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NOTE: Several profiles of Roy Carver have been written because he's an Iowa icon, but I think this one captures better than most what he meant to the company he founded. This story says a lot about the power of example in those who would lead their companies; if you run your own business and are looking for ways to become a more effective leader, you'll gain some insights from this biography. Good writers look for quotes or anecdotes about their subjects that can symbolize important aspects of the story. Here, the lunch in Lagos anecdote seemed to sum up much of what Carver was like and helped make understandable the personality of this extraordinary entrepreneur.

Bandag's Founder Still Its Inspiration
Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Roy Carver Photo

You don't walk very far into Bandag's headquarters before seeing larger-than-life images of the founder, Roy J. Carver, and you don't talk to long-time employees more than a few minutes before hearing a Carver story or two.

Although Roy Carver died of a heart attack in Spain in 1981 and hadn't really managed the company for a decade before that, he remains a larger-than-life presence at Bandag today. It's as though employees glance over their shoulder every so often to see if he approves.

There are all sorts of stories. Some deal with his legendary intelligence, going back to his childhood. Roy was a troublemaker at school and seemed incapable of learning. However, his eighth grade teacher realized his potential, took an interest in him and suggested he get his tonsils and adenoids out. Sure enough, as she suspected, he was a very bright child with a hearing problem….

Of all the stories, though, perhaps the one closest to a corporate metaphor—capturing the spirit of both the man and his company—is the little anecdote told by Harold Vischer, Bandag's long-time sales manager.

"Once we were having lunch in this ritzy hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, when Carver, he orders a lemonade. They, uh, bring him something else, a reconstituted lemon drink or something," recalls Vischer with a chuckle. "Carver doesn't like it, so he calls this waiter over, you see, and tells him to bring a big pitcher of ice water and some lemons and sugar. When he gets all the stuff he needs—right there in that fancy dining room with all its silver and linen tablecloths—Carver stirs all of us up some lemonade."

This story says a lot about the Carver personality, which over the years Bandag has turned into an implicit corporate credo.

First, consider the setting—Lagos, Nigeria. The farm boy from Preemption, Illinois, representing a company in Muscatine, Iowa, just happens to be having a business lunch in Lagos, Nigeria. Carver and Bandag were players on the world scene from the beginning, and you can't appreciate how the company grew so dramatically until you take into account the company's excursions all over the earth, a reflection of Carver's own wanderlust. When Bandag advertised for executives, it promised them they could travel and see the world, and they had to.

Second, Carver never settled for reconstituted anything. He wanted the pure, natural and original. For example, while retread processes that preceded Bandag often used unreliable reclaimed rubber, Carver was determined to produce as pure and high quality rubber tread as possible. "I never wanted to make money off a lousy product," Carver often said. Excellence has always been a hallmark of Bandag.

Bill Block, head of corporate communications, notes, "Not only Bandag but everything Carver put his hand to had to be the best. His pumps toward the end of the Depression, for example, were the best in class, and that quality netted many lucrative contracts."

Third, the story illustrates that, when Carver knew what he wanted, he didn't hesitate to go get the ingredients and keep stirring the pitcher until things tasted right. The Bandag cold cap process struck plenty of people as a sour idea when Carver introduced it—several thought he had been scammed by Nowak—but he kept stirring until Bandag got it right. The ingredients included the versatility to sell and supply worldwide, so to do business in foreign countries without being at a disadvantage, Carver became fluent in Spanish, French and German; his friend Harold Vischer says Carver actually "knew five or six languages. He was a brain…."

And, fourth, Roy Carver didn't really mind what people around him thought; he wasn't embarrassed by standing out in a crowd as a maverick, doing the boisterous, even the impolite, and certainly the unpredictable. Over the years he had his detractors. He didn't care….

There's another lesson in the lemonade story, too. Roy Carver loved people, and he loved to entertain. The generosity and warmth that Carver shared with common folk as well as the rich and famous has been imitated thousands of times over by the way Bandag has treated dealers, employees and customers. His was an openness, free of racial, ethnic or nationalistic prejudice, and people around the world considered him a friend.

One biographer observed, "People were a fascination and a challenge for Roy Carver. During his life, he made close friendships with both the mighty and the humble throughout the world. He would talk economics with well-known politicians one minute and football and the weather with hotel maids the next…."

David Elderkin, Carver's long-time attorney, paid this tribute at Carver's death: "He had his critics, and some of the criticism is valid. But as Theodore Roosevelt once observed: 'It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again… who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.'"

Carver dared greatly and more often than not came out a winner. He loved life. In 1975, when he had already amassed a sizable fortune, he commented: "I don't worry about money anymore. I worry about time—how much time do I have left? Everything I do is based on making as much of the day, the week, the month as I can."

More a rambunctious visionary than a typical businessman, Roy Carver nevertheless remains Bandag's inspiration. When people measure the company today as a worldwide corporation, or think about its future, many still do so against their perception of the standards of Roy Carver. Does this or that corporate decision or policy break new ground? Is it bold and truly innovative? Does it take into account the little guy as well as the bottom line?

All that's what Roy would expect.


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