Season's greetings from the staff of the Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers and the Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers.
We are taking a break from our usual news stories to celebrate the spirit of the season. We'll be back next month on our usual schedule with stories, news and our list of training events to help transform your business.
Sending you holiday cheer and best wishes for a prosperous New Year.
We invite you to enjoy our fictional offering below.
Nothing could have saved it. The flames reached too high, and the repetitive explosions of paint and aerosol cans ensured that the blaze would be generously fueled for the next couple of hours. It was a goner. The end game now was to keep it from spreading into the hair salon and insurance agency on either side of the store. The volunteers were winning that battle, but it meant that they had nothing left to throw at Bradley Hardware. Frank had to stand by helplessly and watch his family business turn to ash.
This year's December newsletter offers the story of a small town business pushed up against the wall by competition — and compassion. With a tip of the Santa hat to "It's a Wonderful Life," we offer you this holiday tale that helps us understand — once again — the great importance of small businesses in our communities.
Frank Bradley sat and watched the snow swirl around his feet as they dangled from the 90-year-old bridge above the Missouri River. He was tired, and he was very, very cold. Mostly, he was completely discouraged.
Just 30 minutes ago, he had left the site of the hardware business that had occupied three storefronts on the town square for more than 80 years. The same business his father and his father before him had owned. But now, he believed he was leaving the site of Bradley Hardware for the last time.
Frank never wanted to own the store. When he graduated from high school, with offers of football and academic scholarships from more than a dozen colleges, he had taken a year to travel throughout the country. He had thought about engineering, or teaching or even medicine as a career, but he wasn't sure, and rather than spend his scholarship money "experimenting," he decided to hit the road intending to figure out the plan for his "real life" later on. He had saved enough money to buy a motorcycle, and he planned to pick up odd jobs along the road to pay his way.
But on the night of graduation, Frank returned home to the tragic news that his older brother Phil had been in a car accident. Frank's parents were not sure he would recover. It hardly seemed like a good time to leave town. In addition to the immediate shock and bedside vigil, the family had to adjust to Phil's absence from Bradley Hardware, where he had served as manager for the past 10 years.
"Could you help us out, son?" Frank's father asked. "Just until Phil is ..." and his voice trailed off as he collapsed, sobbing, into the chair in the hospital waiting room.
That had been 19 years ago, and Phil had never fully recovered. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and while he had done a great job on the store's books, keeping the orders filled and the inventory current, he was never able to manage the entire operation. That job had fallen to Frank.
He never bought the motorcycle, never took off on his trip and never saw the country as he had planned. But he had kept the store open and thriving for many years, at least until "they" came to town.
At the interchange of a nearby highway, a new big-box hardware and building supply chain store had risen from the farmland. Its vast asphalt parking lot seemed endless, punctuated only by shopping cart corrals and pop-up greenhouses. The town's do-it-yourselfers pushed the big shopping carts along the spacious aisles and loaded them with everything from tools to deadbolts and area rugs to decorative railings.
Frank had wandered into the store one day and found himself both amazed and disheartened at what he saw. They had everything. Everything in several varieties of everything. After spending his entire adult life in the same industry, he felt like he had landed on a different planet. He drove his 1998 Ford pick-up home in a daze.
After dinner, he sat and stared at the television and tried to absorb what he had just seen. It wasn't just the size of the place, or the innumerable employees in matching aprons, or the wall of paint color chips, or the lumber selection or the newest kitchen appliances. It was the look on the customers' faces. His customers. The look of disbelief and, well, delight. Focused on the wonders before them, they hadn't even noticed Frank as he slipped silently down the rows of electrical boxes, pipes and countertops.
The next morning, when Phil arrived at Bradley Hardware, Frank was sitting behind the counter, idly filing receipts and invoices. He had not turned on the overhead lights or unlocked the front door. It was a cloudy morning, and Phil knew immediately his brother's mood was a perfect match for the day.
"I'll do that," Phil said, gesturing to the paperwork. "You've got other things to."
"Just trying to see how we're doing," Frank responded. "Seems a bit slow lately."
"It is," Phil said. "But that's happened before. It'll pick up. Always does."
