Interview With “Mr. Corvette” Mike Yager
Throughout the late 80’s and the ‘90s, the automobile industry was buzzing about Dr. Deming’s management principals that took the Japanese auto industry from zero to hero. In the late ‘90s after some time passed and the total quality management philosophy began to show some fissures between theory and practical application, the American aftermarket automotive industry began to sense that there were leaders within their own ranks that could carry the torch as experts in the field. One of those leaders that emerged from the pack was a self made expert in America’s Sports Car, the Corvette. Mike Yager’s enthusiasm and energy about the domestic two seater earned him the nick-name, “Mr. Corvette.”
From very humble beginnings, Yager went from being a tool and die maker in Southern Illinois to a world wide recognized authority in the Corvette brand. This evolution started when Yager borrowed $500 and began selling car manuals out of the trunk of a borrowed car.
Selling manuals and accessories at weekend swap meets and Corvette specialty shows, Yager grew up with “Vette fever” and a passion to help people that shared his passion for the iconic brand.
Pedigree and Accolades
Yager is also the Author of Mike Yager’s Corvette Bible, a go-to resource for every type of Vette owner. Packed with expert advice that is as valuable to a novice or first time Corvette buyer as it is to the seasoned Corvette owner, Yager is recognized as one of the predominant authorities on Corvette history and information.
In addition to becoming an authority on Corvettes and a published author, Yager was also the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Corvette Museum in 2002 and 2003, earned placement on the Eastern Illinois University’s Business Advisory Board and is a member on the Foundation Board of Greenville College.
We wanted to find out what made Mike Yager passionate enough to go from a broke tool and die maker to a very successful businessman with Mid America Motorworks and a recognized Corvette expert. Along the way, we found out what makes Yager tick, and how far ahead in the game of life he is. Forget about Deming’s principals of management; we extracted Yager’s principals of life management during our interview, and they are tailor-made for Corvette fanatics.
Corvette Online: You’ve never changed course from being passionate about Corvettes. Why Corvettes?
Mike Yager: “I grew up with six older brothers that were all into cars. As a nine or ten year old boy I was exposed to car restoration and vehicles being chopped and channeled and different things being put in them. One of my brothers bought a 1960 Corvette, and at that age I really liked cars, and I was at the age where I was starting to think about cars, being cool and girls. This Corvette was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and it imprinted me with the idea that someday I would own a Corvette.”
“I liked the styling, I liked the freedom… and it’s a sports car! Top down and winding up in first, the wind blowing in your hair.”
CO: About that same time, there was a flood of British sports cars on the market. If your brother had bought an Austin-Healy instead of a Vette, would you have had that same passion for the Healy?
Yager: “If that was what imprinted me… yeah. When I was sixteen, I didn’t have a car. I didn’t own a car until I was out of high school. At sixteen I was spending my summer with an older brother in Florida and he gave me a TR-3 to drive. I loved the car, but I wasn’t passionate about it because I had already been bitten by the Corvette bug. The first car that I got to claim as my own for three months out of the year was a TR-3, and we lived on the beach so I was pretty cool, but I still lusted after a Corvette.”
“Whatever cause the Corvette to imprint on me, American muscle, styling, sports car, whatever it was, left a lasting impression. I own other sports cars but I can tell a difference. The Corvette I can drive hard and the car is going to be ok. I can take my Ferrari and if I treat it like I do my Grand Sport, really hammer through the gears and the question in my mind is; “If I mis-shift or over-rev it, how much is it going to cost me?” I don’t worry about that with the Corvette. These cars are rock solid, bullet-proof and if I do something wrong it’s probably not going to hurt the car.”
CO: It sounds like there is something 100 percent American in what you are saying and your philosophy. How true is that?
