(Midweek.com, Hawaii) Lex Brodie hasn’t been involved with Lex Brodie’s for 20 years, but his larger-than-life image continues to be the driving force behind the business he founded five decades ago.
To the public, Brodie was the plainspoken tire salesman whose matter-of-fact TV commercials made him a person of trust for his customers. To those who worked for him, Brodie was a tough businessman who watched every penny, used his degree in statistics to track the effort of every employee, and had no tolerance for anything less than the best customer service.
Those values served him and the dealership well. On July 31, Lex Brodie’s is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Perhaps no one outside of immediate family has witnessed the two sides of Lex Brodie more than Scott Williams, who began as a "gas boy" 26 years ago and is now company president.
Brodie’s philosophy was simple: The customer must be satisfied. It didn’t matter if that person came in ornery and left somewhat placated, only 100% satisfaction would do.
"I remember one particular case," says Williams. "Lex was railing me about a customer who was upset about something. I was certain that my stance was right. As soon as I tried to defend my stance, Lex just cut me off and ripped into me. I realized there are no excuses. I didn’t do my job because I failed to satisfy the customer. It kind of clicked at that point. It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong, it doesn’t matter if the customer’s perception differs from ours. The fact is he wasn’t happy with the visit, so we failed to do our job."
One of the original Waikiki Beach Boys, the Kauai-born Brodie opened a Kaneohe service station in 1958 and three years later began selling tires out of a one-bay shop next to Whitney’s in Kaneohe.
"It was a Chevron station and they wanted him to sell their brand of tires," says Brodie’s son Sandy. "The tires weren’t particularly good and the margins were lousy. He made better money on the retreads than he did on the new tires. He wanted to sell other tires, but Chevron said no because it violated the franchise agreement. So he opened his own store."
Brodie realized the action was in Honolulu and opened the Queen Street location. It would become headquarters of the company that now has five locations on Oahu with licensees on the Big Island.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Lex became a celebrity and his business a landmark. Jack Lord was a good friend and customer, and the current edition of Hawaii Five-O has found interest in the famous caveman sign and has featured the Queen Street store on the program.
Williams has taken a more modern approach to employee relations but has maintained his former employer’s insistence on satisfying the consumer and for that the company has been rewarded. This year Lex Brodie’s became the first recipient of the International Better Business Bureau’s Excellence in Customer Care Award. The competition was open to any business in the U.S. and Canada regardless of size.
"For a Hawaii business to get the award is huge," says Williams. "The automotive industry is not always thought of as a leading customer service industry. People are skeptical about how they are going to be treated at a lot of facilities, so the fact that someone in the repair business was the first winner in the excellence in customer care award is huge. Lex’s legacy is the foundation and the guiding force that got us there."
Sandy Brodie says by 1991 his father had gotten tired of the business and was in need of a new challenge. He found it after taking a tour of Farrington High School upon the invitation of Sandy’s wife, Lynn, who was a teacher at the school. What he found angered the feisty former salesman.
"He was just appalled at the conditions, and decided he would do something," says Sandy. "He started by talking to some of the legislators about creating a bill for school safety because they were lacking on their inspections. They found some fire exits that were chained shut to keep kids from skipping class."
The bill passed, and based on his success he decided to run for the Board of Education in typical Lex Brodie style: simple and direct.
"He called me up one day and said, ‘I just spent $25 registering for the Board of Education election,’" says Sandy. "He said, ‘I’m not going to spend any more money. I’m just going to wave a sign on Punchbowl.’ And that’s what he did."
Brodie won in a landslide and for eight years toured schools, fought with board members and pushed for changes in Hawaii’s public schools. It was with this example in mind the company created the Lex Brodie Foundation to celebrate Lex’s 90th birthday and began handing out its "Thank You … Very Much Award."
"We wanted something that was going to continue Lex’s legacy forever and ever, beyond the customer service and the tire company, and that’s where the Thank You … Very Much Award came from, because it’s asking children to think of people in their lives and what they have to be thankful for," says Williams.
"We’ve had grown men in uniform bust out in tears when their daughters read their letter to them. It’s hard to get through the letters because when you read them you get the sense of what’s being written about in these letters isn’t often being relayed to the person being spoken to. It really is amazing the power something like that has. But that was Lex’s thing, saying ‘thank you very much’ in his commercials. All they are doing is saying thank you, but the impact you can have from that is enormous."
The success of the Thank You … Very Much Award led to another initiative to say thanks. In 2006, Lex Brodie’s partnered with Salem Media to create the Above and Beyond Award as a way to honor local service members. Since then it has grown to include police and firefighters.
"It’s for anyone who serves in uniform who puts their own interests on the back burner, forgets about themselves and gives back to the community or helps others," says Williams. "It’s another way of saying ‘thank you very much’ and helping get the stories out to hopefully inspire others to become involved in the community."
Lex Brodie’s 50th anniversary party at the Perry & Price show at Jimmy Buffett’s restaurant will include longtime employees and customers, charitable partners, award-winners and others to whom Williams would simply like to say, “Thank you … very much.”