The brothers who seized an opportunity
The roots of Michelin go back to 1832. Aristide Barbier, the maternal grandfather of Edouard and Andre Michelin, joined his cousin Edouard Daubree in setting up a rubber and agricultural goods company in Clermont-Ferrand, France.
After the founders died the company went into decline, suffering from years of poor management. By 1886, when 33-year-old Andre Michelin took over the firm, it was collapsing.
Andre was determined to save the company, though he knew little about rubber. He was a brilliant engineer, but he specialized in architecture and had his own metal framework firm in Paris. Andre's younger brother Edouard had just completed his fine arts studies in Paris and was ready to launch a career as a painter. But after long deliberation, he gave in to Andre's pleas and went to work for the family company.
Edouard told his mentor, the noted artist William Bouguereau: "My duty now is to go to Clermont-Ferrand to save the family firm from ruin."
Edouard was made managing director. He recounted later: "My first priority was to learn what the job was about. The only way I could do this was to talk to the workers. I had to be in constant conversation with them even though I knew far less than they did, and the best way to get them talking was to admit openly that I was a complete beginner."
Soon the Michelin brothers were looking for new business opportunities. One spring afternoon in 1889, an ox-drawn cart came into the factory yard carrying a bicyclist with a problem - one of the tires of his bicycle had punctured. His mount was fitted with a recently patented rubber tube inflated with air and protected by fabric. Devised by Scottish businessman John Boyd Dunlop, the inflatable tire represented a huge advance on its predecessor, the bone-shaking solid tire.
The major drawback was that it was glued solidly to the rim of the wheel. In the event of a puncture the rider had to go through a complicated procedure involving several tools.
Intrigued, the Michelin workers tried to help the cyclist. Later, Edouard Michelin took the bicycle for a ride. He was amazed. With inflatable tires, the bicycle was faster, more comfortable and easier to handle. He saw the future, though he determined that the tire had to be made easier to repair.
The problem was to work out a system of repair that would enable a cyclist to fix an inner tube quickly. The detachable tire became the company's absolute priority.
At the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race on August 14, 1891, the famed racer Charles Terront, riding on Michelin tires, suffered a puncture. But he managed to fix the tire in the French countryside and he eventually won the race. In a preview of promotional methods to come, the brothers were advertising the victory even before Terront finished the race.
A few years later they had to convince carmakers of the utility of inflatable tires. Cars had used the same kind of wheel as those used on horse-drawn vehicles - a wooden wheel with a metal rim or a solid tire.
The brothers succeeded and within a few years the Michelin firm had achieved astonishing growth by serving the young automotive industry. Andre was the company's marketing and public relations genius. Edouard was head of research and oversaw the production process. Together, they built one of the greatest of all automotive empires.