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Where East Meets West: Dealer of the Year Tom Gegax Puts Spirituality Into Business

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Where East Meets West: Dealer of the Year Tom Gegax Puts Spirituality Into Business

“Reality is only consciousness.” --Ancient Indian rishi philosophy

“At the source of life (consciousness), and only there, one finds peace, harmony and the undisturbed contentment of bliss.” --Dr. Deepak Chopra

Tom Gegax believes in the good life. However, his idea of “good” does not focus on wealth and material possessions.

Having a healthy body is more important. So he eats organically grown foods and avoids sugar.

“The way we eat has a dramatic impact on our susceptibility to major diseases,” he says. “The 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report states that two-thirds of all deaths are diet-related.”

He also advocates a healthy mind and spirit. His “teammates” at Team Tires Plus Ltd. Headquarters in Burnsville. Minn., can relax in the sound-proof meditation room or enjoy a shiatsu massage from the therapist on duty in the exercise room.

A full-time “wellness coach” prepares classes and seminars on diet, exercise, meditation, stress management, even yoga, all designed to offer employees a chance to improve their quality of life and the environment in which they work.

Not that Gegax doesn’t play to win. By melding his interest in Eastern philosophies with Western business theories, he has created the largest tire store chain in the Midwest, a 100-plus outlet juggernaut that is rapidly expanding in Wisconsin and Missouri as well.

His goal for Tires Plus is ambitious – “to create a holistic, multi-dimensional business model for the 21st century” But it’s not unreasonable, given the obstacles he had overcome in his quest for personal and business success.

For his efforts, Modern Tire Dealer’s three independent judges have named Gegax the 1998 Tire Dealer of the Year. The award is sponsored by Michelin North American Inc.

Three-ring wake-up call

Gegax is legally CEO of Team Tires Plus, the retail/wholesale company he founded with Don Gullett in 1976. But his official title for the last six years has been “head coach.”

“It felt too elitist to be CEO or president,” he says. “And a lot of our people have sporting back grounds.

“So six years ago I changed my title. I think they would rather be coached than managed.

“We’re usually very democratic around here, and they voted to keep the old titles. But I vetoed that. Now, everyone’s happy I did.”

Gullet is head coach of new store development, while Larry Brandt is coach (president) of the team.

“I was at a course for CEO’s down at Orlando, and talked to Lee Iacocca (former chairman and CEO of Chrysler Corp.) and gave him my business card. He saw it read ‘Head Coach’ and said. ‘What’s wrong, boy? Don’t you want to be a CEO?’ And I said no, I want to be a head coach.

“I ran into Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, sometime later and told him the story. He told me, ‘You were right and Iacocca was dead wrong.”

Life was not always filled with such positive reinforcement for Gegax.

In 1989, he had what he refers to as a “three-ring wake-up call.” He suffered through a divorce, discovered he had cancer, and found himself faced with a “cash flow-challenged business.”

Overcoming these hurdles helped change his life.

“I had many behaviors I would call dysfunctional,” says Gegax.

That’s when Gegax turned his life around. He changed his diet by eliminating meat, sugar and most dairy products. An average drinker, he drastically reduced his alcohol intake.

He also started exercising regularly.

Perhaps more importantly, Gegax worked on strengthening his spirit. He became a student of Eastern philosophies that promoted inner peace. He says they helped him see the big and small pictures simultaneously.

“One aspect of Eastern philosophy is to be in the moment, to be conscious, to be awakened to the little subtleties of what’s happening,” he says. “It connects me to the universe and my mission on the planet. It allows the “force to be with me.’”

Nine years later, Gegax says he has grown emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. He met his significant other, Mary Wescott, five years ago and he says he is now cancer-free.

He has become an immensely successful businessman. In the Minneapolis/St. Paul area – the 10th largest marketed in the U.S. – Tires Plus has an estimated 30% market share.

According to the company’s customer satisfaction surveys, almost 98% of its customers would recommend Tires Plus to a friend.

Gegax’s holistic approach to business led to the “team” concept and his wellness approach. And although he shares his beliefs with his teammates, “none of the wellness stuff is pushed.”

