HONOLULU-Trouble in paradise? Not as far as Lex Brodie's Tire Co. is concerned. True, a number of tire dealerships in Hawaii have folded in the last few years due to increasing competition, the high cost of doing business, rising unemployment and a state economy that's several miles south of Eden.
Yet business is very good for the 38-year-old company that has become something of a household name in the Hawaiian islands-due in large part to the long-running, ``personalized'' TV spots done by former owner Lex Brodie.
Name recognition may go a long way. But it's Lex Brodie's distinctive approach to that old standby, customer service, that recently helped land it the prestigious ``Holo I Mua'' small-business award from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Hawaii Inc., for exemplifying ``the highest ethical standards of responsibility in business practices.''
The BBB said Lex Brodie's ``has an enviable testimonial of its efforts in the words of its many customers,'' noting the results of a 1993 consumer poll taken in Hawaii. The question, ``Which business that you trade with provided the best service?'' yielded the response: ``Lex Brodie's Tire Co.''
Other integral factors the BBB considered in presenting the award included truth in advertising and a commitment to customer service excellence.
The firm's employees deserve many of the accolades, according to Darrell Santos, vice president, operations. They undergo regular, extensive training on how to never say ``no'' to customers.
``(Mr. Brodie) has always believed in customer service. Back in the '60s and '70s, he was professing that as the foundation of the company-we need to provide better service than any other company in our market.''
The award may help increase sales-the firm has begun mentioning it in advertisements, flyers and brochures. But more importantly, Mr. Santos said it has affirmed the efforts of Lex Brodie's employees, who work hard to provide a pleasant shopping experience for customers.
``If we fail at any point along the way, the customer will walk away with a negative experience,'' and that, he said, can leave a lasting impression.
Consequently, Lex Brodie's guarantees all services and repairs at its four retail locations. Customers not completely satisfied receive a full refund.
Twice a year, customers receive postcard reminders about free tire balancing and rotation-or for an annual state-mandated vehicle inspection, which the firm will do.
Like other dealerships, the company offers loaner cars and a pick-up and delivery service. But Lex Brodie's recently worked out a deal with a local cab company to trade mechanical services for ``cab coupons,'' redeemable for rides, which the dealership provides free to customers.
Still, he admitted, no matter how hard the firm tries, sometimes things don't quite go right. So, to smooth things over, customers receive complimentary dinner-for-two coupons.
He said John Mayo, owner of Lex Brodie's Tire, often refers to that situation as ``the 1 percent rule: If we have 100 customers a day, 1 percent of them are certified lunatics.''
``We try so hard to be right 100 percent of the time,'' Mr. Santos said, adding, ``If I can't make a problem go away (for them), I'll give them their money back.''
Each customer also receives a ``thanks for your business'' letter that includes a postage-paid response card asking them to rate their last visit to the dealership, and whether they will recommend it to their family and friends.
A confirmed devotee of continual training, Mr. Santos has enlisted the services of consultants who conduct regular training sessions in customer service for employees.
To increase awareness of safety in the workplace, Mr. Santos conducts daily ``bingo'' games, putting $5 into a kitty for every day employees go injury-free.
It's a ``good investment,'' he said. The dealership reduced its paid worker's compensation claims from $90,000 to just $18,000 last year.
Mr. Santos called Lex Brodie's ``the most dominant tire company'' in Honolulu, with a huge 24-bay downtown store and a 16-bay store in Waipahu, 15 minutes away.
Last month, the company opened a store in Kahului, on the island of Maui, that already is giving local competitors fits, he said, doing almost $120,000 in business its first month. And the dealership soon will take over operation of what is now a franchised store in Hilo, on the big island of Hawaii.
Yet life in ``paradise'' isn't easy, Mr. Santos said, where the costs of doing business are ``astronomical.''
And when it comes to deliveries, he said most manufacturers ``won't ship to me until they have a full 40-foot container, which slows us down sometimes by a week or two,.*.*.*forces us to carry more inventory'' and ``to scrutinize tire lines and suppliers more carefully.''
Geography helps dictate what tires customers purchase, he added. In Maui, for instance, residents do a lot of off-road driving, unlike in Honolulu. Consequently, Lex Brodie's sells a great deal of all-terrain light truck tires.
Finding techs to fix islanders' vehicles-that's another matter.
Qualified personnel are hard to find, and often must be solicited from the mainland. The lure of the tropics is strong, but the high cost of living drives many away.
Makes you wonder about that old saying: ``Here today, gone to Maui.''