From a nineteenth-century rubber factory in France where the Michelin brothers patented an improved pneumatic bicycle tire to a comprehensive, international tire manufacturing company that focuses on sustainability through innovation and corporate social responsibility, Michelin North America, headquartered in Greenville, South Carolina, continues to lead the way through innovation.
We recently enjoyed a wide-ranging interview with Karen Schwartz, Michelin’s North American Marketing Director for business-to-business on-road products (truck division) and Mary Ann Kotlarich, the Commercial Public Relations Director.
They shared with us the story of Michelin’s beginnings in France before coming to North America in 1907, the innovative approaches the company is taking toward sustainability and fuel reduction with regards to commercial trucking, why the company introduced travel guides, and for trivia lovers, an explanation of why the iconic Michelin Man is white, not black like the tires they manufacture.
It turns out the Michelin Man’s rotund body is white because natural rubber is white, Schwartz explained. “His name is Bibendum, and he was designed by ‘O’Galop, ‘an artist who was inspired by a stack of white tires he saw, shortly after Michelin began making them. But white tires get dirty, and people didn’t want to use them, so they started adding in the carbon black.”
The famous Red Guide, she says “was introduced in 1900 to help motorists develop their trips and sell more tires, and it expanded in 1926 to include fine dining all over the world.” Today it is a separate division of Michelin and includes Red and Green Guides, road maps, and Michelin stars awarded to restaurants for their cooking.
Michelin’s roots go back to 1888 and Clermont-Ferrand, France, where brothers Édouard and André Michelin ran a rubber factory. One day, a cyclist, whose pneumatic tire needed repair, asked them for help. That was when Édouard realized just how labor-intensive it was to repair a tire that had to be unglued from the wheel rim, when after repair, it had to be re-glued and allowed to dry for twenty-four hours, particularly when the rider ran the risk that the tire would promptly get another puncture.
Thinking there had to be a better way, the brothers worked to create a pneumatic bicycle tire that did not need to be glued to the rim. Two years later, in 1891, they applied for their first patent for a removable pneumatic tire, used that same year by Charles Terront to win the world’s first, long-distance, cycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris.
Michelin continued to revolutionize the tire industry by patenting the radial tire in 1946. Because of its construction, this tire offered greater flexibility and superior fuel economy than the bias-ply tire that was the industry standard.
Kotlarich told us that, in 2000, “Michelin made history on the truck side when it introduced our X One® tire, (a wide single tire) which makes an eighteen-wheeler into one of the ten-wheel transport trucks that you see on the highway. Then, in 2012, we launched the MICHELIN X TWEEL, an airless radial product for lawnmowers, golf carts, skid steers and ATVs, with applications continuing to grow.”
At the Movin’On Summit, an annual international summit for sustainable mobility sponsored by Michelin, in Montreal this past June, Michelin unveiled a prototype of an airless tire designed for passenger cars using its ‘unique puncture-proof tire system’ called Uptis. It will undergo testing on a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt EVs later this year and could be on the market within five years.
Michelin first entered the U.S. tire industry in 1907 when it purchased the International Rubber Company in Milltown, NJ. Although Michelin had a presence here, first in Milltown and later in New York, Michelin North America really did not start to take shape until 1971.
That was when two plants opened in Nova Scotia, Canada, followed by two more in South Carolina in 1975, including one in Greenville, which became the company’s North America headquarters in 1986. In 1989, Michelin purchased the Uniroyal-Goodrich Tire Company, making it the largest tire manufacturing company in the world. Today, Michelin North America maintains three plants in Canada and sixteen in the U.S. and employs over 20,000 people.
Critical to Michelin’s success is its research and development department and test facility in Laurens, South Carolina, where on a 3,500-acre site equipped with twelve special tracks, engineers can test tires for noise, how well they adhere to wet surfaces, ability to gain traction in mud, and how they handle in risky situations, such as high-speed lane changes.
“What we pride ourselves on,” says Kotlarich, “is working toward a world of sustainable mobility and giving people a better way forward, looking at different ways to make our product more sustainable and to make the world a better place.”
Michelin North America produces tires for passenger cars and SUVs; for the aviation, mining, farming, construction, and industrial sectors for mowers, UTVs, ports, bicycles, and motorcycles; and for busses, RVs and heavy trucks. However, our conversation with Kotlarich and Schwartz focused on the truck division. It supplies tires for commercial fleets as well as government-owned fleets from the U.S. Postal Service to municipally-owned garbage trucks.