In 1995, Gegax received the 1995 Minnesota and Dakotas Retail/Wholesale Entrepreneur of the Year award, sponsored nationally by Ernst & Young, Inc. magazine and Merrill Lynch.

In the beginning

Co-founder Gullett is the yin to Gegax’s yang. Without Gullett, there would be no Tires Plus, according to Gegax.

Gullett says the same thing about Gegax.

“His strength and my strength are in completely different areas,” says Gullett.

“We have different types of personalities. But we’re very complementary with each other.

“Tom’s a visionary. He’s a student of tomorrow, whether it’s personal or how the retail environment is going to be. He always wants to be on the leading edge.

“I’m more operational. I’m more involved in the growth vehicle of the company-the market analysis, the way we go to market, finding sites.

“Tom’s also a motivator. You can have the vision of what you want to do, but how do you communicate that? How do you get people to lead and follow?

“Tom is a visionary and communicator and motivator. Larry (Brandt), Jim Bemis (head financial coach), Dave Wilhelmi (head coach, marketing and sales) and I are the people who help execute the plan.”

Gegax and Gullett met at Shell Oil Co. in 1974. “He was my direct supervisor,” says Gullett.

Two years later, the duo left Shell to form Convex Marketing, a tire wholesale company.

In 1981, the Tires Plus retail concept (the “plus” stands for other services) officially was born. Convex merged with another wholesaler, Vandura, in 1987 and changed its name to Condura Marketing. Wholesaling makes up about a quarter of Tires Plus business, retailing 40% and auto service 34%.

“We have a nice base of wholesale business, and our wholesale division is important,” says Gullett. “But it’s not a growth vehicle.”

Business growth

Gegax is also known for his competitive nature. As he point out, Phil Jackson, former basketball coach of the Chicago Bulls, also embraces Eastern philosophies. And look how successful HE is.

Tires Plus, with 64 company owned stores, is the 12th largest independent tire store chain in North America, according to MTD research. Another 41 stores are franchise operations.

Last year’s sales totalled an estimated $137 million. In 1998, sales are expected to reach $175 million.

Recently, the big push has been into the Kansas City, Mo., market.

Tires Plus re-opened six former Parnelli Jones/dob’s Tire Centers in Kansas City earlier this year. Another six stores are in the works.

Plans are underway to improve the company’s position in big markets such as Milwaukee and Madision, Wis., and Omaha, Neb. Small market expansion across Illinois. Iowa and Wisconsin also will continue.
The Midwest expansion is the first step toward national growth. To that end, Tires Plus plans to open 100 more stores over the next three years, either through acquisitions or new sites.

“We will grow large by staying small, and this philosophy will be retained despite our aggressive growth plans for the next three years,” says Gegax. New Tires Plus stores will be 9,000 square feet – up from the traditional 6,000 square feet-with 6,000 SKUs, 10 service bays, a large snack area for guests, larger phone order rooms than in the past, and improved guest viewing.

As part of its growth, Tires Plus uses newspaper and cable television advertising, direct mail, billboards and sports marketing to build public awareness.

The company also has a website: Tires Plus.

Nearly 25% of the company’s total ad budget is spent on sports marketing, including sponsorships and events, says Wilhelmi.

Tires Plus has been affiliated with all three major sports teams in Minnesota – the Twins in baseball, Vikings in football and Timberwolves in basketball-and the University of Minnesota sports program for many years.

For example, Tires Plus ads featuring its mascots, Sporty, Classy and Tuffy, are displayed on the score-board at the Metrodome during Twins games. The company also sponsors a Twins/Tires Plus trivia question on Midwest Sports Channel.

A consumer research survey conducted by Woelfel Research Inc. gave Tires Plus high marks for brand equity and quality in the Twin Cities area.

Some 77% of the sampling indicated they had top-of-mind awareness of Tires Plus outlets, which offer Michelin, BF Goodrich, Uniroyal, Bridgestone, Firestone, Dayton, Continental, General and Cavalier brand tires.

Wilhelmi says the same strategies are used in all the markets Tires Plus enters. Tires Plus is working with the Royals and Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., and the Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin.

