Customer service at the retail level means different things to different business owners. To some, it’s a hook, a way to get people into their stores. In the end, they might as well be crying “Wolf.”
To others, it’s more literal than philosophical. The customer gets served, almost as an afterthought. A service is provided, money changes hands, and the customer may or may not come back.
To successful dealers like Nick Mitsos, CEO and president of Mountain View Tire & Service Inc., customer service is a way of life. Does he really think his customers are always right? Of course not. But to Mitsos, it’s more important they always think they are right. In that way, they leave any one of his 29 stores happier than when they came in.
He calls it the “WOW Experience,” a relentless business practice he has passed on to his three children - and everyone else who works for him. His focus on customer service has resulted in a $45 million operation in Southern California, and earned Mitsos Modern Tire Dealer’s 2011 Tire Dealer of the Year award.
Where ‘WOW’ Comes From
“We got a call from a senior citizen who couldn’t start her car. She was a widow, and her two sons lived out of town. She had nobody to call, and remembered us from coming here a couple times. Cat (Service Manager Catarino Jimenez) and I grabbed the jumper cables and drove two miles to her house. The jumper cables didn’t work, but Cat rewired the car, got it started and drove it down here. It needed a new battery, and we replaced it and drove it back to her. She was impressed and very appreciative.” - Henry Montes, store manager, Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
Nick Mitsos, 68, can’t pinpoint when he came up with the slogan the “WOW Experience.” There was no “Aha!” moment.
“It was more of a feeling I wanted people to experience than an idea,” he says. “Whether you are speaking of food or a movie or services and people are thrilled or excited about whatever they are engaged in at the time, their instinctual verbal expression is typically ‘Wow!’ That is the same feeling I wanted to create with them as they were getting their vehicles serviced at Mountain View Tire.
“The automotive industry has always had a dark cloud hovering over it in terms of consumer trust. I thought how simple it would be to give someone the WOW Experience knowing consumer expectations were so low. We have since raised that bar tremendously, and now we compete with ourselves in trying to continuously give that WOW Experience, as Mountain View Tire customers have grown accustomed to exceptional service.”
“We do it every day,” says Paul Mitsos, 39, a vice president and district manager for the company and the youngest of Nick’s three sons. “So it’s nothing out of the ordinary. It’s second nature. It’s the culture of our company.”
“Managers and salespeople have full empowerment in customer satisfaction issues,” says Mike Mitsos, 43, also a vice president and the middle son. “Their responsibility is to take care of the customer and create the WOW Experience. I don’t want them to be bogged down administratively.”
How do you create the WOW Experience? How do you create “raving fans,” as the company likes to call its customers? Nick has been able to generalize a step-by-step approach, although the list of requisites is always open to fine-tuning.
- Make assertions, declarations and promises.
- Be flexible, accommodating and easy to do business with.
- Give the customer the benefit of the doubt.
- Be thick-skinned and don’t take it personally.
- Always smile.
- Open early, close late.
- Get it done right now, with a sense of urgency.
- Fix the car right the first time, on time.
- Deliver consistent service and pricing.
- Uphold our image standards.
“We want the store to be inviting,” says Chris Mitsos, a vice president and, at 46, the eldest of Nick’s sons. “We want it to be clean and the bathrooms to be clean. We want the associates to be sharply dressed and clean shaven. Our service bays have to be neat and organized. We want the person coming in the front door to say, ‘If they take care of their store, they are going to take care of me.’”
Chris was new to the company when the deadly Northridge Earthquake hit the San Fernando Valley region of Southern California on January 17, 1994. The 6.9 magnitude quake occurred at 4:31 a.m., killing 57 people. Nick managed to get through to Chris and others before the land lines were damaged. There were three Mountain View Tire stores in the area. “Get to the Granada Hills store immediately,” he told Chris. “And if you can, open it.” The same message was relayed to store managers in nearby Tarzana and Duarte.
Fortunately, the stores were relatively undamaged, although there was no electricity for part of the first day. “We were the only businesses that opened in the northern part of the area,” says Chris. “We did everything by hand until the power came on.”
