During my more than 32 years covering the tire and rubber industry, it's safe to say I've conducted several thousand interviews. And over that period of time, there are some interview subjects that stay with you more than others. For me, former Goodyear Chairman and CEO Robert Mercer, who died Aug. 28 at age 96, definitely falls into that category.
I joined Rubber & Plastics News about 15 months after the Akron-based firm's battle with corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith ended, and Mercer retired roughly a year after that. So it wasn't until 1998 when I had met Mercer.
RPN was publishing a special section on Goodyear's centennial, and one of my assignments was to interview the man who played a central role in the battle with Goldsmith. We met and spoke for an hour or so, and Mercer was equal parts candid and blunt, and showed a few glimpses of the humor his family said he was known for.
Mercer had a 42-year career with Goodyear, but understood that many would remember him for that short period of time when the company battled Goldsmith in a fight that left the tire and rubber firm wounded, but still standing.
Rather than hide from that legacy, Mercer embraced it, becoming an outspoken critic of the Wall Street culture and the laws that left companies like Goodyear vulnerable to corporate raiders. During our interview, he said he didn't agree with the attention paid to stock prices, because there were too many ways for a company to manipulate the price. It also meant that pressure from Wall Street forced companies to shy away from making investments that would be good in the long term, but would not show a return over the next 90 days.
One of his long-held beliefs was that Wall Street's insistence on putting the shareholder first was backward thinking. "I'm afraid corporations lose a sense of purpose," he said. "You don't hit home runs with your eye on the fence. You hit them with your eye on the ball."
Mercer also expressed another belief that not a lot of CEOs of large corporations would espouse: that a company could be successful using union labor.
When we met, Mercer was just about to retire as chairman of the former Roadway Express Inc., a trucking firm fully staffed by the Teamsters union. His theory was it wasn't how much you pay workers, it's what you get for the money. It wasn't a coincidence, he said, that Roadway's turnover was less than 3 percent a year, while non-union competitors had annual personnel changes ranging up to 100 percent.
Mercer also remembered the support Goodyear received from United Rubber Workers' members during the Goldsmith raid. Workers took buses to Washington the day Mercer met with Goldsmith and came to a final settlement.
Goldsmith asked if Mercer had put the union up to it. Mercer's response? "They want to tell you that you are not right. If you think I'm fighting for my job you're wrong. These guys invested a lot more in this company than you ever will."
He added that he never felt closer to the union in his life.