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Saturday, May 19, 2007 - Page updated at 02:02 AM

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Tire king Schwab started humbly, built an empire

PRINEVILLE, Ore. — Les Schwab, a cowboy-hatted icon of Oregon who turned a dilapidated tire shop he bought in 1952 with borrowed money into a regional empire, died Friday at age 89, his company said.

With his trademark hat and an ironclad policy that the customer rules, he built the run-down shop into a chain of 410 stores that did $1.6 billion in sales last year.

Les Schwab tire shops with their red-and-yellow signs are fixtures in small communities, and some big ones, across the West.

"I never thought I'd do $1 million in sales, so I've been 1,000 times more successful than I ever thought I'd be," Mr. Schwab told The Associated Press in 2003.

The privately held company employs 7,000 people and sells 6 million truck and car tires annually. The company said family members will continue to run it.

Until about a decade ago, Mr. Schwab appeared in nearly every commercial for his company, making him one of the best-known faces in the West and fixing himself in the region's collective consciousness.

Employees wear their hair short and sprint to customers' cars when they pull in.

In 1963, Mr. Schwab started the "Free Beef in February" promotion to boost sales during the slow winter months. Customers who buy four tires still get $15 in free beef.

Mr. Schwab's success came the hard way.

Born on a hardscrabble homestead in Crook County near Bend, he grew up in a two-room shack at a nearby logging camp, where he attended grade school in a converted boxcar with "crooked windows cut in the side."

His mother died of pneumonia when he was 15 and his father, an alcoholic, was found dead in front of a bar just before his 16th birthday.

An aunt and uncle offered to take him in, but he rented a room at a Bend boarding house for $15 a month and delivered newspapers for The Oregon Journal while struggling to finish high school.

After graduation he married his high-school sweetheart, Dorothy Harlan, and continued selling newspapers. He borrowed $11,000 from his brother-in-law in 1952, sold his house and borrowed on his life-insurance policy. He walked away with O.K. Rubber Welders, but knew nothing of tires and had no formal business training.

But by the end of the first year, Mr. Schwab had done $150,000 in business, and by 1955 he had opened four more stores.

Les and Dorothy Schwab had two children. A son, Harlan, was killed in an auto accident in 1971. A daughter, Margaret Denton, died last year of cancer at 53.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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