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Key Idea: Choose Words Carefully

Everything about Tom Gegax is about expectations: from white shirts and sneakers to language that communicates and inspires.

Key Question:


Leaders use metaphor and in this case Tom uses sports and it works.

This may work just as well with women today because those entering the workforce have played team sports. Also, women have fathers, brother, husbands or boyfriends who may live, eat, breathe and sleep sports so it probably isn't bad to use the language of sports inside any organization today. A workforce training guru, Michael Vance used to say, "If you cut open the brain of an American male, balls bounce out."

Why did Tom decide to call himself the headcoach rather than the CEO of Tires Plus?

  He observed professional and college basketball coaches and he liked the way they gave constant feedback to the players. Then he concluded that the players actually wanted the feedback. He also knew from his experience at trying to lead people that they are quick to reject management. Tom even said, "People don't want to be managed." By calling himself the headcoach and by naming his assistants coaches rather than managers, Tom took strong steps to clearly define the operational culture of his company. He was right to realize that when you call someone a manager then ask them to coach your language is creating a barrier to success.

Call a spade a spade. Why use an old word that for many is fraught with negative memories or potential fears?

Tom uses the sports metaphor to educate and lead team members. What metaphor does he use when talking about customers?

He actually steals from Disney's playbook (get it?) and calls customers, guests. The whole idea is that a customer at Tires Plus is a guest. The customer enters the Tires Plus store to purchase tires and to have those tires put on her car. She waits and while there, Tom wants the customer to be treated as you would treat an honored guest who has come to your home. You may feel you can teach your employees to intuit that a customer is a guest. Fine. But Tom didn't want to leave anything to chance. Also, his team was developed from young men. They had not had a lot of work experience before they joined Tires Plus and if they did, Tom believed that the Tires Plus way of doing things was superior to other retailers.

Tom took a strong stand and it worked. He truly believes that words matter.

Think about it

What words do you use now that may carry the wrong implication? What discussion should you have with the people who work for you about language? What are you willing to do about the use of language inside your business?

Clip from: Tires Plus with Tom Gegax and Don Gullet

Minneapolis: In 1978, Tom Gegax and his partner Don Gullet, bought a few gas stations and opened for business. By 1998, they had 150 tire stores with 2,000 employees generating $200 million in annual sales.

That's a good story unto itself, however, in this episode of the show, we learn from a master entrepreneur about the meaning and value of life. Tom Gegax is pulling and pushing us up the ladder. When they sold this business, he became an author. His third book, The Big Book About Small Business  builds on his first two,  By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Survival Guide, and Winning in the Game of Life.

The first editorial title for Tom's book was The Enlightened Executive. And with all these self-help books and continuous improvement cycles within our lives, enlightenment is actually breaking out all over.

Tom Gegax was a founder, the Head Coach, as well as Chairman and CEO.  In 1999 they were being courted for acquisition.  In 2000 Bridgestone/Firestone sealed the deal to buy 100% of the company.

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Gegax Management & Tires Plus

Tom Gegax, founder

Gegax Management Systems
PO Box 16323
Minneapolis, MN 55416

Visit our web site:

Office: 612-920-5114

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Choose Words Carefully

TOM: (addressing his teammates) We're looking for people that care about others. We're looking for people that truly want to help others. Some of you heard me say earlier that many people say when they come to work for a company, they say, "Well let's see, what do you want to do?" The answer, 'I want to work with people.'

And after they work with people for X amount of time, they say, 'Oh my God, these people.'

Well, you know, that's not what we're about. We're looking for people who want to serve people. Really, really want to help people, not, "Let's see how much can I make off of you." But, "How can I serve you? How can I help you?"

And when that occurs, good things happen. It's a karmic effect ... what you give, it comes back. But don't do it because it comes back. Do it because it's right universally.

DON: It's more of a giving individual that's willing to sit back and explain things to people and realize that they need to serve. You know, they need to serve someone's needs and so many times people will jump at conclusions or they'll snap back at people and that's easy to determine in interviews. So.

HATTIE: So almost a pacing thing.

DON: Yes.

HATTIE: For example if I finish your sentence for you. I'll do that to a customer and you don't want me to do that to a customer.

DON: Exactly. You want them to understand, to be patient with them, to understand what their needs are and then serve those needs. And in a really sincere manner. By recruiting people like that up front -- and you can't educate people on that -- they have to have that desire up front. You know, their parents have taught that need.

HATTIE: So you hire people who had good parents.

DON: I think that's it.

HATTIE: At what point did you say to yourself, I'm not going to call myself the owner, the founder, the president, I'm going to call myself coach?

TOM: Yeah, I saw NBA coaches on the sideline, college basketball coaches, and I said, 'You know what, I like the way they're giving constant feedback.' So I said, 'People really don't want to be managed.' Do you want to be managed, Hattie?

HATTIE: No. I don't want you to tell me what to do.

TOM: But, would you like an acting coach? Would you mind a tennis coach?

HATTIE: I would love a coach.

TOM: People say, 'Oh that's kind of, just trickery language.' No, it's just verbalizing what our expectation is of our people.


TOM: If we're calling them manager everyday then they're going to manage. If we call them coaches every day, then that coach gets into their thinking about what we want them doing as coaching.

HATTIE: People love to play games. People love to play sports.

TOM: Yeah, that's true. Yeah.

HATTIE: So, if I come to work …

TOM: Play my work, yes.

HATTIE: … and I'm coached, then it's like I'm playing.

TOM: Yeah, I like that. Yeah, playing.

HATTIE: This is great. And oh by the way, I get to make some money, too.

TOM: You're exactly right. I want to tell you one story on the coach thing. I heard Lee Iacocca speak at an EFI, Executive Focus International Conference in Florida. And afterwards I went up, talked to him briefly, and I said, 'Yeah, I'd like to hear more about that.' He says, 'Well I have the company that does this, I'd like to get in contact with you.' I said, 'Well here's my card.'

He looked at my card, it said head coach, and he says, 'What's wrong boy, don't you want to be a CEO?'

I said, 'No, I want to be a head coach.' He definitely disapproved.

HATTIE: Not everybody sees it the way you see it.

TOM: That's okay. It's okay that they're different. But, I just think that coaching is more of what people are looking for. This old school hierarchical top down, I don't think works.

HATTIE: It doesn't work.

TOM: I think it's more like an accordion.

HATTIE: So we find him in his white shirt which is required dressing for everyone who works at a Tires Plus, in his lovely suit and tennis shoes. This is the foot of the coach of Tires Plus. Do you take these in for retreading?

TOM: No. No I don't, no I don't.

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