William Bowen Thomas, known early in his life as Bowen and later as Bill, was born May 29, 1920, in Castleford, Idaho. He lived in the Starrh’s Ferry area of Burley from 1930 to 1937. Those were important years for him. During that time he met and dated Wave Young, the girl he would later marry. He also learned to work hard, as did others who grew up during the Great Depression, and he absorbed the values of honesty, thrift, and courage that later would cause him and his contemporaries to be known as “the Greatest Generation.”
When Bill was fourteen years old, an accident occurred that would greatly affect his later life. As he came into the narrow outbuilding where the family car was, he stumbled over a pile of potato sacks. He fell forward, bumping his right arm. “The pants I was wearing were white,” he later wrote. “As I walked around the car, I could see my white pants were all black in front. As I walked out into the sunlight and raised my right arm, blood was shooting out and that black on my pants was red. That bump I had felt was a mower blade going into my arm.”*
Bill did not realize how seriously he was injured, but he did know, from some Scout training he had received when he was younger, that he needed a tourniquet. He grabbed some towels and tied them around his upper arm. Then he went to the neighbor’s house to find someone to take him to the hospital. The only person at home was Nory, a boy Bill’s age, who didn’t know where the hospital was. Bill directed him, even though he was losing so much blood he couldn’t see. When they arrived at the hospital, “I got out and fell in the dirt on my face,” Bill wrote, “not realizing that if I couldn’t see, I couldn’t walk. A man with a team of horses on a hay wagon jumped off, picked me up and took me to the hospital. They put me on a gurney and replaced the tourniquet. There were no blood transfusions at the time and there was another emergency in the operating room.”
Doctor Dean, the only doctor present at the hospital, was finally able to treat Bill. “I knew he did the best he could,” Bill wrote. Not knowing he was supposed to stay at the hospital, Bill had his friend take him home where his mother put him to bed. Soon the doctor came “roaring up in his Cord car.” He stayed with Bill quite awhile, talking to him and checking his pulse frequently. Finally he said he thought Bill would be all right. He told Bill not to use his arm for awhile, but Bill began using it “sooner and more than I should have.” He got a job cleaning ditches. When he had enough money, he went to Dr. Dean’s office to pay his bill. But as he was paying the receptionist, Dr. Dean came out from his inner office. He asked him how he had earned the money. When Bill told him “cleaning ditch”, Dr. Dean told him he didn’t owe him a dime. The bill was $17.
Bill did not realize at the time how serious his injury was, nor how close he had come to losing his life. Later he was unable to serve in World War II due to that injury.
Bill quit school after tenth grade–something that was quite common at the time–thinking, as did many tenth graders, that he knew all there was to know. His father told him that if he was not going to school, he was on his own. Bill worked various odd jobs, including hauling beet pulp with a team of horses and a wagon, in weather so cold that he sometimes climbed in the beet pulp to keep warm. The job was so bad that he almost decided to go back to school, but instead he went to California where he got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant.
One evening while Bill was working, a waitress accidentally spilled coffee on a customer. “She felt terrible,” wrote Bill, “and, of course, apologized to the customer.” But the restaurant manager came over and “dressed the waitress down.” She began crying.
Bill had been watching the whole affair from the kitchen. “At that point, I had seen enough,” he wrote. “Of course, it is not within the authority of a dishwasher to tell the manager what to do. But I did anyway. His response was, ‘You’re both fired.’
“There was a man who came in for dinner every evening sitting close by. He looked up and said to the manager, ‘No, they are not.’ The man was Mr. Ackerman, Vice President of the company that owned the restaurant.”
Bill talked with Mr. Ackerman several times after that and found him to be a very nice man. But Bill was living in a place that was not the best atmosphere for a seventeen-year-old farm boy. He decided to quit his job, go back home, and back to school.
“I packed my bag and headed out San Pablo Avenue, the street leading out to the highway and home to Idaho. I got a short ride out to 67th Street. Not having any luck getting a ride, the 67th Street sign kept bugging me. Then it dawned on me that Mr. Ackerman had said that they were building a new plant on 67th Street.”
