With the striking of one flag and the raising of another, three of Toledo's most important names - three names synonymous with this city's manufacturing history - have begun their slow fade from the public eye. One of Toledo's few remaining signature companies, the Libbey-Owens-Ford Co., will henceforth be known by the corporate entity which has owned it for 14 years, Pilkington plc.
It is a sad time, because the Libbey, Owens, and Ford names helped this city become a great manufacturing center, and a force in the automotive industry. Generations of Americans have appreciated the distinctive L-O-F initials and logo on the windshields of their cars. And they came to recognize that Toledo indeed had every right to call itself the Glass Capital of the World.
Edward Drummond Libbey, Michael Owens, and Edward Ford are giants all in the rich history of this community. They were among the city's most significant entrepreneurial risk-takers late in the 19th century, and together they helped build L-O-F into a major national company and an instantly recognized national brand.
So Pilkington's decision to raise its own banner over its downtown Toledo headquarters marks a dramatic change in the local corporate landscape and alters forever how Toledoans see themselves.
At the same time the passing of the L-O-F name, while unfortunate in today's global marketplace, is only that - a name change. It is not the corporate equivalent of Armageddon: a plant closure or company shutdown. The silver lining is that Pilkington intends to keep its North American headquarters right where it is, on Madison Avenue.
The fact is that times have changed in the automotive industry, and that certainly includes automotive glass, which put L-O-F and Toledo on the map. Even under the famed L-O-F name, the company's employment in our region has fallen steadily, ranging from a peak of about 8,000 in the 1950s to just several hundred today. A big part of the reason: technology. In that regard, what's happened to L-O-F is hardly unique.
In Pilkington's defense, the company has indeed kept its Toledo operations going, even though they are greatly diminished. The firm weathered tough times that included not only a reshaping of the company and the industry but an embarrassing management scandal that cost the firm good will and harmed its image.
But the bottom line is this: The bottom line.
Warren Knowlton, president of Pilkington Automotive Worldwide and chief executive of its North American operations, put the best face on the move he could.
He acknowledged the contributions of the firm's founders but noted that the change reflects a continuing integration of the company worldwide. He also cited a $75 million investment to rebuild the float lines at the Rossford facility and said the company intends to keep its present workforce there at 325 or so, despite scores of retirements in the next year and a half. Also, the L-O-F brand name will remain, at least for a time, on the company's automotive glass.
All of that is fine, and it's good that the company is expressing confidence in its local operations, but the simple fact is that with the passing of the Libbey-Owens-Ford Co., a part of Toledo has died as well.
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