School is in session at Tires Plus University, where 12 students are learning more than how to rotate radials. They're learning about themselves. This is the training center for Team Tires Plus Inc., a fast-growing firm located outside Minneapolis, with 150 retail tire stores in 10 states. This morning, Tom Gegax, 52, the "head coach," addresses his "teammates," two-thirds of whom have never worked in the tire industry.
These students (11 men and one woman) will soon be frontline sales consultants in the stores, greeting each "guest" (as customers are known here) with a vigorous handshake. Tires Plus hosts more than 1.7 million such guests each year. Gegax's first question is personal: "When you finished your last year of schooling, how many of you looked up, pondering your future, and thought, 'Tires'?" The recruits let out muffled chuckles, but no hands go up. "So why would anyone get into this business?" Gegax answers his own question: "To change it!"
Gegax has spent 23 years changing the tire business. "The last thing the planet needs is another chain of stores," he says. What it does need is a company with a new business model — one that embraces customers and employees as "whole people." Or, to quote the motto on the company's Web site: "Changing the World One Tire at a Time." That approach seems to be working. Over the past four years, Tires Plus has boasted an annual growth rate of 23%. In 1998, it generated $175 million in sales.
But Gegax found that before he could change his business, he first had to change himself. In 1976, Gegax, a former Shell Oil manager, cofounded a wholesale tire business that also operated three gas stations. As the company expanded, its focus shifted, becoming a tire retailer. Then Gegax had a few rude awakenings: "Within a six-month period, I got divorced, learned I had cancer, and realized that the business was in trouble. It was my three-ring wake-up call."
As a result, Gegax altered his physical, mental, and spiritual paths, a journey that he chronicled in Winning in the Game of Life: Self-Coaching Secrets for Success (Harmony Books, 1999). At the book's core is the proposition that there should be no division between who you are at work and who you really are. That's why the company's wellness center provides monthly classes in healthy cooking and nutrition. Shiatsu massage is offered at headquarters and at retail stores. There are also courses on work-life balance (called "Balancing Your Personal Tire").
What does this have to do with selling tires? Everything, says Gegax: "If you're not caring about people, if you're in a bad mood, it may not have anything to do with work. What you eat or how much you sleep may affect your mood. And all that affects how you sell."
So does the environment in which you sell. Tires Plus showrooms are clean, bright, and airy. A computer monitor sits in the center of the room, so guests can look at the same information that the salesperson sees. Standard service takes less than an hour. The company also compiles a "guest-enthusiasm index," based on how customers complete comment cards. The definition of a job well done at Team Tires Plus: a guest who would enthusiastically recommend the service to a friend or relative. (The index is now at 97%.)
A similar metric is applied to teammates: Would they recommend working at Tires Plus to a friend or relative? "You manage fixed assets. You coach people," Gegax likes to say. This head coach is changing the rules of the game — and winning.
Contact Tom Gegax by email (email@example.com) or visit Tires Plus on the Web (www.tiresplus.com).
Sidebar: How to Rotate Your Tires
You can't win at the game of life if you don't know why you're playing, argues Tom Gegax, head coach of Team Tires Plus, in his book, "Winning in the Game of Life: Self-Coaching Secrets for Success." Here's his plan to help you create a personal-mission statement and to act on it.
1. You are on a mission! A mission statement helps a company define and communicate its core purpose. A personal-mission statement should do the same thing. "Ask yourself some basic questions," Gegax suggests. "What were you sent here to do for your children? For your parents? Your career? Your community?"
2. Plan for action. Decide at the start of each year what you want to give and to get. Documenting your aspirations invites change into your life. Create simple action plans that integrate your aspirations into your daily schedule. One of Gegax's aspirations is "Improve relationship with Mom" — which translates into "Call every Sunday" and "Take a weeklong vacation whenever Mom chooses."
3. You are what you do. Take a look at your schedule. If you find a rift between what you say you want and how you spend your time, figure out ways to bridge that gap.
4. Just do it. Apologize to someone you have wronged. Make that cold call. Visit a customer who is unhappy with you. Says Gegax: "If something is difficult, it presents an opportunity for growth — because it gets you to move outside of your comfort zone."
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.