Bill decided to see if he could find the new plant. There he saw Mr. Ackerman. He asked Bill what he was doing there. Bill told him. After a few seconds he asked Bill if he wanted a job. Bill said he did. “Get a broom and start sweeping,” said Mr. Ackerman.
“See how a minor incident can change your whole life,” Bill later wrote.
With the outbreak of World War II, Bill began work in the construction industry where he learned to operate a power shovel and other heavy equipment. But after he had mastered the skills needed, he found the job boring. He was in his early twenties and had reached the top of his field. That, and a problem he had with a union agent, caused him to think about doing some other work.
Earlier Bill had helped one of his relatives set up an OK Rubber Welders tire repair shop in Utah. Bill decided to set up his own shop and go into business for himself. He found a good location on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley and opened for business June 1, 1945.
The company that Bill became associated with, OK Rubber Welders, had been organized in the 1930s by Harold V. James, an inventor who during World War II developed a tire retreading machine. Rubber was scarce during World War II, so his machine became an immediate success. James’s organization was a loose franchise operation with the franchisees linked only by the rubber welders machine and the OK brand name.
At first Bill sold only used tires and retreaded tires. New tires did not become readily available until 1947, two years after the end of the war. Bill always tried to give good service to his customers, and as his reputation grew, and the auto and tire industry expanded, his business did well.
But in spite of his business success, Bill knew he could not continue to retread tires. Early in life, when he was five or six years old, Bill realized he had a problem with his back. “Once in awhile I’d get a pain in my lower back and it would go down my right leg and my leg just wouldn’t function,” Bill wrote. “It didn’t last long. When I’d tell my folks about it, they would check me out, and because there wasn’t anything visibly wrong, they’d dismiss it.” Later, when Bill began doing farm work in Idaho, he found that while thinning beets or doing other stoop work, he couldn’t bend over. He had to crawl down the rows. He continued to have problems with his back off and on after he was grown, and the heavy work he was doing while retreading tires made his back worse. He had gone to several doctors, but not until a doctor took X-rays of his back–a fairly new technic at that time–did Bill learn what the problem was. The X-rays showed that the lower vertebrae in his back had not properly formed.
The doctor told Bill that a spinal fusion would correct the problem and scheduled him for surgery. But he warned Bill that he would have trouble getting around for a year. Bill also knew that spinal fusions were not always successful. Bill lay in his hospital bed worrying about how he could make a living.
That evening when the doctor made his rounds, Bill said to him, “I want to ask you a straight-forward question and I would appreciate a straight-forward answer. If you were me, what would you do?”
“If I thought I could make a living with my head, I’d get up and put my pants on and go home,” the doctor said.
“It didn’t take long for me to get my pants on,” wrote Bill.
His back problem “was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Bill later said. “If I hadn’t had that back problem, I’d still be retreading tires.”
Knowing that he had to change, Bill began to analyze himself and his skills. “I knew I was a good manager,” he said. He also knew that to be a manager he had to expand his business.
In 1951 he started his second tire store, purchasing the new facility from his accumulated profits. With the second store running well, he decided to start a third store, but this time he did not have enough money to finance it. Not wanting to borrow, he decided to find someone who would work with him under a franchise. He found a couple with enough capital to invest and a desire to go into the tire business.
“It was made clear to them that a franchise is a way of doing business–a successful way of doing business,” Bill wrote. “But they were a problem from day one. Because it was their investment, they wanted to conduct the business their way.” The business was a failure and had to be closed down. “It taught me a lesson,” Bill wrote. “To start a new business, don’t look for people with money–look for people with ability.” As a result of this experience, and of his desire to help others get started in the business, Bill developed the Incentive Management Purchase Program.
But even as Bill’s business was expanding, problems with the OK Rubber Welders company were surfacing. By the early 1960s a lot of competition had developed in the tire industry, and the OK management had not kept up with the times. Bill and other OK tire dealers had trouble meeting the increased competition because of the OK company’s high costs for the products that the OK dealers were required to purchase. “One example–we were buying tread rubber shipped from Colorado,” Bill later said. “Sometimes it would be frozen in transit and we couldn’t use it. The best tire rubber company in the world was located a few blocks away from our store. Buying from them was much more convenient, cheaper, and better, but the company wouldn’t allow us to do it.”
