Crabs in a Barrel: Excerpt
…Instead of assuming, I should have made it my business to understand clearly what he was requesting and why he didn’t rent that store to me the first time I was in his office. He was merely asking me if I had a written document, an outline that detailed my plans for the storefront I wanted to rent from him.
In ignorance, I once again assumed he was just a cracker who didn’t want a colored man to get ahead. So I just forged ahead and relied on assuming everything that was connected to the deal. It would be some years later before I heard about and then understood, the “six p’s of business” (proper planning prevents piss poor performance).
I hadn’t evolved to the point where I knew I was supposed to operate within the strict confines of a written, business plan. Therefore, I never planned what I was going to do next; I would just do it.
In most cases, our environment dictates our thought patterns. The problem is too many descendants of slaves have their thought patterns engraved into their minds while they are living in squalor and degradation.. How to survive poverty is about all we know.
Climbing up the steep, jagged side of the mountain
So there I sat, asking myself over and over again what was wrong with my hardware store. I had a beautiful store, stocked with fine items — expensive items! All of a sudden things started coming into focus; then it hit me — too damned expensive!
Since I didn’t know anything about the hardware business, what better place for S&T to unload their pricey, slow-moving items than the new guy’s store! That hit me like a keg of nails.
After all, S&T had been supplying Moneypenny Hardware for many years. They had to have known exactly what items would sell in that neighborhood. This was before credit cards flooded the customer market.
Negroes didn’t buy that many crystal chandeliers, grandfather clocks, and huge riding mowers — and they still don’t. Yet that’s what I was trying to sell way back then!
Once I had it figured out, I asked S&T to take back some of their more expensive items. At first they wouldn’t, saying something about a sale being a sale. Consequently, I threatened them with a lawsuit. Before the case went to court, they decided to exchange the high-ticket items for the fast-selling items I needed.
Even though Mr. Oates was my friend and knew I wasn’t familiar with operating a hardware store, I didn’t blame him for my near disaster. He was just a salesman doing his job. After it was all over, we had a good laugh about it, but I knew now to keep a close eye on him.
Whether his intentions were good or not and whether he knew it or not, he taught me a valuable lesson: Never allow friendship to blind you in a business deal. He told me, “Norris, when you get your ass kicked in business don’t get mad; if you learned something, be glad!
I will be forever grateful to Mr. Oates for his guidance and support.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel fosters lowdown alliances
After I straightened out that near calamity, I came to enjoy working in hardware. I was repairing windows, lawnmowers and other small items, as well as making house calls to do home maintenance. Business increased, and it wasn’t too long before I was making a profit.
I was really proud of myself, too. Small though they were, I had owned and operated a salvage/variety store, food mart, restaurant, hardware store, and, most recently, and because of my association with Mr. Turner, I had acquired another company and named it Aquarius Construction. What puzzled me was why other Negroes weren’t going into business, as well. Doing business was exciting and also profitable.
Overall, despite the normal ups and downs, my efforts had paid off handsomely. The economic arena might be unplowed land for Negroes to till, but it’s certainly fertile ground.
One night while I was bowling at Champion Bowling Lanes, John Barkley, a fellow bowler I knew on a casual basis, approached me and requested a meeting. After giving me his phone number, he told me to call him on a certain day, which I did. After pleasantries on the phone, he suggested we meet at my store. I didn’t know Mr. Barkley, a fellow black man, too well, but the way in which he asked for the meeting at my store aroused my curiosity.
Arriving right on time, he was all business, asking, “Do you mind if I look around as we talk?” He showed a keen interest in the expensive hardware items, picking them up and examining them, mostly tools and safety equipment. I had no idea why he was there or what he wanted, but I hoped he wanted to make a purchase.
Now, as a rule, I am not a pushy salesperson. Being pushy usually turns people off, but the suspense was killing me so I broke the silence, “You said something about us talking as we walked?”
He said, “I’m the minority coordinator for General Electric Company at Appliance Park.”
I was impressed. GE was a major household appliance manufacturing plant, and the Louisville facility was the area’s largest employer.
