By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer
Gilbert H. Neal traveled the world and knew a lot about the changing needs of businesses and the needs of people who worked for those businesses.
The long-time tire industry executive, who spent most of his career with Firestone, headed Akron-based General Tire as it was sold to Germany’s Continental AG in the late 1980s.
Mr. Neal tried to keep General Tire employees as informed as possible about the changes. He held regular breakfast meetings — dubbed “Continental” breakfasts — to answer any and all questions related to the sale and its aftermath. The goal, he told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1988, was “to treat people as they like to be treated” and to give them the information they wanted even if they disagreed with decisions.
Gilbert Neal died March 8 in Naples, Fla., at the age of 82.
“He was a people person,” said Ed Kalail, who was director of communications and marketing at General Tire. They attended Buchtel High School and the University of Akron at the same time, with Mr. Neal one year ahead of Kalail.
“Even in high school you could see the potential he had for leadership,” Kalail said. Besides having schools in common, the two bonded over their common interest in sports, he said. Mr. Neal was a fan of Cleveland’s professional sports teams, he said.
He had an open door policy for all employees, not just his top staff people, Kalail said. “He was always willing to talk to anybody,” he said.
Mr. Neal liked to send handwritten notes to employees thanking and congratulating them on business and personal matters, Kalail said.
Mr. Neal helped General Tire through “some turbulent times” in the 1980s, he said, meeting two to three times a week with employees to provide the latest corporate news. “They were well received and helped maintain morale,” he said.
He was known as a jokester and also loved golf, Kalail said.
After graduating from the University of Akron, Mr. Neal went to work at Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. as a salesman. He was regularly promoted and his jobs often had him living outside the United States. Over his more than 25 years at Firestone, Mr. Neal said he moved 17 times, including going to Puerto Rico, South America, England, California and New York.
He was president of Firestone Steel Products when, in an unusual twist for Akron’s tire and rubber industry, he left his long-time employer for a major competitor, General Tire, one of the “Big Five” tire makers in America.
Mr. Neal joined General Tire in 1984 as president and chief executive officer where he furthered his reputation as a troubleshooter and leader. He stayed in that capacity after parent company GenCorp, while fighting a takeover attempt, sold General Tire to Continental.
He told the Beacon Journal even though he lived outside the United States at times, he never had an affinity for foreign languages. Instead, he was known for his communications in plain English.
“I think you have to be a manager of change, which is in some cases dramatic. It’s not always easy,” Mr. Neal told the Beacon Journal. “I believe you have to be that kind of manager.”
He was born in Akron. He and his late wife, Barbara, moved to Naples in 1990 after he retired. He and his wife were married 51 years.
He is survived by four children, Margaret Wallace, Beth Boyce, Gilbert Neal and David Neal and their spouses; a sister, Agnes Webner; and eight grandchildren.
Calling hours will be 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Vi at Bentley Village, West Clubhouse Auditorium, 561 Village Court Circle, Naples, Fla. A memorial service will be held in Akron at a date yet to be announced.
Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, Greater East Ohio Area Chapter, 70 W. Streetsboro St., Suite 201, Hudson OH 44236.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or email@example.com