Phil knew to leave the topic alone and quietly turned to the computer. The day wore on. A few folks stopped in for small things. But it was quiet. And so was the rest of the week. And then the rest of the month. And the next two months. And then Phil ran the numbers.
"I wouldn't worry too much about it," Phil said. "It's just now November, so I really think it'll improve. We always do well around Christmas."
That was small consolation to Frank, who was only now allowing himself to consider the cold reality of corporate competition. He knew that folks would be attracted to the newness of the bright, big store and its lower prices, but he continued to hold out hope that after the novelty wore off, his long-time customers would return out of loyalty if nothing else. It just hadn't happened. In fact, except for the occasional customer who was downtown anyway and didn't want to make the 10-minute trip out to the big store on the highway, business slowed so much that Frank starting cutting his own paycheck to ensure his workers could remain on the clock.
During the first week of December, Frank called an employee meeting to discuss the future of the store. In addition to Phil, the group around the coffee-stained table in the store's back room included Darla, a middle-aged single mother of two kids, one of whom was working his way through the local community college while the other ran a home-based daycare out of Darla's house; Richard, a Vietnam veteran who had been wounded both physically and psychologically in the war; Alice, a retired factory worker who offered part-time assistance in home decorating for the store's customers; and Matt, a Marine Corps veteran recently returned from Afghanistan, who helped out on an as-needed basis with deliveries and stocking of larger items.
"Guess I don't have to tell you all that things have been kinda slow here for several months," Frank began.
"We've had times like this before," Darla said.
"Not for this long," Richard countered. "And never this slow."
"Well, it's pretty bad," Frank continued. "When the recession came along, we started seeing a gradual drop-off in things. People weren't buying much lumber or many tools, but other things kept us going. Fact is, that big store has really pulled people away. They sure got a lot of folks working out there ..."
"Well, yeah, there's less of us," Alice said, "But we've been here a long time and people know us, and they know that we'll take good care of them. I think people like to shop where folks know 'em. At least I do ... It really is a wonderful store."
There was a long silence.
"I think what Frank is trying to say," Phil offered, "is that we just don't know what's ahead for the store right now. We hope things will get busier as we get closer to Christmas, but either way we're all going to be here for a while, and we'll see how things look after the first of the year. We just wanted everyone to know because we don't want to surprise anybody. We'll do our best to keep things as they have always been."
That afternoon, Alice and Richard busied themselves putting the tree up in the store window and hanging the practically antique Christmas lights along the store aisles and over the front counter. Phil starting working on income taxes, and Frank and Matt ran a small load of lumber out to the new residential development near the lake.
Frank locked up as usual about 5:45 and started home. He had gotten about four blocks when he remembered he had not unplugged the Christmas lights. He started to turn back, but his phone rang and before he knew it, he was all the way home, the lights forgotten.
When Frank answered his cell phone about 1:30 a.m., he heard Bill Skaggs, chief of Hardeman's volunteer fire department, on the other end.
"I'll be right there," Frank said.
Nothing could have saved it. The flames reached too high, and the repetitive explosions of paint and aerosol cans ensured that the blaze would be generously fueled for the next couple of hours. It was a goner. The end game now was to keep it from spreading into the hair salon and insurance agency on either side of the store. The volunteers were winning that battle, but it meant that they had nothing to throw at Bradley Hardware. Frank had to stand by helplessly and watch his family business turn to ash.
At first, he felt a strange sense of relief, as if he were being put out of his misery. He almost smiled at the irony of it all.
Then the larger cost began to emerge.
Bradley Hardware was one of only a handful of long-standing, family-owned businesses in the community. While shops on the square had come and gone over the years, Bradley Hardware, the drugstore and the small furniture store had held their own. The two restaurants had various owners throughout the year, and the small bookshop had broadened its inventory to include toys, some crafts and more recently a small coffee bar, but the complexion of the square, with its mixture of attorneys, dentists, real estate offices and insurance agents had stayed essentially the same. With the demise of Bradley Hardware, everyone standing in the dim, pre-dawn mixture of water and smoke knew that things had been forever changed.
Frank told the employees he would pay them for their regular hours through December so they could at least have some semblance of a holiday for their families. He contacted the insurance company and fully expected that they would be able to rebuild.