The stores did not close for days following the disaster, according to Chris. “For the first two weeks, it seemed like all we did was flat repairs.”
Perhaps “Provide for your community in times of dire need” should be added to the WOW Experience’s “how-to” list.
From Dishwasher to Business Owner
”I have a little Lexus SC430 that is my absolute pride and joy. Shortly after my last set of run-flat tires, my low air tire sensor light began showing that my tires needed more air. I went to my local Mountain View Tire, and they checked it and reset it, but it happened again just a short time later. It kept happening, and they patiently kept checking, rechecking and resetting it. Finally, after thinking that possibly my sensor was defective, I took it to Lexus; they found that it was cracked — possibly during a tire or rim change. I replaced it, but went back to Mountain View Tire to tell them what had happened. Without hesitation, they copied my Lexus invoice, sent it to corporate, and within a couple of weeks, I received a check for the amount that I had spent to replace the sensor. That, my friends, is incredible customer service.” - Bonnie M., Orange, CA.
“My parents taught me my work ethic,” says Nick. “I learned nothing comes easy. If you want to get ahead you have to work hard, you have to work smart, and any mistakes you make, learn by them.
“Making mistakes is not a problem as long as you don’t repeat them.”
Mitsos was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1943. His parents, Chris and Pauline Mitsos, were first-generation immigrants from Greece.
“My dad was in the food business. He started out as a dishwasher, and then learned the food business trade, first as a cook. Then the war broke out. He worked in steel mills (in Youngstown) during the war effort.”
Following World War II, Nick’s father moved the family to the Bronx in New York City, N.Y. With his own father and two older brothers, he opened up a coffee shop, the Express Restaurant.
“They operated that for many, many years,” says Nick. “The Express Restaurant was a truck stop. It used to be the hot spot to go eat.”
Nick followed very closely in his father’s footsteps. “When I was 13 years old, I helped wash dishes during the summertime. And then I learned the trade. I graduated from high school and cooked in that restaurant. Then I went into the service in 1962.”
The teenage paratrooper and his 82nd Airborne Division mates found themselves on the edge of history in October of that year, when the Cuban Missile Crisis almost turned into war.
“(Soviet Union Premier Nikita) Khrushchev was there with the missiles. He backed off and then we backed off, but we were all issued ammo. We were at the (Fort Bragg) airport in Fayetteville, N.C. We were ready to get on planes and drop into Cuba. We were so gung ho. We were looking for a fight.”
Two years later, with United States involvement in the Vietnam War escalating, he decided not to re-enlist. Six months after that he married Irene Papajohn.
“I wanted to get married,” he says. “I was 16 years old and she was 14 when I met her at a church group at the Greek Orthodox Church in Brooklyn. I fell in love with her at first sight.” The couple recently celebrated their 47th anniversary.
He returned to the family business, but after a few years, wanted to go out on his own. He always had options. A high school All-American baseball player at Fort Hamilton High School, he could run, throw, field, hit for average and hit for power. The New York Yankees scouted the 5-11, 185-pound center fielder while he played semi-pro ball in the Bronx.
“I was supposed to try out at Yankee Stadium,” he says. But he felt owning his own business was the best, more sure way of providing for his growing family.
“I really wanted to get out of the food business and get into the automotive business with a buddy of mine because I always liked cars and tinkering. I used to do tune-ups for people because I had a knack for it.” That included his car, a 1960 Pontiac with tripower. (“My wife hated that car,” he laughs.)
His dad said no. “I respected that,” he says, “so I said, ‘OK, I’ll stay in the food business with you.”
Years later, after he started Mountain View Tire, Nick made sure each of his sons had the opportunity to do what they wanted in life. They were welcome to join the business, but only if they asked.
Change of Plans at Age 40
"A man brought his Honda Civic into the store with a water leak. We found that the leak was in the engine block. We did some research and found it was still under warranty - an eight-year, unlimited mileage warranty. We made an appointment with the car dealership, and a courtesy car was waiting for him when he got there. The dealership replaced the engine block for free.” - Tony Fore, store manager, Corona, CA.