In 1962 Bill and a few other OK tire dealers left the organization and formed Big O Tire Dealers. At first Big O was simply a buying group bound together for purchasing power. There were eleven geographical areas in the Big O company with an area director over each area. Bill was the director of the Northern California/Nevada area. “We were supposed to get some directions from Big O,” wrote Bill, “but mostly we went our own way.” Bill’s area developed differently from the others.
In order to have a central supply organization, in 1965 Bill incorporated as William B. Thomas Enterprises, doing business as Big O Tire Company. He introduced several organizational innovations, including 1) the Incentive Management Purchase Program, 2) a meeting and committee system which eliminated the need for company representatives, 3) a stock purchase and bonus program for franchisees, and 4) an employee stock retirement plan for employees.
Bill also joined the American Retreaders Association, a national organization that represented the tire retreading industry. “After attending several of their conventions, I was asked to join their board,” he wrote. “It didn’t take long before I realized that it was a ‘good ole boys club.’” All the board members except Bill were from the Louisville, Kentucky, area.
“I hadn’t been on the board very long, maybe a year, when I told them if they were going to be a national association, they better act like one,” Bill wrote. “The next year I was elected President. That’s what I got for talking too much.” Bill served as president from 1978 to 1982.
His presidential speech at their 1979 convention was reprinted by a tire magazine in England with the headline, “An Industry whose time has come”. At the time Bill was pleased with his speech and delighted that it had been printed in England. “But,” he said years later, “I was wrong on almost every point.” Though no one realized it at the time, the end of the passenger tire retreading business was near.
By 1979 radial tires were rapidly replacing bias ply tires in the United States. Radial tires lasted longer and were more difficult to retread. Bill and the other dealers soon found that of the used radial tires they received, only 10% could be retreaded successfully. In 1982 Bill, who at the time was still the president of the American Retreaders Association, closed his retreading tire operation. While other aspects of his business had been profitable, his passenger retreading operation had lost money. “Our present recovery rate is so low, we can’t see a very bright future in radial passenger retreading,” he told reporter Chuck Slaybaugh. Although Bill’s actions provoked a storm of controversy, he was right. He was the first major retreader dealer to cut his losses and move out of the retreading business. He shifted his focus to selling new tires and offering customers associated services such as tire alignment.
The company continued to grow. In 1972 it had 9 dealers with annual sales of $4 million. Eleven years later, in 1983, it had 54 dealers with sales of $38 million. That year the company opened a new 116,000 square-foot office and warehouse in Vacaville, California.
In February 1984, Bill Thomas became President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of the national Big O Tire Dealers company where he served for a year. In 1985, at age 65, Bill retired as president of both the national organization and his company.
The board of directors of Big O Tire Dealers voted to combine all eleven area operations into a single corporation. At the time of the valuation process, Bill’s Northern California/Nevada area represented 42% of the total valuation. Bill’s former manager Steven Cloward, who had become president after Bill’s retirement, became President and CEO of the combined operation, and shortly thereafter took the company public. Bill served on the company’s board of directors until 1993. In 1994 he was inducted into the Tire Industry Hall of Fame. He continued to be active in other projects, including purchasing and operating the 1,120 acre Carmen Valley Ranch in the High Sierra valley and restoring antique tractors and other vehicles.
Today (2012) at age 92, Bill lives in his home in El Cajon, California. He is grateful for his good health that allows him to live independently and for his daughter and son-in-law, Gail and LeRoy Westwood, who, living in nearby San Diego, help and worry about him. He is also grateful for his continued association with former employees and colleagues who are his dear friends.
*Quotes come from William B. Thomas’s autobiography, My First 90 Years, privately published in 2010, and from interviews with Bill Thomas, Ron Asher, and Pete Marrero.