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Published: Monday, 10/31/2005

Contributions grease the wheels for bearing maker

BY JOSHUA BOAK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As Bobby Rahal zoomed across Japan's Twin Ring Motegi racetrack in 1998, his front right wheel bearing failed under the g-force pressure caused by a turn.

The car slammed into the wall at 220 mph. Shaken, Mr. Rahal survived.

"Be assured it was not a Timken bearing," said W.R. "Tim" Timken, Jr., at Case Western Reserve University four years later. "Bobby turned to Timken engineers to find a solution."

Timken designed a tapered roller bearing to handle the extreme physical forces encountered at high speeds and tense moments. The company's bearings minimize friction, allowing wheels to spin smoothly.

Racecar drivers have depended on Timken's expertise. And Republicans have benefited from its fortune, getting $3.81 million from Timken family members and employees since 1992.

Mr. Timken resigned as chairman of the $4.5 billion manufacturer in August, a position he held since 1975. According to proxy statements, he is worth roughly $190 million in Timken stock alone.

Listed as a "Ranger" during President Bush's re-election, he now serves as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, the country from which his great-grandfather and the company's patriarch, Henry Timken, emigrated more than 150 years ago.

Mr. Timken declined an interview request via an Embassy spokesman. Nor would company officials discuss his politics.

The corporate Web site features a 2002 speech Mr. Timken gave to the Heavy Duty Manufacturers' Association, in which he explained the need to counterbalance the interests of "anti-business" forces like labor unions, trial lawyers, and "environmental extremists."

"All of us in private-sector management need to get more involved to see that our interests are given thoughtful consideration by government," he said.

The federal government has given Timken more than thoughtful consideration. In addition to defense and U.S. Mint contracts worth $49 million, it paid Timken $259 million during the previous four years. Over that same timeframe, the company's profits totaled $169 million.

The payments came from tariffs designed to punish foreign companies that underprice products ranging from steel to pasta, according to a September report by the Government Accountability Office.

The World Trade Organization declared the payments to be illegal, although Timken argues that foreign companies could easily remove the burdens imposed by the tariffs.

"I would say the solution for anyone who has been found guilty of unfair trade practices is quite simple," Timken spokesman Jeff Dafler said. "Stop the dumping."

The Timken Company moved from St. Louis, Mo., to Canton, Ohio, in 1901, opening its factory there months after President William McKinley's assassination.

It became the hub for the small city's spokes. A hospital, a high school, and even the symphony originally stemmed from Timken generosity.

"Having been raised in a Timken household, I was a lucky kid," said Canton Mayor Janet Weir Creighton, whose father worked at Timken for 38 years. "There was always a paycheck."

"Early on in my career, I was scared to death of him because he was Tim Timken of the Timken Company," said Ms. Creighton, a Republican. "Over the years, I've seen a different side of him. Very compassionate, but stern when he needs to be."

Born into privilege, Mr. Timken, 67, did not coast through his youth.

He graduated from Philips-Andover, the elite Massachusetts boarding school, swam at Stanford University, and matriculated directly into Harvard Business School.

At the insistence of his father, William Robert "Bob" Timken, he shoveled dolomite into a steel furnace one summer.

Mr. Timken sprinted through the executive ranks, working in France and then taking over all domestic operations in 1968, six years after starting with the company full-time.

"Bob Timken was absolutely insistent that his son should cultivate not only the humility, but a sense of duty to the company as preparation for assuming leadership," Bettye H. Pruitt wrote in Timken: From Missouri to Mars - A Century of Leadership in Manufacturing.

The book details, in part, how Mr. Timken's political activism lifted the company's bottom line at a tight juncture, a story untold by the GAO report.

During the 1980s, Timken sought tariff protection from the U.S. International Trade Commission, a process that involved affidavits from 100 of its sales managers.

"Tim provided indirect support, taking advantage of his position as a major Republican Party activist and donor to speak directly to Republican congressmen and officials of Ronald Reagan's administration - including the president himself," Ms. Pruitt wrote.

The ITC granted tariff protection, later qualifying Timken for the $259 million in government subsidies it received between 2001 and 2004. While Mr. Bush has excluded the payments from budget proposals, he has yet to revoke them.

But it would be wrong to construe Timken as an isolationist. The company has subsidiaries and partnerships in Brazil, India, China, and Romania, among others.

It reported quarterly profits last week of $39.8 million because of "the ongoing strength of global industrial markets." And in 1991, French President Francois Mitterrand named Mr. Timken a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor, recognizing his eminent service to the Republic of France.

"The English writer John Donne once wrote 'No man is an island,' " Mr. Timken told the Heavy Duty Manufacturers' Association. "It is painfully obvious that when it comes to government - no business is an island."

Contact Joshua Boak at: jboak@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.



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