Former Firestone head Nevin dies
Tire CEO made tough decisions that closed plants, slashed jobs
By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer
John Nevin, one of the most controversial chief executives in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. and Akron history, died unexpectedly Tuesday at home in Illinois. He was 79.
Nevin was an outsider hired to revive a nearly bankrupt Firestone in 1979. He subsequently shook up Akron by moving the corporate headquarters to Chicago in 1987 and then helped engineer the company's sale to Japanese tire maker Bridgestone in 1988.
Depending on whom you talked to, the strong-willed Nevin either resurrected a dying Firestone or ruined the company by making a series of tough decisions that closed numerous tire plants that resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Nevin was brought in to run the company while it was still reeling from the Firestone 500 tire recall and losing as much as $250 million annually.
"If you look at where Firestone was, intelligent people would say there was a real risk of bankruptcy -- and that would have shut down everything in Akron and cost us all the jobs," Nevin told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1989. "I'm not going to stand here and apologize for the fact that we cut employment from 115,000 or 110,000 people to 50,000. The company in my view wouldn't have survived."
In that interview, Nevin said the words he would chooseto describe his work could easily apply to his role as a father: He did the best he could under difficult circumstances, "and it turned out pretty damn well."
Courage under fire
When all was said and done, Nevin salvaged Firestone for the stockholders, said Kimball Firestone, a grandson of the company's founder who was on the board when Nevin ran Firestone. When Nevin joined Firestone, its stock was selling at around $9 a share; Bridgestone Corp. bought Firestone in 1988 for $80 a share.
"He was a brilliant guy, and I would say very courageous," Firestone said. "He came in from the outside, which was a unique thing at Firestone.... He should be remembered for coming into a difficult situation and doing the right thing."
Bob Troyer, who was head of Firestone communications in Nevin's tenure, called him a highly intelligent leader.
"He had some extremely tough decisions to make," because Firestone was in very bad financial shape at the time, Troyer recalled. They weren't always popular decisions, he acknowledged.
Nevin told him in a conversation in the past year that one of the things Nevin was proudest of was that Firestone retirees are still getting pension checks and health benefits because of the decisions he had to make, Troyer said. "He was always concerned about making the right decision that affected the fewest number of people."
And yet those decisions meant tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, said Curtis Brown, retired public relations director for the United Rubber Workers.
"In fairness to him, and I'm sorry to hear that he died, he did exactly what he was hired to do," Brown said. But that proved to be a disaster for the URW, Brown said.
"It was a heartbreaking time," Brown said. He remembered sitting in his office when notice came in that seven Firestone plants were going to be closed.
"It was really tragic for the people who worked there. They helped build that company."
Former United Rubber Workers President Mike Stone said that although Nevin was both reliable and helpful, Akronites will probably remember him as "the guy who closed a whole bunch of plants."
"But if he didn't do it, somebody else would have," Stone said. "There was overcapacity in tire production in this country, and when you have that situation, something has to give.
"He was a man that had to do something that was distasteful to a lot of people, but he did it anyway."
Nevin was aware of the pain his decisions caused, said Troyer and others.
"He was also very cognizant of the fact the company needed to survive," Troyer said. "Many people kept their jobs because of his decisions.... I was proud to work for him."
Leon Brodeur, who worked with Nevin and retired from Firestone as vice chairman, called Nevin brilliant.
"He always had a vision of where he wanted to go," he said. "I have nothing but good to say of him."
Nevin often didn't appear comfortable in public, but Brodeur described him as being engaging in private and able to take a joke well. After Nevin was quoted in the media criticizing Firestone executives as clones, the executives decided that as a joke they would all wear blue coats, tan slacks and the same red Firestone ties for a meeting with him, Brodeur said. "He laughed and laughed and thought it was funny," Brodeur said.
Nevin's daughter, Mary, described her father as a true family man who believed in education, and who loved to golf with his children and go to his grandchildren's dance and piano recitals.
"He was always busy doing something. He was often at a feverish pace," she said.
Nevin's son Gerald said he knew his father's time in Akron was one of huge success and great hardship.
Firestone was very much about to go out of business when they hired his father, he said.
"I asked, 'Dad, what makes you a fixer?'" Gerald Nevin said. He recalled that his father got a really odd look on his face and then replied, "I'm willing to make the decisions that everybody knows have to be made."
A lot of the decisions needed to save Firestone were hard on his father, he said.
His father remembered the hardships the Great Depression had caused his family in his youth, including the loss of a business and home, and he felt at times that his decisions at Firestone to close plants had caused those same hardships for thousands of families.
Nevin's career involved much more than running Firestone in Akron.
As a teen he worked as a golf caddie in Oakland, Calif., and had a high school job pumping gas at the local Shell station. He also had a summer job as a lifeguard, and he was still a teenager in Navy boot camp when World War II ended.
He got an accounting degree from the University of California at Berkeley under the GI Bill. He received an MBA from Harvard and went to work for Standard Oil, then left in 1954 to join Ford Motor Co., where he spent the next 17 years and befriended, among others, Lee Iacocca. He left Ford at the age of 44 to become chief operating officer at Zenith Radio Corp. in Chicago and five years later became Zenith's CEO.
While at Zenith, Nevin was hospitalized for six weeks for depression; the treatment was successful, and there was no recurrence.
"Depression is a mental disorder, that unfortunately, guys like me who have been through it don't talk enough about," he told the Beacon Journal. "It's not something I'm ashamed of, but there are a whole lot of people who would love to take every idiosyncrasy in my personality and attribute it to that."
Iacocca, who was running Chrysler, tried to get Nevin to join him, and then recommended that Firestone hire him.
Nevin spent about 10 years at Firestone. His critics said Nevin never put roots down in Akron, that he rented a home here while keeping a home in Chicago. But Nevin said he decided not to buy a home in Akron because all his children were grown and most of his time was spent traveling for work or to see his grandchildren.
After moving Firestone's headquarters to Chicago in 1987 and arranging the Bridgestone deal in 1988, he retired from Firestone as its chairman in January 1990.
He is survived by his wife, Anne; seven children, Stan, John, Rick, Paul, Gerald and Mary Nevin and Marcus Regueira; eight grandchildren; and a sister, Anne Marie Kunz. Arrangements are being handled by Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd. at Old Orchard Road, Skokie, Ill. Visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. at the funeral home. A funeral Mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Sts. Faith, Hope & Charity Church, 191 Linden St., Winnetka. Memorials may be made to Big Shoulders Fund, 309 W. Washington St., Suite 550, Chicago, IL 60606.