“As we move into new markets, we utilize sports marketing as kind of a cornerstone for building our name awareness,” he says.

“When you’re involved with so many different aspects of marketing and advertising, it’s difficult to attribute your success to one specific thing.

“We definitely feel very strongly about sports marketing as far as building our name recognition and establishing who we are goes.

“The bottom line is, when 77% of the public thinks of Tires Plus first when they think of tires, we must be doing something right.”

‘We care’

“Team Tires Plus cares immensely for the planet on which we live…. it seems to me that we need to maintain the quality of the earth’s natural resources for which we’ve been given the care and custody.” Tom Gegax, in Living Green, a Twin Cities consumer guide to the environment.

Tires Plus strives to make an environmental impact, according to Gegax.

Recycling is a given. Used tires are recycled and used as fuel for facilities with filtering-systems approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rest are ground up and mixed into asphalt for paving roads.

Old batteries, waste oil, brake fluid, anti-freeze, cardboard and aluminium cans are recycled as well.

Tires Plus celebrates Earth Day each year by reducing or eliminating environmental impact charges to its customers.

Previously, each outlet market the event by distributing tree saplings. But in 1996, Tires Plus changed its policy when its customers said they would rather save money on their Earth Day purchases.

And all below-ground hoists installed at new outlets operate hydraulically on biodegradable vegetable oil.

Tires Plus also makes an impact by working closely with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

This year, the company headed up fund raising for MADD’s “Keep it a Safe Summer” (K.I.S.S.) promotion. It raised nearly $40,000 by donating 50 cents for every new tire from its MAST (Michelin Americas Small Tires) family of tire brands.

Gegax is on the board of directors for a variety of organizations, including the American Heart Association, American Cancer Association, the Better Business Bureau, EarthSave International and Dr. Deepak Chopra’s World Wide Enterprises.

(Chopra is an advocate of holistic and Ayurveda healing and a board-certified endocrinologist. Ayurveda, “the science of life,” is the traditional holistic and spiritual system of medicine in India.)

Gegax also is involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

Waxing Philosophic

Gegax not only refers to his employees as teammates, but also his customers as “guests.”

“I think the word ‘customer’ gets overused and desensitized. ‘Guest’ is more illustrative of the meaning you want to get out. You treat a guest better than you would a customer.

“I think what you verbalize is important because you send yourself a message.”

In 1991, he wrote a three-part series on managing yourself and your business for Corporate Report Minnesota.

He is in the process of putting his thoughts and methods in book form. His first book, on self-coaching, will be published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House, next summer.

Gegax wrote the following description of the book for promotional purposes:

“It is the breakthrough game plan for a successful life in and out of the workplace. In a unique cross-pollination of proven business savvy, innovative management techniques and wellness methods, my self-coaching approach accesses the quantum power of your inner team-body, intellect, psyche and spirit.

“By identifying a personal life mission, creating associated action plans and building supportive life habits, if offers a way to fuse personal and professional direction to get you on the road to greater fulfilment and deeper happiness in everything you do.”

Gegax’s oldest son, Trent, a reporter for Newsweek magazine is co-authoring the book.

“If this book is of value to the public, I’ll do another one,” says Gegax. “The book also is good for Tires Plus.”

Gegax says he coaches and teaches the very subjects he addresses in the book at management seminars and Tires Plus University (TPU), the company’s retail automotive educational facility.

Tires Plus University is part of the new headquarters in Burnsville. It features a 300-seat auditorium, computer lab, classrooms and a full service, two bay Tires Plus store designed exclusively for educational purposes.

“My philosophy is if you take care of the guest and the teammate, and if you price your products right and watch your costs, your by product will be material abundance.”

It’s a Wonderful Life

As he prepares to turn 52, Gegax says he is happy with how his life is turning out. And both his sons —Chris owns his own video and film production company – are successful in their own right.

He is proud of and thankful for his parents, who continue to give him “unconditional love and emotional support.”

“I’ve grown so much personally in the last nine years. That means I feel the ups more. I also feel the downs, but they’re not as down as they used to be and they don’t last as long.

