Stress Busters: Whether drag racing, sailing, mowing, shooting or surfing, tire dealers find ways to refresh themselves

May 1, 2002

Stress, according to the psychiatric community, can cause us to be overweight, underweight, sleepless, irritable, bald and generally anxiety-ridden. It's an insidious state of being for millions of Americans, and probably always will be part of the human condition.

So, how do we deal with stress? We could tough it out, take anti-stress prescription medications or let stress get the best of us. But we also could take a page or two from any of the following independent tire dealers, all of whom deal with stress in their own, unique way.

Work and play don't mix

From his headquarters in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Nick Mitsos, owner of Mountain View Tire & Service Inc., says that he doesn't make phone calls back to the office when he's on vacation or enjoying his hobby (more about that in a minute). "And I've never been one to take my work home with me when I'm not on vacation."

The secret, according to Mitsos, is not worrying about your business when you are away from your business. "What sense does that make?" he says. "The reason for taking time off is to catch your breath, to refresh yourself. Then, when you go back to work, you will be able to think more clearly."

The multiple-location dealer also believes that some problems fix themselves. "Of course, I fix a lot of problems, but I've learned that nothing is that serious. Everyday problems are a piece of cake compared to catastrophic life events over which we have no control."

And what does the 58-year-old Mitsos do during his off-hours? About 10 days out of every month, he and his wife, Irene, jump in their 18-wheel Freightliner rig and go drag racing!

"Although we sleep in hotels when we're on the road, the rig has a 16-foot lounge with all the amenities," he says. "That's where we live when we're at the drag strip (see photo)."

The stores are in good hands while he indulges his passion for drag racing, he says. "God has blessed us with three wonderful sons who take care of our 40 retail stores in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We started with one store in 1988 and no time for ourselves and worked our way along until we could enjoy the fruits of our labor."

Mitsos is the drag racing team's chief statistician -- the guy with the computer. "After every run, I decipher the downloads from the on-board computers on the car and make changes to the on-board clutch management system and review other important vehicle systems such as transmission slippage, cylinder pressure, driveline spin, lateral gforce, shock sensors and air-to-fuel ratios, to name a few. Next, I upload my newly updated file back to the on-board computers, and we're good to go."

Mitsos doesn't think about business when he's racing because there isn't time -- and that's the plan. "When I get back home I don't have stress," he says. "I'm fresh and ready to work."

On the road -- again

Jim Miller, president and CEO of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Twin City Tire & Auto Service, unloads his stress at the wheel of a 40-foot motor home, which is both a business tool and a way of life.

"I have an in-motion satellite system that allows me to communicate instantly with headquarters in Minnesota," he says. "I also can share common concerns with dealers around the country, conduct some research on any business topic that interests me, or check inventory levels.

"I've been in the business for 33 years, and if I've learned nothing else, it's the importance of being involved in the tire business at every level. I believe in staying in touch with dealers around the country. I believe in continuing to learn more about my business by attending trade shows and meetings nationwide, and I believe in taking time out for me and my wife, Julie, vice president of our company. The motor home lets me do that up close and personal.

"I believe people need to be away from their work four times a year," says Miller, who was once a workaholic. "Ideally, a dealer should do this once a quarter, and from one week to 10 days each time. This is especially true at the executive level of management. A one-week vacation in the summertime is not enough."

Miller splits his time on the road between pure vacation time and business. It is important to him that he uses some of his business time to take part in customer service management training, attend business seminars and various types of conventions, including national sales meetings.

"As an example, I've been involved in designing computer systems that fit the business, rather than making the business fit the computer system," he says. "I make it a priority to learn as much about business systems as I can and use time away from the office to attend seminars on these subjects as well.

"To me, it's vital to get rid of the cobwebs and open my mind to new ways of thinking about my business. Key for me and my 45 employees is the sharing of information. When I return from a trip, I am fresh and eager to talk with my people about what I've learned."

Twin City Tire & Auto Service consists of two large, 13-bay, full-service shops and Tire Express Warehouse, Miller's wholesale division. Tire Express Warehouse's 900 accounts include tire dealers, service stations, independent garages and auto dealers.

Like Mitsos, Miller has family watching the business. "My son, Jason, runs Twin City Tire while Julie and I are on the road," he says. "This can be a terrifically relaxing way to run a business, but all of it must be planned years in advance."

Twin City Tire & Auto Service also is run by a veteran staff, some of whom have been with the company for 15 to 25 years. "Without that kind of support at home, I wouldn't be able to go on the road as much as I do," he says. "It is their commitment to the business and to me that gives me the freedom to explore new ways of doing old things.

"I don't have to mother hen any of these people, and that makes me as close to a stress-free manager as anyone around."

Literally music to his ears

Steve Disney, who runs the Disney Tire & Rubber Co. in Louisville, Ky., along with his father, uncle and brother, turns to reading and modern sounds to ease his stress. When he's on the road, travelling from one of the company's five wholesale distribution centers to the next, he is listening to the music of the 1960s, '70s, '80s, '90s and, now, the 21st century.