He picked up a pair of heavy duty pliers and, as if talking to himself, said, “Just as I thought, GE purchases lots of items you sell. Same brand, too.”
Getting to the point, he asked, “How would you like to be a GE supplier?”
Believe it or not, I had no clue what he meant.
“Supplier,” I asked, “whadda you mean by, being a supplier?”
He said, “GE uses a lot of tools and other things you carry. They have to buy them from someone. That someone could be you.”
When he said that, dollar signs popped in my head!
Clearly I was interested. He nonetheless decided to let me savor the idea before reeling me in. In parting, he said he had some details to work out and would get back to me later in the week. I was beside myself. Going into the hardware business, I had taken a big step. Was God now taking a giant one? This godsend came out of nowhere and had all kinds of prospects.
Here I was accustomed to selling one tool at a time, and in walks a man talking about setting me up as a supplier for GE — a “Fortune 500” company! Now that’s really exciting stuff. I figured it was too good to be true. There had to be a catch somewhere. Who had been rendering this service up until now? For that matter, why wouldn’t GE just deal directly with S&T or the very manufacturers themselves?
I surmised that the only connection seemed to be that GE and my little store were in the same city. Maybe this was that “corporate citizenship” I’d heard bandied about with slogans like “invest in the community” and all that stuff. Or, was it that we were both black? In any event, why me? Unable to figure it out, I initially dismissed the whole idea.
A few days later, the phone rang. It was Mr. Barkley again, asking if he could drop by my place after I closed regarding “some important business. I now had a healthy amount of suspicion and, even though I wanted this to be for real, I still had a few questions that had to be answered.
When he arrived, the first words out of his mouth were, “Would you be interested in owning an industrial supply company?” Before I could answer, he said, “To be a supplier to General Electric, you’d have to become an industrial supplier and be certified as a minority.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I asked him to explain.
Amazed at my ignorance on the topic, but realizing I wasn’t kidding, he elaborated on the specifics. Then he told me that in order to become an industrial supplier, I would have to start a corporation.
This was getting more complicated by the minute.
You see, I didn’t know you could you just up and start a corporation. My impression was that a corporation was something a company grew into over a long period of time. Was I the only Negro in business who was ignorant on this topic? Just in case I was, I became like a dry sponge in water. I couldn’t absorb enough of this information. I’d never even thought about anything like this before! This was the real economic battlefield, big time — and another Negro was paving the way for me to get into the game.
The newness of the idea and the possibilities were overwhelming. I nodded eagerly at everything he said. This was going to be fantastic! I wasn’t about to look this gift horse in the mouth, and I knew better than to muddy up the waters asking difficult questions that at first I thought might be important. To hell with the details; they could be worked out later.
Son, you can’t strike gold in a silver mine
Mr. Barkley then went to his car and came back with two very expensive briefcases and handed one of them to me, saying, “This is a gift from me.”
I had never owned a briefcase before. Up until now, I hadn’t reached the level to require one, but now that I was on my way to heading up still another company —a genuine corporation, no less — maybe it was briefcase time. At Mr. Barkley’s suggestion, we named the new company N. S. Industrial Supply Company, Inc. Even though I couldn’t file the necessary documents with the Secretary of State until the next day, he gave me an order that retailed out at $1,600; more than I would ordinarily sell in a week!
I was both shocked and elated at the same time.
Remembering what Daddy had told me about colored people not helping each other, I was overly surprised and deeply indebted. I thanked Mr. Barkley over and over, saying, “It’s not every day you see a Negro trying to help another Negro get ahead in life.”
He looked at me in a smug sort of way, and said, “I’m sure glad you feel that way. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” Those words stuck with me. It wasn’t what he said; it was the way he said it. We shook hands, he was gone, and I was left to ponder the evening’s events and start making preparation for an exceptionally bright future.
The next day I called Mr. Oates and told him to sharpen his pencil that I was now an industrial supplier to the General Electric Company — with purchase order in hand — and I wanted his best price. The wholesale cost of the tools was approximately $600. The retail totaled out at a little over $1,600! I had really struck the mother lode this time because setting up the whole deal took less than a week.
