The story you are about to hear is true.
It's pouring rain in a small California town. Just off the main road, a middle-aged woman is stranded with a flat tire. A young man driving past — who happens to work for a tire store — stops, changes her tire, and then directs her to his nearby employer, where his buddies fix her flat for free.
It's just one tale of pedal-to-the-metal service from the annals of Les Schwab Tire Centers, a chain of 300 outlets in the Northwest. Remember, these are tire stores we're talking about: They sell and install the same rubber doughnuts as all the other guys. But in a business better known for grimy floors and indifferent service, Les Schwab has built a reputation for dedication to its customers that borders on legend.
These are joints where mechanics literally run to greet customers in the parking lot. They fix flats for free, giving away an estimated $10 million in repairs a year. One Portland, Oregon, customer tells of a store that happily installed chains for a ski trip — an hour before opening time. Says Jeremiah Cook, the Les Schwab employee in Rohnert Park, California, who rescued the woman in the rain (on his day off): "That's just the way we do things here. What if that were my mom on the side of the road?"
The cult of the customer begins with the cult of personality surrounding founder Les Schwab. Raised in a logging camp and orphaned at 15, Schwab parlayed a paper route into a $200-a-month job during the Depression. He later borrowed $11,000 and redirected his entrepreneurial drive toward changing tires. Today, his empire has estimated revenue of more than $1 billion.
That's just the way we do things here. What if that were my mom on the side of the road?
Jeremiah Cook | Les Schwab Tires employee
To this day, employees speak with hushed reverence of "Les," who at 85 tools to work several times a week in a 1962 Jeep. His down-home charm still permeates the business: In a years-old tradition, every March is "free beef month," when any Oregon customer who buys four tires gets a package of steaks.
But the rubber truly meets the road with a generous profit-sharing plan that allows even hourly workers to reap rewards from their store's success. Half of store profits are set aside for bonuses, health benefits, and retirement trusts. It's not unusual for store managers to earn six figures and retire as millionaires. And Cook, at the tender age of 26, waxes enthusiastic about the $1.3 million he hopes to collect when he retires.
He may well stick around that long. Schwab rewards loyalty by promoting store managers solely from within — and most of its top managers have been with the company for decades. "Les has always wanted to have employees who think of this as a partnership," says Dick Borgman, a senior executive vice president. "As a result, I think it's almost a competition among stores to see who gets the most compliment letters, who takes care of the customers the fastest."
Employees understand the link between keeping customers happy and prospering themselves. So even workers at Cook's level see that while the woman on the side of the road is likely somebody's mother — she's also a potential customer.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.