François Michelin, who led the company that bears his family name and helped make the radial tyre the worldwide standard, has died. He was 88. His death was announced on Wednesday by the Michelin Group. A company spokeswoman said she could provide no further details.
The Michelin company began as a small family industrial firm, rising to prominence in the late 19th century, at the dawn of the automobile era, when it started producing pneumatic tyres designed by Michelin’s grandfather, Édouard. When François Michelin took over as co-managing partner in 1955, the company ranked only 10th among the world’s tyre makers. But it was beginning to reap the benefits of its introduction in the 1940s of a major innovation, the Michelin “X” radial.
The radial tyre offered a significant improvement over the bias-ply tyres that had been the standard, because its construction improved contact with the ground and reduced heat build up, for better efficiency and longer tyre life. A French ad of the era promised “Twice the distance, twice the safety, twice the comfort.” Radial tyres were slow to take off in the United States, however. As recently as 1971, James Roche, the chairman and chief executive of General Motors, told an interviewer: “You won’t see a changeover to radial tyres as original equipment on Detroit’s new cars in the near future. If our customers want another kind, they can get it from the dealer.” But within a decade, the new technology dominated the American market as well.
Michelin pushed for the development of radial tyres for heavy equipment, motorcycles and airplanes. Under his leadership, which ended when he left the company in 2002, the Michelin Group became the world’s biggest tyre maker, establishing a big presence in the United States and other major markets overseas. Today, the company, also known for its food and travel guides and for its plump mascot Bibendum — the Michelin Man — still ranks among the tire industry’s world leaders, with sales last year of 19.5 billion euros, or $21.7 billion, and more than 112,000 employees in 170 countries.
In 1999, Michelin began sharing the top job with his son, Édouard, passing over one promising executive, Carlos Ghosn, who is now the chairman of Renault, the automaker. Édouard Michelin died in 2006 when his fishing boat sank in an accident off the coast of Brittany. François Michelin was born on June 15, 1926, in Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne region of central France, the city where the tyre company has been based since its start. He went to work at the company in 1951, initially under an assumed name as a fitter in a machine shop, allowing him to learn without attracting attention. He also worked as a driver shuttling between the company’s plants, and in sales and marketing, before taking the job of co-managing partner in 1955, and then the chief executive four years later.
Michelin’s wife, the former Bernadette Montagne, died in 2013. He is survived by five children and six grandchildren. Michelin’s approach to management was reflected in a 2002 interview he gave to his hometown newspaper, Journal La Montagne. Asked what were the key characteristics of a boss, Michelin replied that his ears “are my best qualification.” “You have to listen from the right and the left to really grasp any situation,” he said, “and to learn for yourself. It’s a joy to listen to everyone, whatever their level in the hierarchy or social status, so as to take away what you need to act. “As for me,” he added, “I let people take risks, knowing full well that I would bear the consequences if things went badly. That’s the function of a boss, and it’s the essential one”
–New York Times