Some entrepreneurs love to launch businesses, but they lack interest in managing growing enterprises. Tom Gegax made the successful transition from startup bootstrapper to business builder. Gegax, 67, co-founded Tires Plus, a chain of U.S. tire stores. Based in Minneapolis, Minn., and La Jolla, Calif., he’s also co-author of The Big Book of Small Business.
EL: You spent 24 years as CEO of Tires Plus. But you liked to refer to yourself as “head coach” rather than CEO. Why?
Gegax: “Chief executive officer” sounds very important. “Coach” sounds nice but not as sexy as CEO. To me, you manage things. You coach people. I’ve always been into sports. We liked to use sports analogies [at Tires Plus]. We called our loss prevention office “the penalty box.” I’d say, “Huddle up,” if things weren’t going smoothly. People felt more comfortable with these sports analogies.
EL: To grow from one store to 150 stores requires recruiting driven employees. How did you pick winners?
Gegax: You need team players. You can make some changes in people but you cannot make major changes if they don’t have a team attitude.
EL: In a job interview, how can you spot a team player?
Gegax: You try different things. We had a list of interview questions like, “What makes you happy?”, “What makes you sad?” and “What makes you mad?” Most job candidates aren’t prepared for those questions. When they’d answer, we’d funnel down further with follow-up questions. We also used roleplays. We’d set up scenarios and see how they’d react. If we were interviewing for a sales job, we’d have them sell us something. If we were interviewing for a manager job, we’d pretend to be an employee and have them manage us.
EL: You built a company from scratch to $200 million in annual revenue. Wasn’t that incredibly stressful?
Gegax: I was 29 when I started the company. I experienced stress when we were at $3 million and $10 million and $30 million and $70 million up to $200 million. Every time I experienced stress, the Peter Principle set in. I knew I needed to learn more at every juncture.
EL: Were you ready to become an entrepreneur at age 29?
Gegax: I only had two jobs before that. I worked for Ford Motor Co. for six months as a janitor while I was in college. And I worked at Shell Oil Co. after college in human resources and sales. There were enough experiences that led me to conclude I couldn’t work for other people. There were ways they treated me that weren’t positive.
EL: Can you give examples?
Gegax: They didn’t reward you if you did better work. And they didn’t share profit-and-loss with you. I knew from those experiences that I had to make it on my own through hard work and incredible focus.
EL: Did those lessons affect how you treated Tires Plus employees?
Gegax: I always said I’d bring the best lessons over to Tires Plus. But I swore I’d never bring over the negative things. We were one of the first companies to have a full-time wellness coach. We invested in everyone’s well being.