A little confession
Long-time readers know this is not a “commercial” blog, and this post is not meant to be an advertisement. Still, I confess: I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Groupe Michelin – my corporate home for the 19 best years of my career in I.T.
Yes, it’s a well-managed company (better than anywhere else I ever worked), and yes, they make the best high-performance tires in the world, but there’s more to it. Michelin has one of the longest, most remarkable stories in business history. And you can see some of that history through the particular lens of one of the most interesting museums in central France: L’Aventure Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand.
Michelin - a high-tech company ?
Michelin likes to characterize itself as a transportation company, selling mobility -- “a better way forward” -- rather than just tires. That’s perhaps the first impression you get in the museum. Name something that rolls – car, truck, airplane, subway train, bicycle, tractor, Segway, lawn mower, or road grader – and Michelin has made a tire for it.
More than anything else, though, L’Aventure Michelin makes it clear that this is as much a technology company as it is a supplier of vehicle parts. Research and development are more important here than for other companies, and it shows in the number of historical “firsts” on display in the museum.
Michelin was first to make a “dismountable” (changeable) tire in 1889, and first to commercialize the radial tire in 1946. The company continues to be a pioneer in making “green” tires – tires that cut fuel consumption by reducing the amount of friction (“rolling resistance”) between your car and the pavement.
For a long time, Michelin was the sole supplier of tires to the American space shuttle – a marvel of technology when you consider that the tire must go from subzero temperatures in space to the superheated shock of landing in just a few minutes. And that giant earthmover tire you see outside the front door at L’Aventure Michelin? It weighs almost 12,000 pounds, contains as much steel as a compact car, and each one supports a 100-ton load in some of the most extreme environments you could imagine.
Michelin’s history is also the story of a family. The inventors of that first “dismountable” tire were André and Edouard Michelin, who incorporated their business in 1889 in Clermont-Ferrand. The family continued to be involved in running the company for most of the period from 1889 until the tragic death of young Edouard Michelin (great-grandson of the founding brother) in a boating accident off the coast of Finistère in 2006.
[I had the extraordinary pleasure of getting to know Edouard while I worked for the company. He came to my office one day during one of his visits to the American subsidiary; we talked about I.T. and technology for a while, then he pointed to the picture of my son on the desk behind me and asked me about him. We ended up spending most of the hour talking about what it’s like to be a father – Edouard had 6 young children of his own. I can’t imagine having a similar encounter in any of the other companies I ever worked for, and that one moment came back to me every time I encountered Edouard in other settings afterward.]
It's not just about tires
And just as L’Aventure Michelin emphasizes the impact of a single family on this particular company, it also emphasizes the impact of the company on the larger history of France. When World War I came, Michelin built airplanes for the French military. Michelin maps were the guide of reference for the Allied armies during World War II.
Of course, Michelin’s fame goes beyond the tires it makes. Those original brothers, André and Edouard, had a particular genius for marketing in the broadest sense of the word. How could you get people to buy more tires at the dawn of the automotive age? Encourage them to go driving – which the company did by preparing detailed roadmaps of France, helping to develop the country’s system of highways, and posting the ceramic directional signs you still see alongside many of the national and departmental roads across the country.
That genius for marketing led the Michelins to two other innovations still recognized in every corner of the world: The Michelin Red Guide was part of that original vision of “encouraging tire consumption by making it easier to go driving” – but has morphed over the years into perhaps the most famous arbiter of taste in the world, giving out its coveted “Michelin stars” to the best restaurants around the globe. And Bibendum, the “Michelin Man” made of tires, is one of the most iconic business mascots ever devised, a fact much in evidence in the number of gadgets and collectors’ items on display at L’Aventure Michelin.
[Here’s one of the more interesting twists in the Michelin story: Edouard was trained as an artist in Paris, but ended up becoming the driver behind the industrialization of his company’s products, while André – educated as an engineer – became the communications genius behind Bibendum and the maps/guides business!]
"Ca vaut le voyage"
If you love cars as much as I do – in fact, if you love any kind of vehicular transportation – you’ll want to spend at least 2 or 3 hours at L’Aventure Michelin. It’s one of the best-curated collections of its kind I’ve seen anywhere. To adapt a phrase from the famous Red Guides, “c’est une destination qui vaut le voyage” – it’s a destination worth a special trip to see it.
Have you found other specialty museums worth seeing in your travels around France? Do you have any personal experience with Michelin? Let us know in the Comments space – and please be sure to clik on the button(s) for your preferred social-media platform(s) to share this post with others!