Yager: “We are based out of and live in the middle of America. You can go to L.A. and the predominant number of cars are import and even the society is import. Here in the mid-west we still have corn fields and Chevrolets. Life is about attitudes. My attitude is about vehicles and I love Corvettes. People look at our business and say, ‘Well jeez, you sell Volkswagen stuff. Those cars are two different cars.’ Yeah.. well, tell me they are. What do you do with a Corvette? Some guys drag race them, someone else road races it, another guy customizes it, someone else hops it up and another guy restores it. The sixth guy may keep them original. Now, go to the Volkswagen owners and ask them what they do with their car. One guys drag races it, another guy road races it, some other guy customizes it, some restore them…”
“People that are passionate about vehicles display their passion in vehicles in the same manner regardless of what brand it is. Mustang people, they drag race them, they road race them, they customize them they restore them and they keep them original.”
“They’re iconic brands, and I think that Harley-Davidson, Jeep and Corvette are iconic American brands, and compare them to the Volkswagen, which I think is an American iconic brand even though it’s not made in America. If you took 500 people in the 50 to 70 year old range and ask them how many owned a Beetle, I think you would be blown away by the number of yes responses. They made 29 million of them over a 30 year period of time that were shipped to the U.S. You can pretty well guess that 29 million vehicles over a 30 year period, a boatload of people owned them.”
CO: How much do you think that quality has to do with these vehicles becoming iconic American brands?
Yager: “Well, I think that the 1950’s Volkswagen Beetle was was of the highest quality vehicles ever built. They were simple and met demanding standards at an unbelievably inexpensive price.”
CO: How does that compare with the early Corvettes?
Yager: “You know what? We forgave a lot of the iniquities of the early Corvettes because they were a sports car, they were America’s Sports Car and they looked really cool. They were definitely unique.”
CO: Correct us if we are wrong, but didn’t Kaiser try to beat the Corvette to the market with a two seater sports car for the title of the first American Sports Car?
Yager: “Yep, the Kaiser Darrin, but it just didn’t have the gravitation that the Corvette had. I was just talking with a guy the other day that had bought a 1953 Corvette new. I asked him to tell me, in 1953, how outlandish was the Vette when the other vehicles on the road looked like dinosaurs? I mean, this would be like driving a rocket ship among horses and buggies. We look at a first generation Corvette today, and you may or may not like the body style. You may or may not like the car at all. The minute that you go back and take a look at what it’s peer vehicles looked like… and then you have this sleek, fiberglass, two seat sports car, it had to make you feel like you were in a time warp. If you saw the car in 1953, you would have to have been thinking, ‘Wow, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”
CO: You list your title as “Chief Cheerleader” on your business cards and your company’s website. What is a “Chief Cheerleader” and What do they do?
Yager: “Well, that’s a really easy one. What does the president of a company do? Just looking at the title ‘president’, everyone has an idea what a president does so they would never ask what the president of a company does. If you see that I have a title ‘Chief Cheerleader’, do you think that people would ever ask me what that means?”
CO: Sure! We just did.
Yager: “So, you asked me and now you’ve engaged me in a conversation. Doesn’t the title ‘Chief Cheerleader’ give you the idea that I might be approachable? That maybe I believe in leadership. Do you think that it might tell you that I have a sense of humor? Do you think that it might tell you that I don’t take myself too seriously?”
“If my title said ‘president’, do you think that it would give you any clue to me? Would you ask me what a president does? No, because everybody already knows that presidents do president stuff. But if you put a title out there like ‘Chief Cheerleader’, it forces people to ask you a question. I’ve had people ask me “Do you wear a skirt or shake pom-poms?” I answer them by saying that I like to lead people. A company has a ‘chief financial officer’ and a ‘chief operational officer’, so a title like ‘Chief Cheerleader’ gives them an idea that I must be some type of leader. I’d much rather be a leader than a president.”
“Those are the thought processes behind why I choose to be a ‘Chief Cheerleader’. Anyone that gets an email from me will know that I sign it with ‘hugs’. If you sign your correspondence ‘sincerely’ or ‘regards’, it doesn’t say anything because everyone signs their correspondence that way. By signing with ‘hugs’, it gives them a clue that I am a people person.”
“If you were to look at those two things together, you might look at it as a clearer, quicker, viewpoint of who Mike Yager is than if I was president and signed it ‘best regards’. Best regards is a cold statement. Nobody reads a closing statement of best regards and puts any value into it. If you get something from me and it says ‘hugs’, it stops you for a minute. 99.9% of the people in the world relate to what a hug is. Even if they don’t like it, they can relate to it. ‘Best regards’ is disregarded by most people.”