"I exercise on the treadmill, I do a bit of weight lifting, but it's the combination of listening to contemporary music and reading that helps me unwind," he says.

The self-confessed audiophile says his contemporary music tastes are all over the place, ranging from alternative and electronic to progressive rock and traditional jazz. "I also listen to world music -- the sounds that are really popular in Asia, Africa and Europe, not the packaged sound that reaches most music lovers.

"What I listen to isn't necessarily easy listening, but if it is well-played and well-written, I enjoy it."

Disney says his warehouse locations are 100 to 200 miles apart, which leaves him plenty of time to enjoy music. "My 40,000 miles of business travel a year add up to a lot of music, which explains the 30 to 40 CDs I take with me."

He is an avid reader as well, and makes extensive use of the library. "I could buy the books, but I love libraries. They are free, and because I read so many books, it makes good sense to use them." The Louisville dealer breaks down his preferred reading selections into three categories: historical novels, hard-boiled detective mysteries and thrillers.

"The combination of music and reading gives me the latitude to enjoy my hobbies in my den, in my car or in a motel room," he says. "Recently, I finished a retelling of the battleship Indianapolis, the Navy's biggest loss at sea. Before that I read a Stephen Ambrose historical novel.

"Call it a hobby, call it a diversion, but my interest in reading and music helps me put distance between stress and the everyday grind. Together, they let me return to work fresh and ready to do a good job."

Physically fitting

"Most helpful in my fight against stress is that I enjoy what I do," says Ross Kogel, president of Tire Wholesalers Co. Inc. in Detroit, Mich. "I've been in the business for 31 years and I still look forward to coming to work."

Number two on his list of stress busters is physical exercise. "I'm 59, so I don't go out and run every day. But at least four days a week I take a 35- to 45-minute ride on my stationary bike or take a brisk walk for the same amount of time. My goal is to get my heart rate to 135 and hold it there for 20 or 25 minutes.

"The third thing my wife of 34 years, Lynne, and I like to do together is ski and sail. On the slopes we challenge each other -- she is actually the better skier -- and we take our 44-foot sailboat out on Lake Huron and up to Georgian Bay for weeks on end. We live out there, and when the weather turns rough it is quite a challenge to keep the top side up."

It's all part of Kogel's long-term plan to keep his body in tune as he gets older. "I enjoy living and want to be fit for as long as I am able," he says. "By pushing the exercise envelope a bit on the slopes and on the waves, I am not only keeping my stress levels low, I am adding years to my life."

Kogel says when he returns to the office, he enjoys watching his team of key people grow as he has grown. "I couldn't do what I do without them," he says. "Together, we try to make the business as uncomplicated as possible by making sure that what we are doing is good for the customer, good for our suppliers and good for us."

Ross's son, Ross, executive vice president of the Tire Association of North America, says his father e-mails the family with the latest news, and even has set up an 800-number for family use only. "We're a close family," says the younger Kogel, "and we plan on keeping each other as stress-free as possible."

Giving it his best shot

Tom Catalfano, manager of the Advanced Auto Service & Tire Centers store in Scottsdale, Ariz., handles his stress the old-fashioned way: He shoots it down, literally. An avid shooter, Catalfano enjoys all sorts of shotgun sports from sporting clay to skeet to trap shooting.

"We see as many as 40 cars a day, 1,100 a month at our 10-bay, 10-employee store," he says, "so stress is part of the daily regimen. Lucky for me that my brother from upstate New York introduced me to shotgun sports.

"When I'm out on a sporting clay course in the desert, I have to be aware that a clay bird will suddenly appear in front of me, behind me or come at me from side to side at the same time. There are usually 10 to 12 stations on these courses and eight to 12 birds at each station.

"There is no way I can think about work when I'm in this type of situation. My focus is on leading the target, timing and hitting the target. And that's the whole idea. Because I'm away from the job and focused completely on something else, I feel refreshed when I get back from shooting.

"Even better, my wife not only supports my participation in the sport, she often attends a weekend shooting tournament with me," says Catalfano.

Computer age solution

Brandon Carnahan, vice president of retail sales for Advanced Auto Service & Tire Centers in Phoenix, Ariz., has put his employer on-line, his fellow employees on-line and his family on-line. "I've got three computers at home, two stand-alones and a laptop I carry to and from the office," he says.

"At all times my schedule is on my wife's computer, and her schedule, and our three kids still at home (the Carnahans have six), are on mine. Without question, e-mails between the office and home are key to helping me keep my stress down. I don't miss soccer games, birthdays and anniversaries thanks to the computer age."

Carnahan also has a 53-inch big screen TV complete with DVD player, five speakers, a giant subwoofer, a 14-hour TIVO system and a 20-hour TIVO system at home. "I decided to put in a TIVO system for me and one for my wife," he says. "TIVO, which acts like a hard drive on a computer, allows me to take control of my free time. I simply instruct the system at the beginning of the week what shows to record and then I watch those shows according to my schedule."

