Rocky Brown pretty much grew up as a “Les Schwab boy,” as he puts it, and he hopes his family’s association with perhaps the most iconic name in the Northwest tire business will continue for decades to come.
Brown and his brother, Jim, own Lew Brothers Tire Service Inc., a business that’s been operating in Baker City for 103 years.
The tire store has been under the ubiquitous red-and-yellow Les Schwab sign since 1970, and so the Browns had a personal stake in the recent announcement that Les Schwab Tires, a private firm based in Bend, is up for sale.
“There’s certainly some unknowns,” said Rocky Brown, who with his brother bought the business in 1984 from their father, Pleas Brown. “All of our heads are just kind of spinning.”
(Pleas Brown died in 2010.)
But the situation for Lew Brothers is different from that of the majority of the stores branded as Les Schwab retailers.
Of the approximately 500 stores in 10 western states, about 435 are owned by the company, Rocky Brown said.
But Lew Brothers is among the 65 independently owned stores that operate under the Les Schwab banner but remain separate business entities, Brown said.
“Les Schwab is our supplier,” he said.
Brown said it seems logical to him that if a company buys Les Schwab, it would want to keep the name — and the reputation that goes with it.
“It’s synonymous with service in the Pacific Northwest,” Brown said. “The value is in the name.”
In the event that a new owner declined to continue the company’s relationship with Lew Brothers and the 64 other independent stores, Brown said he expects those store owners would pick a different tire supplier.
“All of our employees work for Lew Brothers, and their jobs are not at risk,” Brown said of the 18 people who work at the Baker City location at 210 Bridge St., just east of the Powder River.
But although Brown acknowledges it’s nice to have other options as an independent store, he very much wants to continue his family’s 50-year association with Les Schwab Tires.
“Jim and I worked here all through high school in the 1970s, so we don’t know anything different,” Rocky Brown said. “We hope for the future that it continues to be a Les Schwab store and that our family will be involved for generations to come.
“We’ve always been Les Schwab boys.”
Lew Brothers was started in 1916 by Rocky and Jim’s great uncles, Albert and Franklin Lew.
The store’s original location was on the south side of Washington Avenue between Main and First streets, in the building now occupied by the Flower Box.
Pleas Brown and his cousin, Franklin Lew’s son, also named Franklin, bought the business in 1946, and Pleas Brown later bought out his cousin.
Lew Brothers moved to a building on Bridge Street, just across the river from its current site, in the 1950s. That building was destroyed in a fire, Brown said, after which the business moved to its current location, the former site of an Oldsmobile car dealership.
Brown said Lew Brothers was a U.S. Royal dealership at the time, dealing in the Uniroyal tire brand.
Around 1970, Les Schwab, the company’s founder and namesake, came to Baker City looking to expand the business he had started in 1952.
Brown said Lew Brothers was the second tire store to become an independent dealer under the Les Schwab brand — of the 65 such dealers, only the one in Roseburg has been with the company longer, he said.
At that time Les Schwab owned about 36 stores, but the name already had considerable “clout” in the tire business, Brown said.
“It’s been just a great association,” he said.