Automobile, hospitality and aviation are just a few of the industries revolutionised by André and Édouard Michelin. Image Credit: Supplied picture

In 1886, Édouard had just finished his fine arts studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was about to start a career as a landscape painter when he got a letter from an aunt who asked him to take over their family business in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Established in 1832 by their maternal grandfather, Aristide Barbier, the company specialised in manufacturing farm equipment. However, over the years, the company's fortunes had declined and it was on the verge of bankruptcy when Édouard got this letter. Together with his older brother André — who was an engineer running his own metalwork firm in Paris — Édouard went back to their ancestral town and took over the ailing business.

Having foregone their previous careers for the sake of saving the family firm, the brothers knew they had to diversify the business to revive it, and were constantly on the lookout for new commercial opportunities. Having noticed the potential for the industrial use of vulcanised rubber, they soon turned their attention to selling and repairing tyres.

Three years later, on a spring afternoon, destiny presented itself to the Michelin brothers in the form of a cyclist who approached them in 1889 to get a tyre repaired. The bicycle was fitted with a set of the newly invented pneumatic tyres developed by Scottish businessman John Boyd Dunlop. The workers at Michelin had to struggle for hours to repair the puncture as Dunlop's tyres were glued to the rims and hence were not removable. Once they managed to repair it, Édouard reportedly took the bicycle for a ride and was highly impressed by the smoother, faster ride offered by the pneumatic tyres. He immediately realised that pneumatic tyres were the future of automobiles, and set out to find a way they could be more easily removed and repaired. And out of his quest to develop a detachable tyre the first Michelin tyre was born.

The Michelin brothers also proved they were way ahead of their time when it came to advertising and marketing. This was evident as early as 1891, when they used that year's Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race to promote their new tyre. In the race, Charles Terront, riding on Michelin tyres, suffered a puncture, but could easily fix it in the French countryside, before going on to win the 1,200-km race. The coming years bore testimony to the brothers' brilliance in marketing and PR, when they had to convince automakers to switch from horse-carriage-style wheels to detachable pneumatic tyres. They announced the first automobile with pneumatic tyres — the Éclair — in 1895 and drove it themselves, thus turning a new leaf in the history of automobiles. In 1898, while the brothers were looking for an icon to represent the company, Édouard observed the uncanny resemblance of a stack of tyres at the International and Colonial Exhibition in Lyon to a human form. André soon commissioned artist O'Galop to come up with a rendition of a man made of tyres. What O'Galop drew was the happy, bloated Michelin Man, or Bibendum, who went on to become one of the world's most widely recognised trademarks.

Two years later came another marketing breakthrough that revolutionised not just motoring but still continues to exert huge influence over many other industries, especially the hospitality industry. Published on the sidelines of the Paris World's Fair of 1900, the Michelin guidebook for motorists was a long list of French towns, with recommendations of places to stay and dine and a manual on how to fix Michelin tyres. In the Twenties and Thirties the guide started using the star system for ranking restaurants, which is still in vogue. Thus with their ultra-futuristic marketing tactics and, above all, uncompromising standards of quality, André and Édouard Michelin laid the foundations of one of the world's largest business empires.