The ungainly title of Tom Nix’s new book does spell it out: Nixland: My Wild Ride in the Inner City Check Cashing Industry. It is, indeed, about Nix’s fabulously successful career as a check casher in inner city Los Angeles.
The tale of building and running the Nix empire is far from a boring one. But interesting as the business angle is, both to industry insiders and business people in general, there are other fascinating aspects to the story.
The Nix family never started out to be check cashers. The author’s father, Thomas E. Nix, was a sales manager for a company that that ran home service bakery routes.
It’s common knowledge that there used to be milkmen who would deliver dairy products to homes early every morning. But not everyone knows that, at least in some areas, there also were men who would carry their oversized baskets to each door so homemakers could choose everything from fresh bread to coffeecake.
In those days, although the majority of mothers stayed at home, most families managed with only a single car and children tethered mom to the house.
Most drivers owned their own trucks and operated like a franchise. In 1966, the company the senior Nix worked for was sold to one more than three times its size. Not all the route drivers liked the deal, and Thomas Nix Bakery Distributor began operating to supply them. The two Nix sons worked in the company as well.
A bakery thrift store opened as part of the company to handle the day-old products. As more families bought second cars and supermarkets expanded, home service suffered. Nix added more groceries to the store so drivers could augment their bakery stock and increase sales to the customers that remained. Still, it wasn’t long before the route drivers turned off their trucks for the last time.
Switch to Grocery
The Nix store was changed into a full-service mom-and-pop grocery store named the Mini Mart. They developed a three-pronged business strategy. First came cheap bread. Because of Nix’s connections in the bakery industry, they were able to get bread cheap, and they sold it for the same low price. Sometimes they cut the price even more and used the bread as a loss leader.
Second was top-notch service. The Nixes were all extremely friendly with shoppers, and made sure they hired only warm, friendly people. “It was a joy to shop at the Mini Mart,” Nix brags.
Third came, yes, check cashing, but again, with a difference. Unlike supermarkets, the Mini Mart wasn’t restrictive in its policies, and unlike liquor stores, it didn’t charge a fee.
The Nixes pioneered the use of free photo ID cards for those without driver’s licenses, allowing them to cash checks quickly and easily. They also first used the Photoscope to capture the customer and his or her check on the same frame.
What’s more, they found ways to allow people who lacked conventional ID to cash checks, from having women with kids bring in a child’s birth certificate to compare signatures to allowing co-signers to guarantee checks.
In the 1970s, banks began analyzing their accounts to determine which ones cost them more then earned. They added fees to make up the difference, and Nix, like other account holders that cashed a lot of checks, suddenly found themselves hard hit. They had to pass on the expense to their customers.
They started charging a quarter per check, then raised it after a year to 35 cents. Volume wasn’t affected. That raised the idea that check cashing could do more than attract grocery buyers — it could be a profit center on its own.
The Nixes began to charge a fee of 1 percent of the face value of each check. Volume skidded by a quarter, but over three or four months, it climbed back most of the way. The move was a success.
Then Tom Nix proved the value of thinking outside the box. He came up with the idea of opening a free-standing, drive-through check cashing facility.
His father thought he was crazy, and it took some time to bring the founder around. But eventually, the Nixes transformed an old gas station that had been turned into an auto repair shop into the first Nix Check Cashing.
The check cashing chain was run by people brought up through the ranks at the Mini Mart. The philosophy of friendliness and respect for the customer was imported as well — an approach that would show its value both in building the business and in keeping it from being quite literally destroyed when inner city Los Angeles burned.
The innovation and risk-taking that characterized the beginning of Nix Check Cashing continued throughout its life, until its sale to, of all things, a credit union. Nix’s abortive efforts to team with Western Union to set up a nationwide check cashing chain, and the threatening situation that resulted, would make a story all its own. So would his hair-raising experiences in the Los Angeles riots, from rescuing besieged employees to securing large amounts of cash as the city went to pieces around them.
One of a Kind
While anyone in the industry should read this book for those episodes alone, what makes the book stand out is Nix himself. It’s not just that he admits that he made mistakes, from overextending his business to trusting city officials after being warned that they wouldn’t keep their word. Many business executives would glide over those events, but there are others who would admit to them, too. But Nix is one of a kind.
Nix’s well-earned image as a hard-driving businessman is underscored by the tales of his upbringing and brawling ways as a young man. But then Nix surprises you by revealing his long-held belief in the usefulness of self-help tapes. You’re sure that his toughness will bring him through the worst dangers of the riots, but you’re taken aback when Nix credits meditation for helping him hold things together.
The book never really brings together the disparate sides of Nix’s personality; in fact, it creates some doubt that Nix has done that himself. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating look at a complex individual who landed in a unusual and challenging industry at a time when it was changing — and who was responsible for a great deal of that change himself.