It’s normal, because of the slow turnover, for hardware items to have
It’s normal, because of the slow turnover, for hardware items to have a higher profit margin than that of food but, still, because of the quantity of tools Mr. Barkley was ordering, a red flag went up. After thinking about it, however, I figured what the hell; I certainly didn’t want word to get out that I was the kind of businessman who questions the profit margin being high.
In the midst of my jubilation, an idea suddenly dawned on me: If General Electric was interested in what my store had to offer, maybe other companies would be, too. Plotting my next move, I called my contact at GE and told him about my plan to expand.
The first words out of his mouth were, “Aw, hell naw!” Then, after regaining control, he gave me some lame excuse about white folks not wanting colored people to get ahead in this world. Hearing Barkley advise me not to increase my customer base because of white people, sounded like some garbage the average Negro who knew absolutely nothing about business would spout after he’s had a couple of drinks.
Desiring to expand my enterprise but, at the same time not wanting to annoy or lose my GE connection, I decided to do a little checking around without arousing suspicion. Something wasn’t right. Mr. Barkley was a minority coordinator. He was the last person I expected to hear say that Negroes shouldn’t expand their businesses.
Without a doubt I had once again embarked upon unfamiliar seas. If I wanted to succeed in this latest business venture as I had succeeded in the others, I needed more data before proceeding.
The truth might come to light
My first stop was the chamber of commerce. The receptionist there directed me to the Small Business Department where I was introduced to Mr. James Halvatgis, the person in charge of the minority business section.
Mr. Halvatgis seemed to be a nice enough person. He explained that if I wanted to cash in on minority programs, I’d have to become a certified minority, which could be handled through his department. Surprised I was interested in the industrial supply business, the first question he asked was, “Mr. Shelton, what sparked your interest in this field?”
Another red flag went up.
Having already been warned against expanding my business, I was hesitant to answer that question truthfully. I was concerned about the repercussions it might have for Mr. Barkley and also my business. Maybe Mr. Barkley had been right all along about white folks not wanting col¬ored people to get ahead in this world. Could he have been making an indirect reference to the very person that I was talking to in this seem¬ingly all-white chamber of commerce?
Thinking fast, I told the chamber representative that it had always been a dream of mine. I doubt he bought that, but he was polite and quizzed me no further on the subject.
After explaining the rules and regulations that govern minority busi¬ness, he gave me some introductory literature. In parting, he handed me his card, and said, “Mr. Shelton, keep in mind, and be assured, we’re here to help.”
Soon after that meeting, Mr. Barkley called me sounding despondent and said he had run into a snag and needed some money. After all he had done for me, I was only too glad to help him. How could I not lend a hand, especially when he said he’d pay me back with interest!
Less than a week later, he came by and said he had come up with a way to pay back the money he owed. I assured him that wasn’t necessary, but he appeared anxious to share his idea with me.
I immediately shut up and listened.
He said, “I’ve increased the size of your next order, as well as the profit margin. I’ve built in cushion enough to pay back the money I owe you out of the profits.”
Another red flag popped up, but I was undeterred. Things didn’t smell right, but he had me by the nose.
Magic carpet laden with rusty, blood-poisoning spikes
Under Mr. Barkley’s guidance, I started making calls on several buyers at Appliance Park and began stocking bulk items that GE bought on a regular basis.
As my industrial supply business grew, I gradually stopped concen¬trating on the hardware store. Turning my attention to the new corpora¬tion, I hired three full-time employees: a salesperson, a secretary and a driver/handyman.
George Mundy, a longtime friend, became my salesperson. Having been in commercial sales for quite some time, he knew much more about making big deals than I did. With an experienced person like him on the team, it was a smooth transition from retailing hardware to wholesaling industrial supplies.
After communicating with other buyers at Appliance Park, it came to my attention that, for comparison purposes and in order to acquaint themselves with their competition, GE would often purchase the major appliance products of their rivals. It wasn’t really industrial espionage, but it needed to be done with a bit of discretion. Before long, GE was buying its competitive products from me.