Give Me My Money Back, and I Don’t Care What You Do

6 Mar

Part I

The story of America often consists of two lines of narrative – reality and myth. At times the two are clearly defined, and at others they can barely be discerned. The idea of the American Dream fits into the latter. Is it reality or myth? Is America a place where someone can rise through societal and economic barriers through hard work and opportunity? Through the decades many people have believed in the American Dream, and a few have been lucky enough to achieve it. Is the American Dream real? In 1960 it was real and was the genesis of a success story in Lebanon, Tennessee.

The year 1960 was one of transition in the United States as the perceived innocence of the 1950s gave away to the turbulence of a new decade. It was also a year of transition for a young family in Lebanon, Tennessee. Charles Bell and his wife, Elaine, struggled as he held a series of jobs and was finally laid off by Avco, a manufacturer of airplane parts. Bell realized that he needed a new direction, and he found it with the help of his father-in-law, J.W. Vanhook.

As the leading constructor of homes in Lebanon, Vanhook knew most of the building suppliers in the area. This included George Redding, who wanted to invest in a franchise for Winterseal, a company that made parts for storm doors and storm windows. The parts would be shipped to franchisees around the country that assembled the finished products and sold them. Redding, needing investment capital, approached Vanhook about becoming a partner. Vanhook, in turn, saw an opportunity for his young son-in-law.

The enterprise began with Redding operating the business side and Bell, along with Shelah Thompson, handling the manufacturing. Thompson was shown how to assemble a window by a Winterseal representative and eventually became, along with Bell, a driving force in the success of the company. However, Bell began to show his business instincts when he suspected that Redding was keeping certain aspects of the partnership to himself.

Vanhook became upset when he was told and bought Redding’s share. According to family lore, Vanhook told Bell that the business was his to do as he wanted and followed that by saying, “Give me my money back, and I don’t care what you do.” Bell gradually paid Vanhook back by giving him products for his construction business.

Now, it was up to a green kid to sell products while a handyman built them. For a month, Bell hit the streets alone but soon discovered that he needed help. The hiring of Jim Lyles brought the salesmanship and experience that the business required. He sold products but, most importantly, taught Bell how to sell products. Lyles shared all of the tricks of the trade, including how to find customers and organize the workday. He took Bell to the bank to find out who could afford to buy windows and doors and who could not. After all, there was no reason to waste time knocking on the doors of people who had no money.

With Bell and Lyles selling and Thompson building, the business grew to unimaginable heights. The sales force expanded to include twenty people, including Gene Hallums, Richard Holman, J.C. Likens and Fred Vanhook, who worked for incentives such as a free suit for reaching a certain goal. Shortly, windows and doors were being installed from southern Kentucky to northern Alabama. At age 21, Bell attended the Winterseal convention and made a speech about the success of his business.

The future looked bright for Bell and his foundling business, but the situation took a turn for the worst. Lyles, suffering with alcoholism, left the business, and Bell found himself without his sales mentor. Then, Winterseal, the parent company, went out of business in 1964. This would prove disastrous for franchises across the nation; however Bell found opportunity among the carnage.

He had been warned of the impending closure and immediately took action. First, Bell called a Detroit bank to inquire about $100,000 that he owed Winterseal. Luckily, the bank settled for $9,500. Second, he knew that other franchises were going out of business, and Thompson traveled the country to purchase their equipment at basement prices. Third, they found George Levy, who was selling extrusion for 60% of the cost that Winterseal had been charging through the years. As Thompson stated, “Save your nickels and dimes, and the dollars will save themselves.” With that philosophy, Lebanon Aluminum Company, commonly known as Le-Al-Co, emerged.LeAlCo

3 Responses to “Give Me My Money Back, and I Don’t Care What You Do”

  1. DyingNote March 8, 2013 at 04:41 #

    I have no idea of Le-Al-Co but this is an interesting story

    • Rick March 8, 2013 at 15:59 #

      Thank you. It was a very important part of my family for a long time.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. It Was Like a Country Boy in the Big City | Surrounded By Imbeciles - March 7, 2013

    […] as his skills developed, he came to believe that this mode of operation had its limitations. If Le-Al-Co was going to grow he needed to move away from households and toward stores and […]

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