Les Schwab

Leslie "Les" Schwab

Schwab at age 85 in 2003
Born October 3, 1917
Bend, Oregon
Died May 18, 2007(2007-05-18) (aged 89)
Prineville, Oregon
Resting place Juniper Haven Cemetery
Prineville, Oregon
Alma mater Bend High School, 1935
Occupation Businessman
Spouse(s) Dorothy Harlan  (b. 1917)
(m. 1936–2007, his death)
Children 1 son, 1 daughter

Leslie Bishop "Les" Schwab (October 3, 1917 – May 18, 2007) was an American businessman from Oregon.[1] He was the founder of Les Schwab Tire Centers, a company which Modern Tire Dealer called "arguably the most respected independent tire store chain in the United States."[2] A native of Oregon, he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II before starting his business in 1952.

Early life

Born in Bend, Oregon,[3] his family moved to Minnesota two years later with young Les in tow. The family moved back to Central Oregon in 1929, where Schwab was schooled in a railroad boxcar at the Brooks Scanlon logging camp, with his mother as schoolteacher.[3] While in high school in Bend at age 15, Schwab and his three siblings became orphans in 1933 when both parents died within months (mother died of pneumonia, alcoholic father found dead in front of a moonshine joint).[4]

An aunt and uncle offered to take him in, instead he rented a room in a boarding house for $15 a month and began delivering the Oregon Journal newspaper while continuing to attend Bend High School.[3] At the paper Schwab would eventually cover all the routes in Bend, nine in all,[2] outearning his high school principal,[1] and graduated in 1935.[2] He married his high school sweetheart in 1936 and they became parents in 1940. Schwab became circulation manager for the Bend newspaper, The Bulletin, in 1942[5] and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.[3]


Les Schwab’s venture into the tire business began when he bought an OK Rubber Welders franchise store in nearby Prineville in early 1952.[3] Schwab was 34, with an expecting wife and an 11-year-old son, and had never even fixed a flat tire. He sold his house, borrowed from a relative, and borrowed from his life insurance policy[6] to purchase the franchise for $11,000, which had one employee and included a small shack that did not even have running water or a bathroom.[3]

By the end of the first year, he had improved the sales nearly five-fold, from $32,000 to $150,000. A second store was opened in 1953 in Redmond and a third in Bend in 1955. The name of the business changed to "Les Schwab Tire Centers" in 1956, dropping the OK franchise.[5] From this grew a tire empire based in Prineville that had 34 stores in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho in 1971,[7] and 410 stores in the western U.S. and $1.6 billion in annual sales by 2007.[3] The company he built was based on the loyalty of the employees that was earned by giving them generous shares of the profit (half of a store’s profit went to employees of that store), lucrative benefits, and only promoting from within the company.[3]

In the communities served by these stores, the company became known for their advertising featuring employees running out to meet customers, an annual free beef promotion, and the company slogan: "If we can't guarantee it, we won't sell it.".[3] Despite the success of the company, Les Schwab refused to take the company public.

The company moved its corporate headquarters from Prineville to Bend in December 2008. Announced two years earlier, it exchanged its modest one-story cinder block offices (externally resembling a tire store) [8] for an upscale, three-story executive campus. The new site in Bend at Juniper Ridge is on 12 acres (4.9 ha) and cost $33 million.[9]

Family and later life

Schwab wed his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Harlan (b. 1917), in 1936 and they were married over 70 years. Their two children died before their parents; son Harlan Lee Schwab (1940–1971) was killed in an automobile accident[10][11] and daughter Margaret Joyce Schwab Denton[12] (1952–2005) succumbed to cancer.[13] In 1986, he wrote an autobiography, Les Schwab, Pride in Performance, Keep it Going.[3] In the late 1980s he gave up day-to-day control of the company.[14] In the early 1990s, Schwab and his wife donated funds to the local hospital to fund an expansion in honor of his son, Harlan.[15] Following the death of his daughter, his own health began to deteriorate in late 2005. He died at age 89 in 2007, survived by his wife, four grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren,[5] and was buried in Prineville. The Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend is named in his honor.


  1. 1 2 "Oregon tire shop pioneer dies at 89". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. May 19, 2007. p. A1.
  2. 1 2 3 Modern Tire Dealer
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Rogaway, Mike; Jung, Helen (May 19, 2007). "Tire giant Les Schwab dies at 89". The Oregonian. Retrieved 2007-05-19.
  4. Bates, Doug (September 28, 1997). "The tire king: Les Schwab at 80". The Oregonian. Retrieved 2011-09-15.
  5. 1 2 3 Bousquet, Ernestine (May 19, 2007). "A sad day in Les Schwab country". Bend Bulletin. Retrieved 2011-09-15.
  6. Associated Press (May 18, 2007). "Tire king Les Schwab dies at age 89". KATU. Retrieved 2008-02-07.
  7. Juris, Frances (March 10, 1971). "Tire firm stretches rubber into dollars". The Bulletin. Bend, Oregon. p. 2, sec. 2.
  8. Metz, Christine (December 13, 2006). "Les Schwab headquarters moving to Juniper Ridge". Bend Bulletin. Retrieved 2011-09-21.
  9. Springhetti, Jim (December 16, 2008). "Les Schwab moves to new Bend site". The Oregonian. Retrieved 2011-09-15.
  10. "Crash claims Harlan Schwab". The Bulletin. Bend, Oregon. October 26, 1971. p. 1.
  11. "Harlan L. Schwab". The Bulletin. Bend, Oregon. Central Oregon obituaries. October 27, 1971. p. 2.
  12. "Denton-Schwab". The Bulletin. Bend, Oregon. Weddings & engagements. May 13, 1972. p. 3.
  13. Rogoway, Mike. Schwab handoff planned in detail. The Oregonian, May 23, 2007.
  14. Rogoway, Mike. Tire giant rolls hub out of town. The Oregonian, December 13, 2006.
  15. Rogoway, Mike. Schwab's legacy is in his business. The Oregonian, May 31, 2007.

External links

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