After more than 30 years, Nick’s father, who was by then the sole owner, sold the business, and the new owners took Nick in as a partner. “That lasted for a couple years, and then I decided to go out on my own.”
He opened up a delicatessen in Holbrook, Long Island, in 1969. “And it was very successful,” says Nick, “except when the town decided they wanted to build a new highway that bypassed the town itself. Then it became a struggle. “I had to go out and find ways of revenue for the sandwich shop. So I would visit large industries with 150 or more people and I would solicit them for sandwiches. I hired girls to take the orders, I would make the sandwiches, and the girls would deliver them. That’s how we got by what the town had done.
“As I was doing this I would see that all the industries had vending machines in them. So I said, ‘Wow, why can’t I do that?’ So I got into the vending machine business as well.”
His deli business wasn’t growing fast enough for Nick, whose goal of being a millionaire at 35 had come and gone.
“We were making it happen, but I was still not happy because I was spinning my wheels. We were doing all the right things, but I just wanted something else.”
He almost moved the family to Houston, Texas, on the suggestion of a Boar’s Head cold cuts distributor. “He saw the way I worked, and he was impressed by that. He said, ‘Why don’t you consider opening up a New York-style deli in Houston? In the meantime, I have contacts with supermarkets down there, and I can get you a job running their deli departments while you’re looking for your place.”
Nick was thrilled, Irene less so. “That was not a happy time,” he says. “She had lived in New York her whole life. She always supported me, but it was the unknown and we had three kids. But I felt I had to do something, drive to get ahead, and that’s what I thought I had to do to hit it big.
“So I jumped in my Plymouth Arrow pickup and told Irene to sell the house. I was in Chattanooga, Tenn., when I called her. She told me Dick Johnston, who was our neighbor and a store manager for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. at the time, said he would get me a job so I could learn the trade and eventually open up my own (tire) business. ‘You don’t have to go down there for all the wrong reasons,’ she said.”
Nick turned around and came home. The next day, at 40 years of age, he interviewed with Goodyear’s zone manager, and was hired as a salesman at $6.50 an hour. “I was able to do that because I still had the vending machine business going,” he says. “Everybody thought I was nuts.
“My plan was to work with them for a year and learn the business on a corporate level, because everything I knew about business was from a mom-and-pop environment.”
That one year turned into five years.
“We ran over a particularly nasty strip of some material which had two long, sharp, closely spaced nails in an unfortunately vertical position. The nails punctured the tire, partially deflating it. After having AAA replace the damaged tire with the ‘donut’ spare, we contacted Robert Lee at Mountain View Tire in Palm Desert early Sunday concerning a new Michelin, which he ordered online, to be delivered on Monday. However, the wrong tire was delivered, so he reordered it for Tuesday morning delivery. We had visiting guests, and had only one day to take them on a pre-planned trip. Mr. Lee was very sympathetic to our problem, and loaned us a full-size tire for that trip. On Tuesday morning, our new tire was installed immediately, and we were on our way back to San Diego in time for our guests to catch their plane home. Service at all times was ‘over and above.’” - Peggy and Douglas D., Palm Desert, CA.
Nick admits he had a lot to learn when he joined Goodyear, which is part of the reason he stayed on for five years.
“I had never sold for a living. So I had to understand the art of selling, and also the accounting end of things. Learning all about marketing yourself, what did and didn’t work, that was big, too. My parents never advertised.
“There was a big learning curve. I came from a mom-and-pop type of environment working in the family restaurant. I wanted a more formal way of doing business.”
But he understood the key to success. “I knew back then that the customer base was so important. In the restaurant business, you make one mistake on a dish and you’ve lost the customer forever. If you are served something you don’t like, you don’t come back.
