Longtime Owens Corning leader William Boeschenstein reflects on firm’s successes, challenges

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    William ‘Bill’ Boeschenstein discusses key events at Owens Corning during his tenure as president, CEO, and chairman.

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  • William ‘Bill’ Boeschenstein discusses key events at Owens Corning during his tenure as president, CEO, and chairman.
    William ‘Bill’ Boeschenstein discusses key events at Owens Corning during his tenure as president, CEO, and chairman.

    For nearly two-thirds of its 75-year history Owens Corning was led by members of the Boeschenstein family — co-founder Harold Boeschenstein and later, his son, William “Bill” Boeschenstein.

    The elder Mr. Boeschenstein, who died in 1972, pioneered the initial development and growth of the company for three decades, shaping it into an industry leader of building products and fiber glass-based materials.

    But it was under Bill Boeschenstein, who served as president and chief executive officer from 1971 to 1990, and chairman from 1973 to 1990, that OC experienced some of its more memorable episodes, including changing the nation’s roofing industry to accept and switch to fiber glass-reinforced shingles, fighting off a corporate raider who threatened to dismantle the company, and adopting a lovable pink cartoon character to serve as the company’s ambassador and public salesman for the next 33 years.

    Now retired but still active, Mr. Boeschenstein recently discussed those events and others at his Perrysburg offices.

    The roofing situation, he recalled, was a huge uphill battle. Owens Corning knew its fiber-glass mat shingles were superior to the industry’s wood fiber composite mat, but the roofing industry wasn’t interested in being converted.

    “The traditional manufacturers were not enthusiastic about it because they had investments in the wood fiber matrix manufacturing facilities,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    OC knew it was never going to convince the industry to change, so it decided to create change from inside the industry.

    Complicating the strategy, Owens Corning was operating under a 1949 court-mandated consent decree prohibiting it from buying competitors who used or made fiber-glass products.

    “Each of the other companies had used just enough material — they had tried glass fiber matrix or were using it in a very modest way and clearly were not going to make any great change. In any event, that disqualified them all,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    But OC found one shingle-maker, Lloyd A. Fry Roofing Co., which had several plants nationwide and didn’t use fiber glass. “They didn’t fit that mold. In fact, they were the only guys who didn’t,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    A display at Owens Corning’s Toledo headquarters honors Harold Boeschenstein, former chairman and CEO.
    A display at Owens Corning’s Toledo headquarters honors Harold Boeschenstein, former chairman and CEO.

    So OC bought Fry Roofing and began making shingles with fiber glass. And the move revolutionized the roofing industry.

    “As it turned out, the glass fiber mat matrix, it was much more efficient and it gave all the companies more capacity and so forth. In other words, they could operate their roofing lines at a higher rate,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    “So eventually they all converted over a period of probably five or six or seven years,” he said. “In the meantime, it really was a major change for the whole industry and we, along with the others, had profitability problems and so forth, so it was not a turnkey success by any means. It took probably 10 years to work our way through that.”

    But the effect on the roofing industry and the benefit to homeowners was significant, the former CEO said.

    “The thing is, [fiber glass] was inert to weather and the other material [wood composite], if you had a break in the asphalt component, which you normally would have at some point in any roofing product, the wood fiber-based material would rot and ultimately cause problems,” he said.

    “Our purpose was to force, if you will, the use of glass fiber by setting an example. And that part of it turned out to be much better than we ever anticipated,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    Takeover target

    Another achievement under Mr. Boeschenstein — but one he says “doesn’t bring any great satisfaction” — was preserving OC in 1986 from a hostile takeover by Wickes Cos. Inc.

    Mr. Boeschenstein said he had OC’s investment banking advisers ascertain in early 1986 whether the firm might be a takeover target. “Because of the complexity of our business and the various markets and so forth, they determined that we were not a likely target,” he said.

    But in June of 1986, Mr. Boeschenstein said, it was apparent “that someone was making a play on our stock.” OC voted to create a “poison pill” defense that month, and then Wickes launched its takeover bid in August.

