BURNSVILLE, Minn.-His dad had a saying, drilled into him by the grandmother who raised him: ``It's what you learn after you know it all that really counts.'' For Tom Gegax, it's the kind of Zen-like expression you roll up and tuck away in the corner of your mind. Every once in a while it nibbles at you, so you let it out to breathe. It keeps you honest-maybe even a little humble.
And Tom Gegax will be the first to admit he's still learning.
Learn, as in: don't be afraid to.
Learn, as in: from your successes-and, yes, mistakes.
In fact, learn seems to be a key word around Tires Plus Groupe, the dealership Mr. Gegax established on a $30,000 shoestring in 1976 in Burnsville, and nurtured through some very lean times.
Today, it stands at 38 corporate and 22 franchise stores, most in the Minneapolis-St. Paul ``Twin Cities'' area.
It's a business that finds itself in the crowded ``middle ground'' between the small tire dealerships and the big players. But that's a position that suits the 48-year-old Indiana native just fine.
Is it presumptuous to describe oneself as a company's ``head coach,'' rather than CEO? He thinks not, embracing that moniker while carrying the sports analogy through to his vice presidents-``assistant coaches''-his employees-``teammates''-and customers, who are referred to-and must be treated as-``guests.''
Actually, the whole Tires Plus operation seems to march to the beat of a somewhat different drummer-different from the usual tire industry gait.
The firm has hitched its wagon to what Mr. Gegax calls ``BPR''-Business Process Re-engineering. It's based on a Japanese formula known as ``kaizen'' (Mr. Gegax has been to Japan to study its business practices and cultures), which considers business a kind of mosaic whose parts must be constantly but gradually ``tweaked.''
Thus, Tires Plus management continually re-examines every area of operation, then redesigns it. Not change for change's sake, but for growth's sake.
``It's critical for companies to do that in order to become more efficient,'' Mr. Gegax said. ``If you get those efficiencies to help keep bottom-line costs down, then you can train the right people and manage those costs and get the efficiencies out of your management people.''
He readily admits ``earnings have been accelerating at a steady pace'' for Tires Plus and its Condura Tire Groupe wholesale division.
In 1992, both combined for annual sales exceeding $50 million. That figure grew to $65 million in 1993, and is projected to top the $80 million mark this year.
The company continues with cost-containment programs, while sales increase. ``Profitability will come from that,'' he reasoned.
In retrospect, as a young, perhaps somewhat immature retail chain, Tires Plus set out to grow too rapidly. It opened so many stores so quickly, Mr. Gegax said, that not too many years ago it ran up a debt-to-equity ratio of 11 to 1.
However, by the end of 1994, that will have been pared to 3.5 to 1, and 1995 projections are for a quite acceptable 2 to 1.
He now believes profits are in line with the company's plans for improvements.
``We're proud of the rise we've had,'' he said, noting the company has moved more than 1.1 million tires in 1994-including an estimated one-third of all tires sold in the Twin Cities area, population 2.5 million.
Plans continue to focus on being ``extremely dominant'' by opening three more outlets there by early '95, giving Tires Plus about 35 percent of that market. It also holds an estimated 20 percent of the Des Moines, Iowa, market.
It's amazing what ``fear of failure'' will do to a guy.
In the not-so-rosey past, when the company was struggling, it was ``basic survival instinct'' that got the head coach through lean years-like 1983-84, when the firm's retail business lost more than a half-million dollars; like 1991, when the bank canceled its revolving credit line and Tires Plus was barely able to pay bills.
But the ever-optimistic Mr. Gegax always felt he would succeed. ``Now, we're through that window, and are extremely healthy financially-and that's fun!''
Rather than dwell on the negative, he acknowledged he kept ``drawing, focusing on, developing and implementing an action plan.'' Much of it is grounded in ``the three most important factors in our business: education, education and education.''
``Tires Plus University''-a training center containing a complete tire store with showroom, service bay and classrooms-was founded three years ago. Every employee-every ``teammate''-must attend.
The other part of the company's philosophy, he said, is to have attractive, state-of-the-art facilities. Because of its burst of development in recent years, Tires Plus is not faced with having to refurbish a lot of older stores.