“I enjoy life. As I get older, I’m experimenting with how much I delegate and how much I take on.”

As the majority shareholder, Gegax originally held the CEO and president titles simultaneously. But earlier this year, he relinquished his duties as president to Brandt.

“A lot of Eastern philosophy suggests subverting ego. Western philosophy says you need more ego. We don’t try to protect egos here. We try not to think we’re so great, because all of that is temporary. All power is illusory. Every time you think you’re hot stuff, you get cut down.

“It’s a challenge to subvert your ego. I try not to have it be the controlling factor. I try to have some humility.”

Why the new headquarters faces south (and other architectural curiosities)

More than the architect’s ideas went into the construction of the new Tires Plus headquarters in Burnsville, Min.

Head Coach Tom Gegax, a student of Eastern philosophies, relied heavily on the Chinese concept of Feng Shui in designing the facility.

Location and building orientation mean everything in Feng Shui, which literally means “wind” and “water” Taking into account the forces of nature helps link a building and its owners with the universe, resulting in good fortune and health.

A Feng Shui specialist was brought in to oversee the project according to Don Gullett, head coach of new store development.

“He was involved from the land purchase to the finished building.

“He blessed the land, and suggested the best possible flow of energy through the building.”

For example furniture was arranged so that no one has their back to a door.

“When colors are a big part of it, too, says Gullett. “A lot of it is really common sense.”

Feng Shui dictates the front of the building faces south. In China, tombs on ancestral burial grounds were supposed to face south so the dead could receive the summer sun.

The land is also sloped, another requirement.

Behind the 33,000-square-foot building is a small lake-a harmonious tie to nature.

Gullett says everybody had a say in the design of the new headquarters.

“People wanted windows. We operated out of a warehouse with no windows. So there are lots of windows.

“We interviewed every teammate to determined interrelationships they had with everyone else they dealt with in the company.”

Gullett says people also wanted private offices. “But we found that private offices hindered their ability to operate effectively. To make up for that, we allowed a lot of open conference rooms in the building.”

The general layout of the building is as follows:

Upper level: operations (accounting information services, development).

Floor level: marketing, purchasing, human resources and wholesale

Lower level: fitness center (including weight room and shiatsu massage room area), break area, computer room, auditorium, Tires Plus University (TPU)

Prior to April 1997, Tires Plus worked out of three separate facilities: a warehouse that housed the main officers; TPU, the company’s automotive training center; and a satellite office building. Only the warehouse remains.

As a nod to “Western philosophies of productivity,” the building is pre-wired for fiver optics. A $3 million investment in updating the computer system also will take the company into the next century.

The Feng Shui consultant made sure the ties between the co-founders will remain strong.

A red string above the ceiling connects the third-floor offices of Gullett and Gegax.

Another worthy winner

As Modern Tire Dealer’s sixth Tire Dealer of the Year, Tom Gegax, head coach of Tires Plus, will receive an etched glass plaque and $1,000 to contribute to the charitable, community or educational institution of his choice.

Michelin North America Inc has co-sponsored the award all six years. The winner was determined by three independent judges.

Participating in the final judging were:

  • Anne Evans, a former tire dealer and president of Tyres 2000, a tire importer/exporter.
  • Saul Ludwig a managing director of McDonald & Co. Securities in Cleveland, Ohio, and a highly respected tire industry analyst.
  • Richard Morgan, a business consultant and president of Morgan Marketing Solutions.

MTD also thanks A1 Warehouse, Cooper Automotive, Dunlop Tire Corp., John Bean Co., Lowell’s Automotive, Myers Tire Supply and Pam Oil for their support of our 1998 Dealer of the Year.

Growth chart –Tires Plus

Tires Plus has more than tripled its number of stores in the last six years. The following chart shows its climb up Modern Tire Dealer’s annual list of top independent tire store chains.

Year

Retail stores

Franchises

Place

1992

30

15

25th (tie)

1993

34

18

22nd

1994

40

27

23rd

1995

39

23

22nd

1996

45

26

16th

1997

52

29

16th

1998

63

40

12th

 

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