“We have six brands in the truck tire universe,” says Kotlarich. “In our portfolio, we have Michelin, BFGoodrich, and Uniroyal, and we also have retread products because of Michelin’s technology. A premium brand like Michelin can be retreaded up to three times, our BFGoodrich twice, and our Uniroyal once, so all are designed to have at least one retread, whereas an import from China is really a disposable tire, because it can’t be retreaded.”
Then, after those Michelin truck tires have been retreaded up to a maximum of three times, they are not going to a landfill site. “We take our used tires, recycle the rubber and use it to make sustainable pathways in Yellowstone National Park,” Schwartz told us. “It’s something we’ve been doing since 2016, using it to replace cracking concrete pathways. It allows the rainwater and snowmelt to seep through evenly, go back into the ground, and prevent run-offs in a highly environmentally-sensitive area.”
Michelin has partnered with SmartWay, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program, launched with industry stakeholders in 2004 to improve fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas and air pollution. The program also certifies fleets and vehicles that meet requirements for wind resistance. “California has really embraced SmartWay, so any of our end users who travel into California have to have a SmartWay-verified product, and that’s marked on our tires,” Schwartz said.
“We know that, for commercial fleets, the total cost of ownership is huge, and fuel is the number one cost, and tires are number two, so we build fuel efficiency into our truck tire and X One line of products to help our owner-operators who want to lower total cost through lower rolling resistance,” she explained.
“This is also why we introduced the Energy Guard system in 2018. This product is aimed at helping fleets increase their energy savings through aerodynamic solutions beyond what our tires can provide. The system consists of an optimized trailer skirt, end fairings, wake reducer, and mud flaps, and was designed to reduce some major pain points fleets have with current market aerodynamic solutions,” said Schwartz.
“For example, trailer skirts are great at reducing airflow and providing fuel efficiency, but the solutions on the market, prior to Energy Guard, were made of brittle materials. If a truck backed into a dock and hit a barrier, the skirt would break and would have to be replaced. But our Energy Guard is made of a special polymer material with brackets designed to flex, so if a truck hits a barrier, the skirt will flex and go over it,” she explained.
“The other big pain point with previous aerodynamic solutions was the boat tails, which required manual intervention from the driver to deploy them. Our guard solutions, the fairings and wake reducer, have the same fuel efficiency as the boat tails, designed to reduce vehicle drag and spray, which can be a danger for other drivers, but the driver doesn’t have to do anything manually. One of our core Michelin brand equity points is for safety, and we try to design that into everything we do.”
In The Lion King, the father tells his young son Simba that someday he will have power over everything in his kingdom, but that the power is not for him to take from it, but to protect it. It is also a philosophy that governs Michelin. The company is indeed a powerhouse in the tire industry, but its approach toward clients and the greater community is that of a protector, through its concern for safety, service, and the greater good of the global community, through corporate responsibility.
Both Kotlarich and Schwartz say they are proud to work for Michelin. Schwartz told us about the Beyond the Driving Test contest developed by Michelin, “designed to have teens focus on one of the most critical and ignored aspects which is tire safety. Automobile accidents are the number one cause of death of young people in the U.S., and many could be prevented through proper tire pressure management and tread depth.”
Schwartz added that the contest used “sneaker treads as a metaphor for tire stress. Teens know that when their sneaker tread gets low, they are slippery and unsafe,” so Michelin partnered with Vans to develop a limited-edition shoe.
“I have a five-year-old, and children’s safety resonates with me, and I think this is a great example of how Michelin is focusing on what is important,” she noted, adding, “I’m also proud of the annual Movin’On Summit to which Mary Ann alluded and which Michelin sponsors. It’s a global summit on sustainable mobility, and it brings together thought leaders from around the globe to address some of the most pressing issues within the transportation and mobility industries. It is a great example of how people working together can make an impact,” she said.
“Michelin constantly has an eye on this kind of thing. One of the Michelin Group’s executive committee members and former North American CEO, Scott Clark, has publicly stated that, in the future, everything will be sustainable within the Michelin group. This means we are committed to profitability for the company and our employees while maintaining respect for the planet. Working for a company that is concerned about the future of the planet resonates with me because I think we in the corporate world need to take on ownership of sustainability and continue to make the planet better and safer for everyone. I have a five-year-old, and I would like it to be around for her when she grows up.”