Steve Dyson, Dominion Lock rep then and now president of IDN-Canada, remembers my dad in those days, roaming the warehouse with his 50 foot telephone cord, waiting on the counter while talking to a customer on the phone, the cigarette smoke drifting from his lips (he smoked 3 ½ packs a day then). These were Steve and my dad’s “mad men” memories.
My father became even more important to Hardware Sales when Joe died of a heart attack in 1974 while our family was on vacation in Mackinac Island. My dad had to return back to work to face the future, directing its few employees, Ralph, Christine, John, Edie, and the outside salesman, Ramo Belletini. The ownership now fell unto Joe’s wife, Hortense, an eccentric lady who had a canny ability to collect. She pestered past-due locksmiths until they couldn’t take it anymore and finally succumbed to pay.
Hortense wanted to sell the company but she was leery of selling to my dad, who would have to pay her back over many years. Yet, she wasn’t reluctant to sell to my father if he had successful partners. So my father became one of the first partners of Al Hoffman of H. Hoffman Company in Chicago and Virl Mullins of Armstrong’s Lock and Supply in Atlanta. This was the first year of LSDA, the Locksmith Distributors of America, which eventually became IDN. Within a year, there were five distributors linked up in a network, focused on helping each other manage, market, become automated and efficient, eventually buying a computer system when computers were mammoth, slow, had little memory, when Microsoft was a dream in little Billy Gate’s eyes.
When I went to college, I worked part-time for Hardware Sales to bring in extra cash. When I graduated in 1979 with a liberal arts degree, majoring in English and Psychology, my dad asked if I would work full time until I was able to find another job. I wanted to move out of my parents’ house so I agreed but I interviewed at other companies, including Kmart, headquartered in Michigan and the largest retail company in the world. I didn’t want to work for massive companies and so I continued to help Hardware Sales move out of Detroit to the suburbs, to Madison Heights on the northeast side of Detroit.
At first, I was bored by the lock business, wanting to write instead but eventually, I was picking orders, putting away stock, answering phones, taking orders, writing advertisements, ordering stock from vendors and calling to get the orders shipped. I thought I worked hard but never worked as hard as my dad, who started at 6 a.m. and worked all day, a model of hard-charging, high-intensity sales and management. He had a volatile temper at times, scaring some employees and many of the manufacturer’s reps and sales managers. There were many legendary stories about his angry reactions after a manufacturer rep didn’t do what he promised or when a manufacturer’s sales manager was caught in a bare-faced lie.
I worked with my dad after 1979 as did his brother Sid, nephew Fred, and years later, his niece and my cousin, Maureen, a CPA who started in the early 1990s. My father was sometimes tough on employees, especially family, expecting us to be there every day, on time, work hard, be smart, and do the right things. My dad became disappointed if my Uncle Sid said something embarrassing or if Fred gave an extra discount or traveled too much. He got mad at me when I bought too much of a new product that didn’t sell, spent too much time with a rep, or discounted a slow-moving item when it should have been sold at “regular” price. He and I sometimes had arguments that employees could hear throughout the building. Often, when my father overreacted, he would return to apologize, knowing he shouldn’t have reacted so emotionally.
My father believed that locksmiths had great potential to be good businessmen. He preached to them that they needed to be more professional, to present themselves well, inside and out. They should focus, he said, on selling the highest quality products, not the cheapest. “Believe in what you sell,” he told them, “and sell the best locks and door hardware.” He watched the market change as home centers emerged and locksmiths began to sell lower priced, low quality locks and deadbolts, exactly like the big box mass merchants they feared.
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