Hawaii's 'Greatest' Entrepreneur, Lex Brodie, Dies at 98
Lex Brodie, one of Hawaii's “greatest” entrepreneurs and former member of the state Board of Education, died on Friday, January 11. The Kauai native, who founded the popular Lex Brodie Tire Company chain in 1961 and the business advocacy organization, Small Business Association of Hawaii (now known as Smart Business Hawaii), in 1976, was 98.
Brodie had a colorful and diverse history in the islands and was known for everything from his surfing talents and his entrepreneurial skills to his passion for education and his innovation in business and marketing.
In the late 1950s, as manager at the Dole Pineapple Cannery, he fought to stop the company from illegally dumping waste into the ocean. Dole fired him, but the union backed Brodie.
Brodie had a passion for protecting the ocean that stemmed in part from his love of water sports. Brodie surfed his whole life. In 1933, he was one of a group of beloved Waikiki Beach Boys who gave surf lessons and outrigger canoe rides on Waikiki Beach to Hawaii visitors. He partnered with Sam Kahanamoku, the brother of Hawaii’s most famous surfer and Olympic athlete, Duke Kahanamoku, in a beach boy business.
Losing his job at Dole inspired Brodie to become his own boss. In 1958, Brodie opened a Chevron gas station in Kaneohe. Three years later, he formed the Lex Brodie's Tire Company, with the store at 701 Queen Street opened in 1964, and a second store in Waipahu in 1972.
Appealing to the “little guy”, Brodie was a master at branding and advertising and customer service. His friends and business associates said Brodie made his company famous not only with his innovative 15-second television commercials that always ended with “Thank you, very much.” But they note it was his reputation for honesty and integrity, and always being in touch with his customers, which ultimately made him so successful.
Sam Slom, then an economist at the Bank of Hawaii, met Brodie in 1964 when he took his used 1960 Renault Dauphine in for repair at the Lex Brodie's Tire Company on Queen Street. The car, a stick shift, shook violently as it approached or exceeded 40 mph, and would kick out of gear. He took the car to the dealership and several other repair shops, and they suggested different solutions, all that were pricey. Then luckily someone suggested Slom take the car to Lex Brodie.
“Lex got in the car, barely since he was so tall, and after driving it around, told me it was the tire that created the imbalance. He sold me a $10 recycled tire, which completely cured the problem, and we became friends for life. My experience was repeated over and over and over again for other customers,” Slom said.
That may have been the fateful meeting that changed Slom’s life.
Brodie had started Small Business Association of Hawaii (now Smart Business Hawaii or SBH) in 1975, because he saw that big business, big government and big unions all had an abundance of representation but that small business that made up 98 percent of the business community had little representation or financial clout. He sought to change that by bringing business owners together and showing them that if they worked together on common issues, there were strength in numbers.
The organization and Brodie became famous when as their first issue, they took on Hawaii's liberal unemployment compensation law. SBH, all on Brodie’s dime, challenged the law through the courts, taking the case all the way to the state Supreme Court. SBH eventually won a decision that changed the focus on unemployment compensation in Hawaii.
Soon after, Brodie hired Slom away from the Bank of Hawaii, and named him the president and executive director of SBH. Slom, who was elected to the state Senate in 1996, is still head of SBH today. Slom and Brodie formed Paychecks Hawaii, an affiliate of SBH in 1984, to back pro-business candidates for office. Three years ago, Slom founded the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation, a non-profit, that undertakes several educational programs in the community.
“At one point, more than 5,000 businesses looked to Lex Brodie as their leader and hero, but his passion was always for small business to exert leadership in Hawaii and particularly in education. And that is why to this day, Smart Business Hawaii and the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation emphasize the close ties between small business and quality education,” Slom said.
His friends note that the very tall and slender Brodie never changed physically throughout his life. Part of the secret, besides his daily surfing, was his famous love of tuna fish sandwiches, which he ate almost daily.
Slom joked that Brodie was the “consummate recycler,” often using the same stained, chipped Styrofoam coffee for up to 6 months.
“If you look up the word 'frugality' in the dictionary, his picture would be there,” Slom said.
Brodie set a good example for other business owners and always had a handle on his inventory and accounting.
“At any time during the day, Lex could tell you how many tires had been changed, the current inventory, what was being sold, etc. His co-workers originally built an upstairs air-conditioned quiet office for Lex at the 701 Queen Street store, but he rarely stayed there. He preferred instead to sit down on the service floor with all the noise and heat, but with a direct line of sight to both customers and employees,” Slom said.
Brodie did not like and trust computers in the early days, and as a result, kept track of his customers with nearly 100,000 index cards.
He was a tough boss. If his employees called in sick, they’d better have had a doctor’s note.
