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Losing Les means losing an icon

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

PRINEVILLE — It was the face, a little bit Winston Churchill, a little bit down-home rancher. Framed by the Western hat and blue jacket, staring down from thousands of ubiquitous billboards, popping up on television to gruffly pitch his annual free beef promotion — it was a face that turned Les Schwab into a cultural icon.

When Schwab died last month at the age of 89, he left behind an empire: more than 400 tire stores around the western United States, more than $1.6 billion in sales in 2006, more than 7,700 employees  — 900 in Prineville alone, where Schwab opened his first store 55 years ago.

Half of each store’s profits went back to the employees who worked there. He believed that motivated employees were the key to his unflagging customers-first business model. And history proved him right.

But it was also that face — maybe the most recognizable in the Northwest — that customers connected with. Hard-boiled and folksy, it was an icon that came to epitomize what his company meant to Oregon and beyond.

— Abraham Hyatt

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