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How I Made My Millions: Principles to Build a Business On

When I started selling a handful of Corvette accessories at car shows in 1974, it was more of a hobby than a grand business plan. Although I wasn't a seasoned businessman, I still knew it was important to be honest and build strong relationships. Those principles stuck with me, although now they're called building a reputation and networking.

Mike Yager of Mid America Motorworks
Mike Yager of Mid America Motorworks

In business, a good reputation is golden. I believe in the old adage, you get one chance to make a good first impression. It's something I think about doing every day because the first impression we give our customers is me! I'm proud of Mid America Motorworks and because of that, my photo and signature are in every catalog we print. My straw hat and even my title—Chief Cheerleader—instantly tell people about me and the company.

Everyone has an idea in their mind of what a "president" does, although the responsibilities and demands may differ from one business to the next. When people hear that I’m the Chief Cheerleader, they ask questions. That title gives them a sneak-preview of me as a person. It shows that I’m approachable, not stuffy, that I have a sense of humor and that I'm a leader.

That's part of the reputation too; being approachable. People are surprised when I give out my personal phone number and email address, but it's the right thing to do. It shows that I don't have to hide behind a corporate curtain. It also lets people know—from business partners to guests at Funfest—that they can talk to me about Mid America Motorworks and really be heard, good and bad.

One thing that really shapes your reputation is honesty. Honesty has always been important to me in business and in life. When you give people the same message consistently, your reputation and respect go up. I've gotten where I am by being honest and by telling the absolute truth, not a version of the truth that gets customers to think the way I want them to.

I believe you don't abuse your friends and their trust, and I think of each of our customers as my friends. We share the same hobbies and we're all enthusiasts with a passion for cars! Each relationship is important, not only for strengthening our reputation, but for building a good network.

I've always been a networker, even before I knew what networking meant! On my 50th birthday, I received a Palm Pilot as a gift and thought, "Is technology passing me by?"

I think you're only as old as you feel, so I made a commitment prove my youth, so to speak, and learned how to master the Palm Pilot. The first thing I did was create a contact database with all my business cards. Then I added people to the database who weren't on business cards. I had more than 6,000 people on that database—it was virtually everyone I knew.

Networking has opened more doors in business for me than any one thing I can think of. Now, when I meet people, I get a clue of their company name and I can quickly look them up to see what other connections we might have. It's a great way to start conversations and share information.

It's interesting—when you become a networker, you learn to ask network questions to make a connection. I can't count the number of times I've been in meetings when someone asks, do you know so-and-so company? I love making introductions! Helping two people connect and do business together is a tremendous way to make an impact.

The way I see it, anyone you deal with may have a problem that you can help solve. I think of it as making a deposit—you never know when you'll be the one who needs information. Someone I know may have information or a name that I don't. They know I've helped them make connections in the past and will want to help me. It just takes the relationship that much farther.

When CERV II was up for sale, there was a rumor that Harry Yeaggy and I were both going to try to buy it. I didn't know Harry at the time, but I knew Kevin MacKay, who did. This was back before social media, so Kevin gave me Harry's phone number and I called to introduce myself and give him the good news that I was not planning to buy CERV II. I said maybe he could do me a similar favor sometime.

Later when the rear engine XP-819 went up for sale, I was bidding on it and the ring master somehow lost my bid. The XP-819 went to someone else. Harry called and asked why I didn't buy the car. It turns out Harry knew the guy who won. When I told him what happened, the other guy let me pick up the bid and that's how I got a legendary piece of Corvette history - through networking!

I think sometimes we get caught up in the business side of business and forget that we're all people. With everyone I meet, I try to think about how the relationship benefits both of us. It's not just a business transaction to me. Every interaction is a chance to strengthen a relationship, whether through trust and the reputation we have built or through mutual connections and networking.

Tune in:

'How I Made My Millions' Monday, August 22 9p | 12a ET

Mike Yager is Chief Cheerleader and founder of Mid America Motorworks, an aftermarket supplier and manufacturer of Corvette and Air-Cooled Volkswagen parts and accessories. Since its beginnings in 1974 with a two-page flyer, Mid America Motorworks now mails some 4.5 million Corvette and Volkswagen catalogs every year to customers worldwide.