He Could Have Built a Battleship – Under Cost

8 Mar

Part III

Through hard work and perseverance Charles Bell became a master salesman who performed at the top of his field. The same can be said about Shelah Thompson in the area of manufacturing. Thompson joined the fledgling operation with George Redding and remained when Redding left the business. Through the years he built the manufacturing portion of Le-Al-Co from a one man operation to a factory employing over 400.LeAlCo

The building of windows and doors began in an old bus station east of the Lebanon square as Thompson assembled parts delivered by Winterseal. When the parent company closed, he followed Bell’s expansionist ideas and designed new manufacturing methods. Le-Al-Co moved to a larger building at West End Heights before relocating to a 20,000 square foot facility on Hartmann Drive, and within each structure Thompson created an efficiently operating factory. After hiring 29 laborers, he became the plant manager instead of a hands-on craftsman. In this new role Thompson designed the manufacturing process; hired employees; and purchased materials.

Thompson thrived in each aspect of his job but had a knack for purchasing both equipment and materials. As mentioned earlier, he traveled extensively to buy machinery from people caught in the closing of Winterseal. Never one to pass on a deal, he once bought equipment while driving through Kansas on vacation. However, his ingenuity shone brightly while buying materials. When a stack of metal extrusions got below his knee, Thompson knew more needed to be ordered.

He used another simple method to lay out the factory floor. Wooden blocks formed miniature production lines, and Thompson moved them around until he was satisfied with the arrangement. Then, workers placed machines in the proper places. Everything was moved by hand because Thompson did not want to spend money for a forklift. When materials arrived, production stopped while everyone unloaded it.

Machines and materials are needed for a factory to function, but Thompson knew that his most important job was hiring employees. Thousands of people worked the lines of Le-Al-Co through the years, and he was the first to admit that many of them were not very good. However, he hired many hard-working and loyal people. In 1964, Thompson hired Johnny Miller to work in the door department with three other people. Soon, Miller supervised the department that contained twenty people. Miller made a few sales calls on the side and remained at Le-Al-Co throughout its existence.

In 1968, Thompson hired Harvey Driver, an 18 year-old kid looking for a summer job. Driver began by operating a press before moving to a saw. Eventually, he supervised the loading dock. The summer job turned into a career as Thompson’s assistant and eventual successor. According to Driver, Thompson taught him everything about the business, and, most importantly, became a second father.

Thompson continued working at Le-Al-Co after giving up his responsibilities as plant manager. He became the wise sage who loved to tell stories about the people who had worked there through the years. Eldon Bates was one of Thompson’s favorites and was described as “strong as an ox.” Then there was Willie Rollins, a clean freak, who took a sick day. Thompson decided to play a prank and gave Rollins a call. He informed Rollins that the phone company was blowing out the telephone lines, and he needed to put a sack over the phone to prevent dust from going everywhere. Obviously, Thompson liked to have fun and work hard, a combination that led to success.

Because of his work ethic and abilities, Thompson held the respect of most that knew him. As Mike Dinwiddie stated, “He could have built a battleship – under cost!” However, his best work came from a disaster in 1968. Fire consumed the factory, and, as Bell used temporary offices to ensure customers that it would be business as usual, Thompson worked around the clock to make that happen. Le-Al-Co’s future was in jeopardy, but Thompson had production running in five days.

Bell and Thompson worked well together and stayed out of each other’s way – most of the time. An instance when they did not became legendary. Memorial Day weekend approached, but production was behind. As a result, there would be no day off. Angered, the storm window department marched into Bell’s office and demanded the holiday. Tears filled Bell’s eyes as he became enraged. He fired the entire factory and turned off the lights in the production area. Miller’s storm door department was working when the lights went out. When Miller asked what was happening, Bell told his department to go home and come back the next day. However, the window department never made it back.

Despite such instances, production under Thompson grew tremendously through the years. At the start, the shop built thirty windows and five doors a week. At the end, the factory produced thousands of products in the same period of time. In addition to storm windows and storm doors, Le-Al-Co made patio doors, prime windows and vinyl windows. At the end, production had increased by 15,000%.

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