Ironically, Mr. Gegax credits two of the bigger nemeses of tire dealers today-National Tire Warehouse (NTW) and Tire America-for being industry innovators. ``Our forefathers,'' he calls them, for their more systematic approach to ``redefining'' how tires are sold through unique marketing ideas and customer-friendly showrooms and sales techniques.
``We took a cue from them,'' he said, ``and decided to implement many of their innovative approaches to retailing.''
That means providing more than just customer satisfaction. ``Our goal is enthusiastic guests,'' he said (his emphasis).
Such a goal requires employees willing to meet it. ``The biggest thing we look for in our selection process,'' he explained, ``is people who truly care about people and want to help others.''
The execution of an idea is the biggest challenge-and key to success-for a business, he said. ``The greater the degree of execution, then the greater degree of freedom you give to people. The lesser that is, the more coaching that needs to be done.''
And, he added: ``I don't think people want to be managed-they'd rather be coached.''
His ideal employees?
They ``care about our guests, their fellow teammates, and are a good mix between having the entreprenurial spirit in which they challenge people, yet respect the decision of the team and go with the play that is called.'' (That sports analogy, again.)
The dealership has about 600 employees who share in a compensation program that provides between 45 and 55 percent of company profits in the form of bonuses.
While Mr. Gegax tends to downplay it, Tires Plus tries hard to be a ``good citizen.'' Employees are encouraged-never forced-to give something back to their communities, whenever possible.
Mr. Gegax regularly visits a local nursing home, formerly coached a women's wheelchair basketball team, and spends a lot of time sharing his entrepreneurial message with various organizations, chambers of commerce, clubs and students.
Tires Plus also financially contributes to a home for battered children, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and matches its employees' charitable contributions.
``Conceptually,'' Mr. Gegax said, ``I believe in karmic effect-what you give out, you get back. It's good business. But we don't do it only for that reason.''
The same goes for the company's ``wellness program.''
Tires Plus regularly provides employees with suggestions-not requirements-for diet, exercise and proper sleep to guide them toward better emotional and psychological health. But Mr. Gegax, a non-smoker and a vegetarian, is quick to point out he never forces his lifestyle on others.
``We say, `Do it because you'll live a couple years longer...have greater clarity of mind, higher energy, more capacity to fight stress.' ''
He believes one of the biggest problems a business faces is the emotional and psychological well-being of its workers. ``Most of us come from dysfunctional families, take our unhealthy habits and recreate them in the business environment,'' Mr. Gegax said.
Some people literally have to be trained to be successful, never having tasted success in their lives.
``We virtually have to be part-time psychologists,'' he added, noting some major league baseball teams have even hired psychologists to counsel their players.
Earlier this year, during a talk at a local school, Mr. Gegax was asked how schools can better prepare students for business.
Four areas of growth should be emphasized, he told them: body, mind, psyche and spirit. Unfortunately, education focuses only on the mind and ``does a very poor job with the psyche.''
``Our jobs as coaches or leaders is to deal with all these different areas. We become very monodimensional if we don't....Our purpose on this planet is to learn and teach, teach and learn. I'm simply a conduit for learning.''
Many chief executives or owners, he contended, face failure because they refuse to remain open to any ideas other than their own. The ``major attribute of a good business leader today is to be open to learning, then pass it on.''
Mr. Gegax's contemplative streak may stem in part from receiving five years ago what he terms ``a wake-up call.'' Doctors removed a cancerous lump from his neck. Fortunately, it had not metastasized.
But the incident admittedly ``prompted further personal growth.''
It spurred the realization that unless a company's leader gets healthy, ``very little productivity can take place. You've got to be healthy at the top.''
With that in mind, Mr. Gegax defers any projections about where he or the company may be in the next decade. He harbors no designs on national expansion.
Instead, he cites the Tires Plus mission statement: To provide unexcelled guest service-and be the dominant retailer-in all areas in which it markets. To be the best it can be at what it does.
Which is pretty much Mr. Gegax's personal philosophy.
He describes himself as ``so complex, yet so simple. A mixture of simplistic Eastern philosophy with Western complexity.''
The ``coach'' envisions himself along a path, ``trying to be the best I can be, making mistakes, course corrections, trying to learn and teach where appropriate.
``The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.''