It Was Like a Country Boy in the Big City

7 Mar

Part II

Charles Bell considered selling to be the most important aspect of his business. In fact, most people associated with the business considered it his passion. Bell’s love for selling grew as he went door-to-door offering his wares, but, 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 suppliers.

Bell’s chance to break into the world of wholesale and retail came from a friend who mentioned Tennessee Storm Window, owned by Lefty and Margaret Hardcastle. After discovering that it was Nashville’s largest supplier of storm products, Bell borrowed Thompson’s car for the drive to the Nolensville Road location. Shelah Thompson’s car was nicer than his own, and he wanted to make a good impression.

The Hardcastle’s did not buy anything on that first visit, but Bell visited them once a week for the next three months. Finally, his persistence paid off when they placed an order for 120 windows. The size of the order almost panicked Thompson, and he said the task was impossible. However, as he would do time and again when faced with such tasks, he completed the order. As a result, the Le-Al-Co and Tennessee Storm Window relationship lasted for many years, and Hardcastle always considered himself Bell’s benefactor. Regrettably, the Hardcastle’s felt resentment instead of pride when Le-Al-Co became too large to sell to them.

The growth of Le-Al-Co in the 1960s resulted from the hard work of Bell and a staff of dedicated salesmen. Sam McReynolds worked for Sears before making the transition to Le-Al-Co. Jack Robertson sold windows and doors for six years and has been credited with making great contributions to the company’s sales philosophy. Henry Harris managed the account of Hendersonville’s Jones Homes, Le-Al-Co’s second largest customer. Tragically, Harris suffered critical injuries in an automobile accident. He recovered and returned to the company years later to oversee the parts department.

Tennessee Storm Window and Jones Homes, the two largest accounts, provided a strong foundation for a growing group of customers that included Missouri-based Riggs Cash and Carry. Indiana was the home of Lensing Wholesale and Lumberman’s Wholesale. The sales territory stretched into Georgia with Atlanta’s Addison Millwork. Tennessee customers included Dealers Warehouse in Knoxville; Cole Manufacturing of Memphis; and Madison Millwork in Jackson. However, Louisville’s Jacob Levy and Sons was the most valued customer of this era.

In 1966, Bell met with their buyer, Harold Skaggs, and began a special relationship. Skaggs respected Bell as a salesman and a person and went to great lengths to help the young entrepreneur. He provided Bell with the quotes of competitors and covered any delivery problems with his superiors. This began a business arrangement that remained throughout the existence of Le-Al-Co.

The 1970s brought changes to the industry and to Le-Al-Co. “Do-It-Yourself” stores began to appear on the scene and looked to be the future of the market. Historically, locally owned stores sold products to builders, but DIY’s were chains that catered to homeowners wanting to improve their residences. With an eye on an altering future, Bell decided to change the ideology of his company.

In 1972, he raided a major supplier, Alumax Extrusions, for a young salesman, Mike Dinwiddie. After a series of negotiations, Dinwiddie became the vice-president of Le-Al-Co and changed its direction immediately. Instead of hiring salespeople directly, Le-Al-Co used sales representation firms throughout the nation. Among these firms was SJS Sales in Brooklyn, New York. Jeff Saul, owner of the business, fascinated Bell and Dinwiddie. He impressed them with limousine tours around Chicago and with stories of his days as a champion swimmer. Unfortunately, Saul’s body was found floating by his boat. Apparently, he had dealings with organized crime that ended badly.

Despite the detailed sales strategy and the interesting characters that it introduced, the sales representative idea never took flight. With representatives throughout the nation, Bell realized that he and Dinwiddie were making all of the sales. Eventually, contracts with all of the firms ended. A sales force that once consisted of over twenty people and grew to a force of representatives around the nation shrank to a total of two.

Soon, Bell discovered that selling to large chain stores did not differ from selling to the “Mom and Pop” stores of the 1960s. Simply, the salesman sold himself, and the products would eventually be bought. Everyone associated with Le-Al-Co agreed that Bell could employ his skill and personality better than anyone, as most in the industry respected and liked him.

A perfect example of his abilities took place while making a sales call to Atlanta-based Williams Lumber in 1978. As Bell waited to meet with their buyer, he began a conversation with another salesman who mentioned a new store in the area. After the meeting, Bell had some spare time before catching his flight.

Sensing an opportunity, he visited the offices of the new business and found a card table and a telephone. No chairs could be found. He soon learned that they wanted to open a store, but no one would sell to them because of bad credit. Bell gambled and sold them an order before leaving. However, the deal had one stipulation. Le-Al-Co would deliver half a shipment and send the rest after payment. With the agreement in place, the first Home Depot opened and, through the years, would purchase over $50 million worth of products.Home Depot

More chain stores followed as Bell sold products to Angels in California; Cashway in Texas; Marvin’s in Alabama; and Scotty’s in Florida. There was also Handy City, Handy Dan, K-Mart and J.C. Penney. Through these stores and others Le-Al-Co products could be found in 49 states and in Great Britain.

In 1984, Dinwiddie left Le-Al-Co and was replaced by Tom Ruban as vice-president of sales. Over the next ten years annual sales increased from $12 million to $25 million. This can be attributed to Bell’s abilities as a salesman and Ruban’s abilities as an organizer.

He hired Tim Burroughs to oversee customer service, the department that took daily orders and worked closely with store employees. Ironically, Burroughs had grown up close to the Bell household as a friend of their oldest son, Jack. He had never experienced the business side of the family but soon realized that it was not too different from the personal side. Burroughs remembered traveling to his first convention with Bell. As he stated, “We rode around Chicago looking at the buildings. It was like a country boy in the big city.” Burroughs had to learn the window and door business quickly and was mostly helped by the women who worked for him. Two of the most helpful were Pam Helm and Shirley Dematteo, Elaine Bell’s aunt.

Bell and Ruban could not be the only salesmen of a rapidly growing business; therefore more people were brought in. Alabamian Nick Compton was considered by many to be the best of these. However, Walt Costello was undoubtedly the most colorful. He received word that some windows had been installed but were not working correctly. As the salesman, he had to visit the site to determine a solution to the problem. Upon arrival, Costello discovered that he was at a nudist colony. Shockingly, it took all day to replace the windows. Later, he learned that his aunt was one of the residents.

Obviously, many changes in the sales department of Le-Al-Co took place over 35 years. Sales philosophies, salesmen and customers came and went. However, Charles Bell was always there. Sales were his passion, and he believed that they were the driving force of success. In the early days, he drove through the night and sold during the day. Eventually, he flew to the customers. However, through the decades and the changes Bell always remembered one thing – it does not matter how many windows and doors can be made if they can not be sold.

2 Responses to “It Was Like a Country Boy in the Big City”

  1. DyingNote March 8, 2013 at 05:13 #

    I take it this is the second part of the story you had promised to publish on this blog.

    • Rick March 8, 2013 at 15:59 #

      It is. The next several posts will continue the story.

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