But he was also good to his employees. Brodie was the first employer of any size in Hawaii to offer his employees a "profit sharing" plan where they invest money, and the company would match it. The idea was historic back in the 1960s.
His adherence to promptness was legendary, not only for employees, but also for anyone who wanted to meet with him. School kids who scheduled interviews for their class projects had better have been prompt or he did not meet with them.
Brodie was a genius at marketing, partly through imagination and partly through frugality.
Brodie perfected the 15-second television commercial when all other television commercials were 30 seconds long. And he was one of the first business owners to appear in his own commercials.
While filming the commercials at KGMB Television on Kapiolani Boulevard, he paid for the studio by the hour so he was all business, recording multiple commercials during the hour in one take, and telling the crew there was no time for chit chat until after his hour was up.
Author Bob Sigall, who profiled Lex Brodie in his book series, Companies We Keep, said most adults in the state are familiar with Brodie’s cave man logo and his "Thank you . . . very much" slogan, but most don’t know where it came from.
“In the 1960s, on a trip to a mainland tire convention, Brodie came across a sign with a caveman making a wheel out of a rock. It's about one by two feet in size,” Sigall said.
Brodie told Sigall: “I had been looking for a good logo and bought him for $25. The arm moved up and down and ran on two D cell batteries.”
The “Thank you, very much” slogan became the company slogan after a chance encounter with a little boy who did not say thank you when he asked Brodie for a “Little Joe” decal, and Brodie reminded him to say thank you.
Brodie told Sigall: “One day a young boy asked if he could have one, and, of course I gave him one. He just stared back at me. ‘What do you say when someone gives you something?’ I asked. His mom elbowed him, but the boy was silent. ‘Say thank you,’ she said. Silence. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘say thank you very much.’”
Brodie felt Oahu residents sometimes lacked basic courtesy, and decided to teach civility by example through his own commercials.
Besides business and surfing, Brodie had many interesting friends. He was a consultant to politicians in Hawaii, including Oahu’s most famous mayor, Frank Fasi.
When Frank Fasi lost the mayoral seat to Eileen Anderson after three terms in office, Fasi sought Brodie’s advice and reassurance in early morning meetings at Brodie’s daily.
Fasi did regain that seat after Anderson’s first term was up, and was mayor of Honolulu for three more terms for a total of 22 years until he resigned in 1994 to run for governor. Brodie and Fasi remained friends all those years.
Fasi’s managing director, Jeremy Harris, became Honolulu mayor after Fasi’s resigned, and Harris went on to be re-elected to two more terms. Harris also consulted with Brodie on a regular basis.
After retiring in 1991 and selling his company, Brodie decided to pursue another passion of his – education. He was elected to the Board of Education handily with more votes than any other member had ever received.
While Brodie was on the board from 1992 to 2003, he visited every public school on every island, and he did so without an appointment so he would get a true picture of what was happening on each campus.
After retiring from the Board of Education, he moved back to Kauai with his wife Evelyn and continued to surf everyday until he was 90.
He returned to Oahu on occasion, including a visit to the Perry & Price Saturday Morning Radio Show on his 95th birthday. His wife Evelyn and children Wendy Pelligrini and Sandy Brodie were with him for the celebration.
Brodie had celebrated many other anniversaries with Perry & Price, including his tire company’s 50th anniversary.
Perry & Price also helped promote awards that Lex Brodie’s Foundation issued to Hawaii’s school children, called the Thank You Very Much Awards, as well as the Above and Beyond Awards to Hawaii’s service men and women.
The business he founded continues to thrive under the leadership of president Scott Williams.
As the Lex Brodie's Tire Company web sites notes, "in 1994, Lex Brodie's received the Holo I Mua Award from the Better Business Bureau, which recognizes outstanding local businesses. By 1998, a Bank of Hawaii survey reported Lex Brodie's Tire as having the best service in Hawaii. And in 2002, Lex Brodie's became the first company in Hawaii to be approved for AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility. AAA is known for having the toughest standards in the industry for customer service. Lex Brodie's has averaged a 99% satisfaction rate."
The company has gone on to have many more successes and awards.
Brodie’s son Sandy, who also lives on Kauai, said his father died peacefully Friday morning after visiting with his family.
His wife Evelyn, children Wendy Pelligrini, Sandy Brodie, Robert Brodie and Janet Teves, seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren, will hold a private memorial for him on Kauai. There will also be a scattering of ashes service at a beach on Oahu.
Brodie’s legacy, friends said, not only lives on through his business, and the Smart Business Hawaii advocacy organization, which has been in existence for 37 years, but also through his foundation.
Those who knew Brodie said he was “one of a kind” and agree Brodie taught many lessons in his life simply through his actions including the importance of integrity, honesty, appreciation and civility, and of course, taking care of the people and world around him.
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