There is a tired cliché: Old habits die hard.
Problem is they often take the company with them.
Not anemic companies. Not companies that were always trailing the pack. But strong companies that dominated their industry.
And still had the potential to do so.
Take Firestone Tire and Rubber Company as an example. For decades, it was a dominant player in the tire industry. In 1901, sales were roughly $3,000,000 in today’s dollars. In 1913, sales in today’s dollars were roughly $355,000,000.
Firestone Tire and Rubber Factor, 1919
It did not happen through happenstance.
It happened through the vision, innovation and progressive leadership of the man who founded Firestone Tire Company, Harvey Fireston
Harvey Firestone at his factory.
Back in 1897, Henry Ford was building his first cars – using bicycle tires. Obviously, a poor fit for a 500-pound car, not to mention two passengers and the week’s groceries.
Henry Ford and his Model A.
Harvey Firestone’s Firestone Rubber and Tire entered the industry to provide tires for fire engines, wagons, buggies and whatever else rolled jerkily along the cobblestones of the day. He had just invented the pneumatic tire to take the jolt out of the steel tires that most vehicles bounced along on.
Vision met vision. Ford’s Model T founds its bashert in the Firestone pneumatic tire.
Firestone pursued innovation relentlessly. Prior to World War I, he developed a special tire for trucks. After the war, 600,000 trucks rolled smoothly and merrily along on Firestone tires, becoming the launch pad for the trucking industry that helped grow America’s commerce.
His innovations included the dismountable rim, which allowed the tire and rim to be removed together, giving birth to the spare tire. His non-skid special tires and balloon tires were industry standards for decades. Later still, he developed special tires for farm equipment.
In today’s world, where innovation is the buzzword, Harvey Firestone would stand tall with the icons of Silicon Valley. His innovative vision kept his company at the top of the industry for decades.
Beyond the technical side of his company, he was an innovator in leadership. The short list of his progressive leadership: Firestone employees received medical and dental services, free life insurance and all the benefits of the Firestone Club House, a $350,000 building constructed in 1915 that offered employees a restaurant, swimming pool and a library. The company also purchased nearby land and helped workers build and finance their own homes.
And he reduced the employees’ 10-hour workdays to 8 hours, while still paying the same salary. (Snip and slip this on to your employer’s desk…)
Harvey Firestone and The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company are an exemplary success story, and a model that you are already following. You started out with vision, you took daring innovative steps, you are seeing your company meet or beat sales expectations on an annual basis, and Inc. 500 has asked you to apply for that exclusive listing in their 500 best young companies of the year.
Who knows? Like Harvey Firestone, your photo may someday adorn the cover of Fortune magazine.
Or will it?
Before you surrender to a mild vision of grandeur, the question to ask is what happened to Harvey Firestone’s vision? What happened to Firestone Tire and Rubber Company? The company had everything going for it: long-standing success, a strong, unified sense of its strategies and values, strong relationships with customers and employees, and its operating and investment processes firmly in place with proven track records.
The company had a clear formula for success, which had served it well since the turn of the century.
Why, then, in 1988, was the company that was a dominant player in its industry sold to Bridgestone Tire for far less than market value?
As nature abhors a vacuum, business cannot exist without competition equally if not more innovative, progressive, and aggressive.
There is always someone coming up behind you.
The challenge is: How do you deal with it?
In 1952, a French tires company, Michelin, introduced a breakthrough in tire design – radial tires. Safer, more economical, and longer lasting than Firestone’s traditional bias tires, they quickly dominated the European market. Ford declared that it would put only radials on all its new cars.
Firestone was not blind to Michelin, reacting swiftly, investing more than $1 billion in today’s dollars to build a new plant dedicated to radials and converting existing factories to manufacturing radicals.
So where did the road curve for Firestone?
What habit have you changed lately?
Firestone Tire and Rubber was invested in its traditional bias tires. Financially invested, yes. But more significantly, invested in mindset, invested in the way things were done, invested in its history of innovations, invested in traditions that go way back to the day Harvey Firestone first dressed a fire-engine with his tires.
Firestone tinkered with radials. But its essence, its very soul, was in bias tires. So, even as it manufactured radials, it invested in developing belted bias tires, in promoting belted biases as better than radials. Rather than create new machinery to manufacture the radials, it converted its bias machinery to do so.
Habits die hard, even within companies. Even with successful companies. Perhaps they die harder there because success creates a sense of security forever. The pathway to success came through innovation of the bias tire. Why think it will not continue to do so?
It is easy to say that looking to the past does not reflect the future, but within companies, the past is alive and well and still building the future in the mindsets of the decision-making executives.
All habits are built on repetition. When year after year, research, analysis, and decisions regarding product innovation, manufacturing, operations, and sales all revolve around a single focus, that focus becomes deeply engraved in the brain neurons that drive executive decisions.
Firestone executives made many moves to deal with radials., but they were moves made under the duress of moving away from familiarity, comfort, from what they knew best and believed in most.
And those moves were damaging. Converting bias machinery to radials led to problems with the radial tires, the recall of over 8.7 million tires, the largest recall in American history.
Habits die hard – if ever. Companies get settled in their ways.
Harvey Firestone’s innovative vision got lost along the way. The second-generation executives saw what his vision built, and that became their vision. The vision became embedded. The vision became reality.
The only reality.
Perhaps it is time you look over your shoulder.
Perhaps it is time you look at the small, inconsequential start-ups and minor companies that are trailing far behind you, practically out of sight.
Perhaps it is time you think about those companies and the spirit of innovation, progressiveness and aggressiveness that is driving them to overtake you.
Perhaps it is time you install a rear-view mirror in your executive decision-making process. Looking at the competition ahead of you or beside you is what you do day in and day out. Looking behind you at ideas, innovations, technologies, and processes that are beneath the radar for the moment prepares you for what is coming.
It gives you the flexibility and agility you need to respond.
Old habits indeed die. Unless you create new habits.
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Marketing Caveat 1: All marketing efforts fall into the category of hishtadlus and hence should follow proven marketing principles. Ultimate success is b’Yad Hashem.
Chanina Katz has over two decades experience in major Madison Ave. ad agencies developing highly successful strategies and award-winning campaigns for such blue-chip clients as Colgate, RJ Reynolds, Hilton, Home Depot, General Mills, KFC and many others in a wide variety of package goods and services businesses. He provides marketing services for a range of businesses, from start-ups to major corporations. He lectures on marketing and creativity. He can be reached at Bullseyemarketing1@gmail.com.