CO: You started Mid America Motorworks on a borrowed dime and you worked your butt off to make it a success. There had to be some struggles along the way. What were those struggles?
Yager: “There’s still struggles today! Anytime you run a business you’re going to encounter struggles daily. I learned a long time ago that when you run a business, regardless of how many zeros follow the first number in sales, the bigger the number doesn’t mean the easier it gets. There’s no secret formula that says, ‘I’ve hit this number and now I have no problems.’”
“Currently our company is going through a massive re-write of our websites and a complete new operating system for our software that guides our company. A project like that is just full of problems and stress. So it doesn’t matter how big your company is, success doesn’t mean you don’t have problems. Every company’s problems are not the same. For example, If Bill Gates went out to lunch and his helicopter landed him a hundred feet from where he wanted to be, that would be a problem for Bill Gates. For you and I, if a helicopter were to take us within a hundred yards of where we wanted to be, we’d be happy. Every leader has problems, they are just not all the same problems. Success doesn’t mean you don’t have problems, it redefines the problems that you have.”
CO: How do you define success?
Yager: “That’s easy. Very easy. In life there are four things that you must have to be successful. A good job, being happy with your job, doing the best that you can do and keeping that in balance.”
“By keeping that in balance, I mean that you have to have time for your job, time for yourself, time for you and your family, time for you and a higher being. That’s what I call balance. So if you have a good job and you are doing the best that you can and you’re happy, you’ll be successful.”
“Money has nothing to do with success. Most people think that money is success. Keeping your life in balance will make you successful and perhaps that success will lead you to dollars, if that is what you are measured in. But if you measure success in who your friends are, how your family is and how you approach life, you can’t be a sad son-of-a-bitch and you can’t be lazy if you’re going to have any level of success. It’s just that easy.”
CO: Are those elements what has taken you to the level where you are thought of as a leading authority in Corvettes?
Yager: “I think those elements have to be coupled with passion and a stick-to-it-iveness. At the end of the road, passion will overcome any obstacle out there. If you are driven by what you do, you won’t give up the first time you hit a bumpy road, you’ll move around it and drive toward success.”
“You can’t change course everyday. You can’t say “Today I like cars,” and then tomorrow say “I like motorcycles”, and the following day you decide that the world needs something else. You can’t keep changing directions and think that you’re going to be happy or successful.”
CO: Do you feel like an authority?
Yager: “Not at all. It’s sharing the passion. My family can be traveling through an airport in Atlanta, New York City, Chicago or where ever, and someone will come up and ask if I’m Mike Yager and ask for my autograph. This happens virtually every place we go, and it’s interesting. I always smile, ask them what kind of car they have and give them an autograph. Afterwards I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’m a businessman, trying to sell parts to an industry and make money.’ I mean, we spend millions of dollars a year and we need to make money, but to think that customers that I am trying to earn their money by keeping them happy with their car, want my autograph… well, that might be the only time that I am signing my paycheck.”
“It’s an honor and a privilege to sign an autograph. If you look at my autograph, you can read every letter in it. That’s how special it is to have someone ask for your autograph. I always have the time to talk with a customer. Inwardly I blush every time someone asks for an autograph and I think, ‘this is pretty cool.’ But I’m not famous. I’m involved in a hobby and I love what I’m doing. I can’t imagine having another job doing anything else.”
CO: Certainly you went through some tough times and faced some obstacles to get where you are today.
Yager: “Everybody does. I believe that part of learning is through failure. I’ve ran a lot of races in my life and I’ve finished second a lot more often than I’ve finished first, but I’ve never lost a race in my life. Now think about that. If you win, what do you learn? If you come in second, what do you learn? Most of the time you think about what you could have done differently. So, when you face adversity in life, if you sit back and take a look at what you learned from it, I think you’re a winner. If you accept failure, you’re a loser. I don’t believe in failing. I believe in learning.”
“In life, if something doesn’t produce the results that you want, you need to ask yourself why. When you face that problem again, you can draw upon that answer to help you get the response that you are looking for.”