“The restaurant business is more critical than the tire and service business when it comes to taking care of customers. So I already had that philosophy. I already knew the importance of taking care of the customer: making sure things are done right the first time, communicating with the customer. If you’re selling people something, they need to know why it is that they have to buy it. You have to explain yourself. And you have to give them a fair price.”
That doesn’t mean the lowest price. “We don’t have the lowest price,” says Nick. “We have the warranties, we have ASE-certified technicians, we have a place that’s not going to go away tomorrow. It will always be there. You can’t do it for free. You can’t, even though sometimes we do.”
“Our father taught us that if you are offering up your service, don’t devalue it by discounting,” says Mike. “Basically, it shouldn’t matter what it costs to do business with Mountain View. We want to make price irrelevant.”
The money was good at Goodyear. Nick became a store manager 1 1/2 years after his hiring, and shortly after that he was put in charge of an “A” store. “At the time, there were no caps on bonuses. You could earn whatever you earned, and I was a very successful store manager.
“I considered myself a good leader because I always led by example. If there was a task to be done, I did it first, and then asked those who worked for me to follow through with it. And I was a good motivator.”
After five years, he decided it was time to put his leadership skills to use in his own store. He couldn’t open up on Long Island because it was protected by the Goodyear company stores. “I had a sister in California, so I went out there to see what California was all about. I stayed for a couple of weeks, sniffed around, and found the place I wanted to move to. I told my wife to put the house back up for sale, and the next day we sold it.”
With Chris and Mike on their own, Nick, Irene and Paul moved to California. They were joined by her sister, Maddie, and her husband, Tony, both of whom work at Mountain View Tire. Another of Nick’s sisters, also named Irene, moved to California shortly thereafter; she, too, works at the company.
“Once the move was made, I interviewed with the Goodyear region manager at the time, and told him that my intentions were to own my own store,” he says. “Goodyear really helped me out, and opened up the door to the West Coast for me.”
He soon was offered a new store being built in Duarte, and he bought it. “I wanted to show Irene the location. She and I stood in the parking lot. We looked around and saw the mountains, and that’s how we got the name Mountain View Tire & Service.”
”A family of five from Long Beach was taking their first camping trip and suffered a blowout on the highway. We had closed and were cleaning up, but Jimmy (Service Manager Jimmy Tinajero) was still here. He sold them a new tire, mounted and balanced it, and sent them on their way. After they returned, they sent him a $25 gift certificate to Chick-fil-A.” - John Meza, store manager, Upland, CA.
Nick’s sons, Chris, Mike and Paul, run the stores on a day-to-day basis, allowing their father to run the Mountain View drag racing team. “But I still follow the money - everything coming in and going out,” says Nick.
In December of 1987, however, he was running his own store for the first time. “For two years I was the cook, bottle washer, janitor, everything. I opened and closed. I did anything I had to.” His original goal was six stores, two for each son. “I assumed they would want to get into the business, so I figured I would need at least six stores for them and me.” Over time, they each asked to come on board.
“I knew that in order to be a success in the business, you had to learn from the bottom up. And not just for a short time. I had thought that after a year with Goodyear, I would be ready in the automotive business. But I knew I wasn’t ready after a year. I wasn’t confident enough to go out there and say I could handle all the challenges under any circumstances.”
Each of his children had to serve a lengthy apprenticeship. Paul and Mike busted tires for a short time. Chris, who graduated from Cornell University and worked in the corporate world for a few years, joined the company as a retail salesman.
“Chris will tell you that he asked to join the company when we had, I don’t know, four stores. I said, ‘Chris, you are working for a ‘Fortune 500’ company right now. If you want to work for me, you’re going to take less money home than what you are now, there are no set hours and you’ll be working six days a week. Is that what you want to do? Are you sure you want to give all that up?’ And he said yes. So I said, ‘OK, you’re starting from the bottom.’”
Every Saturday, Nick used to bring his three sons into the office for a couple of hours and give them additional business training based on his own experiences. He’d tell them why he did things the way he did, or help them understand the rationale behind his decisions.
