Executive Spotlight: Mike Spelman, co-owner of Mike's Maytag

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PITTSFIELD — Mike Spelman can be quick with a quip and engaging in conversation — two qualities that serve him well in his chosen profession.

Spelman is the Mike in Mike's Maytag Home Appliance Center in Pittsfield, more commonly known as Mike's Maytag. He has been involved in this profession for over 40 years and has operated Mike's Maytag with his business partner for more than a quarter-century.

We met with Spelman recently to talk about his profession; how small retailers deal with big-box stores and the internet; why appliances aren't made the way they used to be; and why he believes people should have to wear nametags like he does.

Q: When we talked on the phone, you said you've been doing this for 40 years.

A: Dec. 21 will be my 47th anniversary. I got hired by a store on the corner of Fenn and First streets known as Harder Electric, as a delivery guy to be trained as a technician.

I got out of the Navy trained as an electronics technician — for six months, the government paid half my pay — so they hired me on that basis. I was always handy. I loved to take stuff apart and see how it worked. I worked on airplanes for the Navy.

Q: What do you like the most about your job?

A: Fixing stuff. I love to take things apart. I love to see how it works, and I love the technical aspect.

I had an uncle who could do anything, and I used to follow him around. He could build houses, fix cars. So, I learned a lot from him. ... And, I love the personal touch with people. I love when customers come in that I haven't seen in 10 years and give me a big hug. I'm 69. I love what I do. As long as I stay healthy, I'm not going to retire.

Q: Are you originally from the Berkshires?

A: Brooklyn. N.Y. I tell people that I come from a small town in New York and that very few people have heard of it.

I moved here when I was 15. Tragically, my aunt and cousin were killed in a car accident in front of Dopey's Restaurant (now Bob's Country Kitchen in Lanesborough). So, my uncle said to my grandmother, who was raising my sister and I, "Why don't you move up from Brooklyn and we'll all live together in Lanesborough." That's what brought me up here.

Q: Do you ever go back to Brooklyn?

A: My daughter lived in Queens for a while, but she's living up here right now, so, I haven't been down there in 15 years.

When I went there, I cried. When I grew up in Brooklyn, you could play stickball in the streets. A car would come about once every 10 minutes. Now, it's nothing but traffic. ... It's different than it was. Every place is different than what it was.

Q: The retail landscape has certainly changed. As a small retailer selling and servicing appliances, what's it like competing against the big-box stores?

A: Pricewise, I can't compete. The only thing I can offer is same-day or next-day delivery. [When he does that] people say, "Really. I had to wait two weeks for Home Depot." And, I stress that if it breaks, I go out or [one of his employees] go out [to fix it]. Big-box stores, it could be a week or two, even if it's a broken refrigerator.

However, it's changing because of the demographics. Luckily, the older folks still believe in service, and I've got a great clientele of people. But, the young people only know the internet and big-box stores. They're not interested in service. "I'll just throw it away and buy another one.' "

Q: That attitude doesn't bode well for small appliance stores in the future.

A: Well, nobody could start an appliance store today. In fact, I think there were 500 Maytag home appliance centers when we opened, and I think they're down to 30 because they just can't compete. When you've got a Lowe's or a Home Depot, they're buying 10,000 washers at a pop; I'm buying 10.

Q: How do you stay competitive?

A: I guess be there for the customer; make them feel important, not just ignore them. The minute they walk into my door, I say, "Hi, thanks for coming. I'll be right with you." And, I try and make it light, too. You go into some places, it's like they almost wished you didn't come in.

Q: But the big-box stores still must be hard to compete against?

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A: Yeah, but think about it. Now, all you have is Home Depot [in the Berkshires]. Sears went out. Best Buy went out, and there is no Lowe's here. Lowe's would kill me. They undercut everybody's prices. So, luckily, all I've got is Home Depot.

Q: Why did you name your store Mike's Maytag?

A: Mike's Maytag, it rings. It sounds perfect. Actually, it's called Mike's Home Appliance Center /d/b/a Mike's Maytag. What happened was, Maytag was sued in the '90s, so they had to take the name Maytag out of the corporation.

Q: Do you still hear jokes about the Maytag repairman?

A: All the time. The loneliest man in town. But it's not true anymore. They don't make them like they used to.

Q: What's changed?

A: The quality is just not there anymore. I apologize to people all the time constantly. ... We don't build anything in America anymore. We assemble. All the parts come from China, Korea, Mexico. We just put them together in the United States.

Q: How does that make a difference?

A: When I used to deliver Maytag washers, I used to have to work because they were so heavy. Now, one person can deliver them. The metal's paper thin. It's just a whole new industry today. Eight to 12 years is what people should expect an appliance to last today. Whereas, when I used to sell Maytag washers ... I just serviced one that was 40 years old. I put belts on it and [the owner's] still using it.

When you used to buy a refrigerator, they used to give you egg trays and ice cube trays. That's gone. When you used to buy a stove, they gave you a broiler pan. They took that away. When you bought a washer, they used to include hoses. ... Nickel and dime, bottom line, make them as cheap as you can. So, I'm apologizing all the time [because] I don't own them.

Q: That must be frustrating?

A: Absolutely; the only good thing is, you're selling a lot more. They used to say if they last 40 years, then the factories aren't working. Now, they're crazy busy because they're replacing stuff constantly.

Q: Have tariffs and the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. affected the prices for appliance parts?

A: It hasn't yet. Eventually, I'm sure it will, and it just gets passed on to the consumer, which is what always happens. Right now, we haven't seen any changes.

Q: Are today's appliances harder to repair?

A: These refrigerators today are a nightmare to work on. They've got all kinds of electronics and circuit boards. They used to be simple, like a washer. ... [But], we go to school twice a year. They have a thing over in Albany for a day, and we go over the new products. Plus, we have a tech line that we can call if we're out in the field and run into problems. That helps a lot.

Years ago, I used to have a stack of service manuals in my truck. The internet has helped so much. I can take out my iPad [now] and swish, swish, there's the problem. I've got to order this kit. It makes it a lot easier.

Q: Speaking of the internet, how has it affected your business as a whole?

A: Now, you can order online. The trucking company that brings all of our appliances here from Albany, they do home delivery. ... But, we're still busy. We've got a lot of clientele from [South County], a lot of second-home owners and people from Connecticut. They're not worried about the price. They want to know that if they're going to call, that you're going to be there. So, we have to go the extra mile sometimes.

Q: Give me an example.

A: I had one lady that came in awhile ago. She said, "Back in 2000, I called you the day before Thanksgiving. My oven didn't work, and on the way home you stopped by and fixed it."

She said, "The next time I need an appliance, I'm coming to Mike's Maytag." That was 19 years ago. Wow, that's great. That warms your heart. It's such a great feeling.

Q: How do you keep track of all the customers you've had over the years?

A: The thing that drives me nuts is that everybody thinks that they know me. Now, I've got a shirt that says "Mike's Maytag" on it, and they'll say, "Hey, Mike, hey, Mike, remember me?" I say, "Vaguely." ... I can't remember people's names. I know their faces, but everybody knows me. Everybody should wear their name on their shirt.


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