubber firm. Having been at RPN for less than three years at the time, not only was I outvoted, my editors assigned me to write the story. I learned a lot about Gault as a CEO doing research for the piece. I found how he was adept at keeping an eye both on the larger, corporate picture, but also on understanding his customers.
One anecdote stuck with me over the years. A stock analyst told me how after Gault finished a meeting with investment bankers in New York he saw a janitor using a metal dust pan. He asked why he wasn't using Rubbermaid's rubber dust pan, one of the firm's first products.
The janitor explained that the way the edge of Rubbermaid's product was designed, you couldn't sweep things into it. Gault got on the phone, called the head of product design, and said he wanted an improved version made. He then sent the janitor one of the new dust pans.
There were similar stories when he became the first outsider to lead Goodyear since the 1920s. He would dress down and go into tire and service shops and ask why customers were buying non-Goodyear tires. He had a sign in his office for a reminder to his staff that said “Have you talked to a customer today?”
Needless to say, when he was nominated again in 1995, I didn't vote against him.
Meyer is editor of Rubber & Plastics News. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bmeyerRPN.