Carnahan says he uses his computers to schedule family vacations. "We get the best flights, best connections and best rooms for the best prices. I also take care of our personal finances, pay all bills, balance the checkbook, research the best deals on needed purchases and teach my children how to set up their own computer programs."

He feels particularly good about the latter. "I know my kids are going to use computers for all of their lives and I am able to give them a head start."

But the Arizona tire dealer doesn't restrict his love of computers to the home front. With 14 retail locations in Phoenix and metro Phoenix, plus the firm's Tire Partners wholesale division, Carnahan is the developer of the company Web site.

"I use the company's digital camera to post photos of our managers," he says, "something that is very personal to them and our customers when we are announcing a special. Anyone visiting the Web site recognizes the manager when he or she arrives at our retail outlet, and I think it's kind of a morale booster for the managers and their families to see themselves on-line."

Carnahan also puts the company's managers on his direct mail pieces. "It pumps up our guys to see their photos going out on 50,000 postcards, which I create on the computer.

"It's safe to say that my love of computers and other electronics, like my TV system, keeps me occupied," says Carnahan. "The diversion takes away the stress by not allowing me to dwell on the negatives. After spending time with my computers or my TIVO, my mind is clear of any distractions, and I'm ready to take on the challenges of the day whether it's at home or work."

In through the outdoors

The owner of three four-wheel-drive tractors, Zane Highlands says he loves keeping his 500 acres neat and clean. The owner of Highlands Tire Service in Carlisle, Pa., Highlands also owns a small bulldozer and enjoys cutting wood.

"I've got about 250 acres of mountain and 250 acres of farmland on my property," he says. "My home is there, my yard is there and my fence line is there. Depending on what I'm doing, I jump on my 30-horse tractor, my 58-horse tractor or my 105-horse tractor.

"I lease out the tillable farm land where corn, soy beans and alfalfa is grown, but I keep the edges trimmed and proper."

When Highlands isn't in the office, you'll find him mowing his yard or keeping the fence lines in proper order. "I pull mowers or a brush hog for this kind of work and I truly enjoy the chance to get outside and keep things neat."

He talks about the oak, wild cherry, ash and black walnut trees on his mountain and is proud that he only cuts out dead or fallen trees. "I use a small bulldozer up on the mountain and completely lose myself in my clean-up effort when I'm up there. One of my neighbors told me the other day that I have the cleanest mountain in these parts."

Highlands never strays too far from the business world, however, even when he's mowing or cutting. "I think about the new computer system I might buy, or the new service truck I'm considering. Because I'm not under pressure during these outdoor moments, I'm able to go through the mental process of decision-making when I'm not under duress.

"It's important to break the cycle of stress and this is how I do it. Even so, I think all dealers with hobbies must remember not to stray too far from the counter. All of us need time away from work, but we must acknowledge that the front line for us is the sales counter, and going too far afield might cause even more stress."

Highlands carries a cell phone with him so anyone can reach him if there is an emergency back at the office. He has been in the tire business for 30 years, owns 10 stores and is a Michelin retreader.

Surf's up

Sharron Weber, owner of the Tire Warehouse on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, is a former world champion surfer; she won the world championship in Australia in 1970 and in California in 1972.

"I grew up on Oahu and was a junior champion in the state for five years before going on to a pair of world championships," she says.

In 1974, Weber opened her business in the tiny town of Lihue on an island that boasts a population of 58,000. "And I know many of them," says Weber.

Can there really be any stress on Kauai? "Not like it would be on the mainland, but yes," says Weber. She keeps watch over her 9,000-square-foot warehouse, a six-bay retail store, a pair of large service trucks and 12 employees. It all adds up to a business that generates $2.5 million annually.

She is open for business from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, when she closes at 1 p.m. The business is closed on Sunday. "Thankfully, I have great employees and get close support from my brother, George, and cousin, Laurie, who have joined me in the business."

Weber is a member of the chamber of commerce, which constantly strives to keep the island paradise an island paradise. She also is a member of the American Cancer board, serves the YWCA as a director and recently helped with the PGA Grandslam tournament, which brought such notable golfers as Tiger Woods to her island. On top of that, she helps out with junior golf on Kauai.

Sporting a 10 handicap, Weber says she spends more time golfing these days than surfing or diving. "But on the course, or in the water, the idea is the same," she says. "Get away from the workplace for a while and return completely refreshed."

On Kauai, that's easy. "(Kauai) is an hour's drive to the right and an hour's drive to the left and it's just a one mile walk from my house to Kalapaki Bay, where I still put a board in the water when I need a quick break."

A way of life

No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter what gender or age you are, stress can find you. Even Weber, who lives on an island paradise, had no time to think about surfing or golfing when hurricane Iniki visited her world on Sept. 11, 1992. "We all went to work on a Sunday and spent a big part of the next year-and-a-half finishing the cleanup," she says.

"Tire Warehouse served as the ground zero command post for rescue vehicles in need of new tires, rescue workers and others involved in restoring our power and our island."

Stress doesn't take a holiday, which is all the more reason why you should.