    The former CEO said OC had been protected against takeovers because New York-based glass maker Corning Inc. had held 25 percent of OC’s stock. But Corning sold those shares in 1983, leaving the Toledo company vulnerable.

    Mr. Boeschenstein said the attempt by Wickes, which had just emerged from bankruptcy, was surprising to OC officials.

    “It was a very illogical thing for them to do really, and I don’t think they had any idea of the complexity of our business and the fact that they were a customer of ours at the time,” Mr. Boeschenstein said. “All the other companies that were their competitors, and who were customers of ours at the time, they would never have bought products from Wickes. They were not going to buy from their competitor.”

    William Boeschenstein, in his office at the Fiberglas Tower in October, 1990, served as president and CEO of Owens Corning from 1971 to 1990.
    William Boeschenstein, in his office at the Fiberglas Tower in October, 1990, served as president and CEO of Owens Corning from 1971 to 1990.

    Owens Corning later restructured by taking on $1.8 billion new debt. To finance the debt, the company was forced to sell off units, reduce its work force by nearly 10,000 people, and halt much of its research and development.

    “In our type of business, which is very capital intensive and so forth, you inherently think in terms of long-term results, and so actually Wall Street was quite pleased with the way things worked out because the current stockholders came out very well on the deal,” Mr. Boeschenstein said. “And the idea of our going back to core businesses appealed to Wall Street, and the stock did very well even after our recapitalization, at least for a period of time.

    “But the question remained of what would have happened if the longer-term research-and-development projects we had under way and the longer-range plans we had would have materialized. Had they materialized the company would have been stronger at the end of the day,” the former CEO said.

    “But since that didn’t happen, who knows? I do know it was a very painful experience, but we had no choice.”

    Animated pitch man

    A better experience was the decision in 1980 to approve the use of United Artists’ Pink Panther cartoon character to promote sales of OC’s PINK Fiberglas insulation.

    Mr. Boeschenstein said Owens Corning had a great product in its PINK insulation, but how to advertise it was a problem.

    “You could advertise a shingle, or well-known products that people could visualize, on the radio or television or in print advertising,” he said. “But there was a question about whether you could afford to advertise insulation on television … because it’s not something that people buy every day and when they buy a new home they don’t see it.”

    OC had been promoting insulation to cut heating bills for years but it was only modestly successful in increasing sales.

    So it decided to gamble on TV advertising using a homeowner who installed more insulation, but it too was only modestly successful, Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    But then, OC’s advertising agency hit on the idea of using the Pink Panther as a spokesman.

    “They said they were coming in with a new spokesman, and I assumed that it would be Jack Nicklaus or one of the notable women at the time. And then they came up with the Pink Panther.

    “I didn’t even know who the Pink Panther was,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    To confirm his suspicion that the choice was wrong, the former CEO asked that a survey be done to measure the Pink Panther’s audience recognition.

    “I thought maybe it was just young people knew who the panther was, but the survey came in overwhelmingly that everybody but me knew who the Pink Panther was,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    OC agreed to use the character for all its TV ads, packaging, and print advertising — and the Pink Panther continues to be the company’s spokesman.

    Mr. Boeschenstein said he later recognized that using the panther had a significant advantage over using a real person.

    “From a production standpoint, we don’t have to set up a TV studio and do the thing live. And if you picked the wrong spokesman and the spokesman misbehaved, like, say, a Tiger Woods, then you’ve got a problem,” Mr. Boeschenstein said. “So the panther is not going to talk back to you unless you want him to.

    “We consistently did surveys to see whether, in fact, it was effective and it was effective not only with the consumer, but it influenced some of our buyers, the building materials outlets, and so forth,” Mr. Boeschenstein said.

    While the successful Pink Panther era began on his watch, Mr. Boeschenstein said he really can’t take any particular credit for the idea. “But at least I didn’t veto it,” he said.

    Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.