He once sent Chris and Mike to the Center for Creative Leadership for a week because he thought it would help take them, and the company, to the next level. “I thought that would round them out and get them involved with other people. There were CEOs and generals there. It was a leadership course.
“I went to high school, that’s it. I don’t have a college education, not that that’s bad or otherwise. But I understand the value of an education. It gives you the ability to comprehend and think on your own, hopefully. And that’s what I wanted to give these kids, give them all the tools necessary to bring us to the next level.”
At 68 years old, Nick oversees the operation. “When I’m home, I come in every day. If I’m not happy with a situation, then I open my mouth and we’ll try to make things happen in other ways, because sometimes the boys are entrenched in the day-to-day business, and I can see a little bit more than they do.”
“We don’t have to be told what to do,” says Chris, who handles the marketing, advertising, purchasing and pricing duties and, with Mike, spearheads the finding and developing of new store location sites. He also maintains the key supplier relationships with Goodyear, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., NAPA Auto Parts “plus a myriad of others.”
“We wear so many hats,” says Mike, who is in charge of personnel and hosts all the orientations. “We’re like a sturdy table. Chris is a leg, Paul is a leg, I am a leg and dad is a leg. It’s a strong foundation. But each leg has different strengths and different personalities.”
“Our responsibilities can overlap at any time,” says Paul, who oversees eight stores as one of four district managers (the others are Tim Squires, Eddie Reyes and David Miller, each of whom is responsible for seven stores).
The Mitsos brothers believe their mutual respect for each other will lead to a smooth transition if and when their father decides to retire. Less than one out of three family businesses survive into the second generation; they are sure Mountain View Tire will beat those odds because they were instilled with their father’s values, and treat his business priorities as gospel. “I think someone will be in charge, and we will discuss that when it is appropriate,” says Chris. “But we will treat each other equally.
For now, Nick says any of the boys can make a “final” decision. “If they want me to be a part of it, they will talk to me. If they think it’s a real big decision, they’ll ask.”
“My 18-year-old daughter was going to take our boat to Castaic Lake (just south of Santa Clarita) to go waterskiing with her girlfriends. After hooking up the boat, I noticed the tires were low on the boat trailer, so I took it over to the Granada Hills store. While air was being put in the tires, Kyle (Retail Sales Manager Kyle Schulte) noticed that the nuts that went on the U-bolts to hold the axle to the springs were missing! I had a flash of the trailer coming apart on the freeway, and the entire carload of girls killed in an accident that could have been prevented. Kyle took the time to repair the trailer, right then and there, while I waited. Hence, the girls had a good trip. The moral of the story is, Mountain View Tire had prevented a tragedy from happening.” - Jim D., Granada Hills, CA.
There’s a reason Mountain View Tire promotes itself as the “Home of the WOW Experience” in Southern California. It’s good for the customer. It’s good for the company. And it’s good for the Mitsos family. Soon, there will be a new “home” of the WOW Experience.
Nick has been told he will be able to move into his new headquarters within the next few months. The 27,000-square-foot facility is located on two acres within a stone’s throw of the building - Suite 202 specifically - that Mountain View Tire’s executive staff has occupied for close to 15 years.
“I’ve always been able to see down the road,” he says. “I told Chris, Michael and Paul 10 years ago that eventually we would need a warehouse. I don’t know why I have that ability, but I do.” The headquarters will house not only Mountain View Tire and Mountain View Racing, but also a race car fabrication and engine building business. In order to supply its retail chain, the facility will keep between 5,000 and 10,000 tires in inventory. (“We’re not a wholesaler,” says Chris.)
Nick Mitsos is very familiar with the proverbial fork in the road. If, as a young, five-tool player out of the Bronx, he tries out at Yankee Stadium, he might be a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer instead of Tire Dealer of the Year. If Nick doesn’t listen to his wife while driving through Chattanooga, the Mitsos family might be running 29 delicatessens in metropolitan Houston.
If Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy don’t make nice back in 1962, Nick parachutes into Cuba and all bets are off regarding the future.
When the decision was in his hands, Nick chose wisely. He still does.