For more than 75 years, Akron was known as the Rubber Capital of the World. With more than 37,000 people working in the tire and rubber industry, the city was home to tire giants Goodyear, Firestone, General, Mohawk, Uniroyal Goodrich and B.F. Goodrich. Entire neighborhoods—Goodyear Heights and Firestone Park—were built to house workers.
But by the 1980s, a major shift was underway as changes in the way tires were manufactured and foreign companies entering the market had uprooted the city's hold on the industry. Still, just as the old B.F. Goodrich smokestacks rise up above the city, Akron holds onto to some of its rubber legacy and even eyes the future with a stake in polymer science.
After Dr. Benjamin Franklin Goodrich established his rubber company in Akron in 1870—the first large rubber business established in the city, according to historian Dave Lieberth's accounts—Akron's labor pool, abundant water, railways and the Ohio & Erie Canal soon lured others to base their companies here. Soon, other industrialists followed suit and Akron was home to the Big Four tiremakers: Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich and General Tire.
But by the mid-1950s, companies began expanding their manufacturing to other parts of the country. And when radial tires became the dominant choice in the market—replacing bias-ply tires—by the mid-1970s, tire makers saw the need for big changes at their plants. With high price tags to convert old, multilevel bias plants to radial production, businesses found it cheaper to build new single-level factories. Companies were building plants in Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas.
By the 1980s and '90s, a wave of consolidation and the entrance of foreign players turned tire making into a global industry and moved headquarters and operations away from Akron. Firestone was bought by Bridgestone and took its headquarters to Tennessee. General Tire was acquired by Continental A.G., which pulled up stakes for Charlotte, N.C. B.F. Goodrich left the tire making business, combining its operations with Uniroyal, which in turn was bought by Michelin. Mohawk became part of Tokyo-based Yokohama Rubber Co. Ltd.
That leaves Goodyear as the lone major tire company still headquartered in Akron. Goodyear, in 2013, opened its new headquarter campus on Akron's east side, where it employs about 3,000. Goodyear still makes its race tires at a plant in Akron, too.
Why it matters today
Despite the major manufacturing being long gone, Akron hangs on with pride to its reputation as the Rubber City. And there's still plenty of ties to the industry left in Akron to justify that claim.
As the rubber industry rose in Akron, so did the University of Akron's College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, which—although taking some hits in recent years—still holds a reputation as one of the premier polymer programs in the world. How changes at the university amid drastic budget cuts and a reorganization will affect the program—which will lose its status as a college, instead becoming a school—is yet to be seen, but the industry still looks to Akron for polymer expertise.
That's evidenced by how many tire companies have research and development facilities in the Greater Akron area. Goodyear and Bridgestone are the big names with big R&D centers that employ up to 1,000 people each. But smaller tire makers—such as Hankook Tire America, Nexen Tire America Inc., American Kenda Rubber, Giti Tire and Triangle Tires—have technical facilities in and around Akron, too.
And Bridgestone, signaling Akron's legacy as the Rubber City, last year announced an invigorated wave of manufacturing in the city, where it's building an 80,000-square-foot race tire plant that was scheduled to begin production by the end of this year.
In their own words
"For a long time, it made sense to be based in Akron because all the competitors were there. You were close to the original equipment market and there was a lot of polymer knowledge. Now, every company wants to have a separate identity."
— Harry Millis, tire industry analyst, to Rubber & Plastics News in 1996
"You had new owners of companies and everybody wanted to put their own stamp on the business. The international companies wanted to do away with the cultures that had been built up in Akron."
— Jim Novak, then director of communications for Conti General, to Rubber & Plastics News in 1996
"Even when (companies were closing plants), there was nothing we could do. Multistoried plants just couldn't compete."
— Kenneth Coss, retired United Rubber Workers president, to Rubber & Plastics News in 1996
"There's research institutes, government agencies, associations; there really is a great network here. And it makes a lot of sense to be here if you're in the polymer industry."
— Bernard Rzepka, then A. Schulman president and CEO, to Crain's in 2016