CO: So what were some of the major hurdles that you faced and learned from?
Yager: “You don’t have enough time for me to go through them all. I can give you one of the biggest areas that I’ve learned from as a businessman. You try to always hire the right people. At some point down the line, that person no longer contributes the way that you need them to contribute, and you release them or they release you. They quit. As a leader, you have to ask yourself, ‘What went wrong there?’ You may have hired them for every good reason under the sun, and you discover that they really didn’t know how to spell words, or what ever the issue is.”
“It’s very difficult for me to hire someone and bring them into the family, then find out they aren’t the right fit. You have to ask yourself, ‘What did I not see when I hired them?’ or ‘What clues did they give me, that I paid no attention to?’ Those clues become abundantly clear once those people leave your organization. Instead of blaming them, a leader will believe that it was his fault for not having recognized these situations and addressed them accordingly which would have upped the odds of this being successful.”
“Those are the things I’ve learned in running a business. You have to review yourself all the time.”
CO: You’ve developed a real cult following in a customer base. Do these same business principals apply to your customers?
Yager: “Absolutely. If you’re a guy that is happy, full and robust at work, you’re probably happy, full and robust at home. If you care about the people you work with, and the people you live with, you’re going to care about the customers too. You show me a guy who is happy at work and I’ll show you a guy that is happy at home and other areas of his life. You show me a guy that is miserable at work, I’ll show you a guy that is miserable in every aspect of his life. You just can’t tell me that you’re compassionate and caring with your friends and you’re cold and hard with your co-workers or your customers. This all reflects back to my discussion on balance.”
“If I tell a customer a different story about a product because I want to sell it to them, don’t you think that I’m going to get caught in telling different stories? You have to be consistent in your messaging or no one is going to trust you.”
“When a customer buys from Mid America Motorworks, they know who I am. My cell phone number, my home number and my email address is on our website and all of our communications. If you need to contact me as a customer, I don’t hide from you. Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.”
“I don’t think that there are many business owners that do that. I have a whole index of business owners and I have a hard time getting them on the phone, so I can only imagine how approachable they are to the customers. I think that when you message to your customers a consistent message, that you are approachable, and tell them how to get in touch with you, they will have a good feeling and respect for your business.”
CO: What are Mike Yager and Mid America Motorworks going to do next?
Yager: “We have our manufacturing division for interiors and we are going to be pushing that into other brands. We’re looking to target iconic brands. Jeep, Harley Davidson, Porsche, and other cars that people are passionate about. I would think that Minis and Miatas are worth looking into because of the number of them out there. I don’t know that we are going to be in any of those businesses but those are brands that we would look at. There are special interest groups that respect those nameplates.”
“You gotta give people what they want. I make this very clear to my customers; I never want to sell the cheapest part out there. I want to sell the highest quality part at a fair price. Fair to me and fair to the customer, and give them a Nordstrom level of customer service.”
“Just the other day, we had a product that a customer bought from us twelve years ago and they returned it and wanted full credit. We took it back, gave them full credit and threw them away because it was cans of paint. A twelve year old can of paint, regardless of who made it, is not going to be any good after twelve years. We took it back and gave them their money back with no questions asked.”
CO: Was the customer satisfied?
Yager: “They ought to have been elated. I’m not sure they didn’t buy it at a garage sell and hit me up for full retail price. Returns are a case by case situation but my philosophy is to try and take care of the customer first and then you try to take care of the problem second. If I make returns difficult, you’re never going to buy from me again. Customers have lots of choices from where to buy and if we are a pain in the ass to do business with, they’ll go somewhere else. We understand that and appreciate their business.”
The Final Word
There’s no denying that Mike Yager has taken life’s lessons and a passion for the Corvette brand and turned them into a philosophy that permeates all aspects of his life. With a Beach Boys mellowness mixed with the fire of Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” Yager brings his old world work ethic and wholesome attitude to family, friends, employees, customers and Corvette enthusiasts alike. Whether it is intentional or not, Yager’s enthusiasm and energy forces people to live and learn the American dream. There’s a lot to like about Mike Yager, and a lot to learn from him.