The next day, Frank went into what was left of the building. Other than some of the hardware that had escaped the hottest flames, most everything else was a charred mess. A couple of old filing cabinets held some damp and smoky records, but nothing very recent. Everything from the past several years had been converted to electronic files. Sadly, the computer equipment was essentially a melted mass, and, in spite of knowing that he should have, Frank had never insisted that Phil keep a duplicate copy of those records off-site. He had nothing with which to reconstruct his financial files.
As he was preparing to leave after loading a few office items into the back of his truck, Bill Skaggs pulled into the diagonal parking space next to Frank.
"I'm glad I caught you," Bill said. "We think we know what happened."
"And," Frank said.
"It started behind the counter ... the Christmas lights," Bill said. "We found a remnant of the wiring that was frayed, and whoever put the lights up left the boxes close to the lights. Sure is a shame, Frank. Really sorry."
Frank nodded as the gravity of what he had just heard began to settle on him. He stared at the skeleton of a store before him.
"Appreciate you coming by," he said. "Sounds like it was just one of those things ..." His voice trailed off.
Frank was sitting in the café across the square, looking at the photos of the fire in the weekly newspaper and stirring his coffee mindlessly when his phone rang. The caller ID said it was the insurance agent.
"What do you got for me, Ray?" Frank said.
"Well, Frank, it's not good news," came the reply. "I've been dreading this call."
There was silence.
Ray continued, "It looks like you were pretty seriously behind in your payments."
"How is that possible?" Frank asked. "I mean, Phil pays the bills ... he never said anything ... I don't know what you're saying."
"Well, according to our records, we talked to Phil on several occasions, and he said he would send payment, but it never got to us," Ray said. "In fact, the last payment we have record of is June of this year, so it seems like you were about six months behind."
"That's impossible," Frank nearly shouted. "That's just impossible. There must be some mistake on your end. We would never let that kind of thing slide. Are you sure? Maybe you need to double-check your ..."
"We're sure, Frank," Ray interrupted. "I wish that we weren't, but we just can't find any way around this. We canceled the policy at the end of October. I'm real sorry, Frank."
"So, that means ..." Frank began.
"That means that you weren't covered, Frank," Ray almost whispered. "Unless you had some other coverage on the store, I'm afraid there is nothing to be done."
"I just can't believe this," Frank said. "Let me talk to Phil, and I'll call you back ..."
The call went to voice mail.
"You need to call me, Phil," Frank practically barked into his cell phone. "Right away."
Seven hours later, as Frank knelt in his garage trying to desperately to break into the charred store safe, Phil called back.
"Tell me there's some misunderstanding Phil," Frank said, "Because of what Ray says is true ... well ... just tell me there's some misunderstanding."
"There is no misunderstanding, Frank," Phil finally admitted quietly. "Ray is right. We were behind. Way behind. I didn't want to tell you. I was counting on the holidays to bring us back current, and I was just going to renew the policy in January."
Frank pushed the safe and his tools to the side of the garage, climbed into his truck and drove to the town square where be parked in front of the insurance agency.
"I'm sure sorry about the store, Frank," Rachel Boeth said. "I just couldn't believe it."
"Thanks," Frank said. "I appreciate it. But I'd like to ask you a favor. Could you pull my life insurance policy, please? I don't even remember what kind of coverage I have right now, and I may need to update things now that the kids are older. The fire sure was a mess, but it did allow me some free time right now to get some other things done ... know what I mean?"
"I'll get it for you right away."
Now the policy was tucked away in the glove compartment of the old Ford, which was parked on the shoulder at the entrance to the old bridge from which Frank's feet dangled as the threatened snow swirled around them.
As he stared into the water below, Frank reviewed the past year and counted the mistakes he had made, up to and including not walking back the four blocks to turn off the Christmas tree lights. He thought of how he had stood by helplessly as the big box store courted his customers away one by one and he had allowed it to happen. He had not fought back. He had not even tried. He had abdicated his responsibility and as a result had left his long-time employees — and friends — without jobs. He foolishly assumed that things would be just like they had always been. He had underestimated the change in the economy and the impact of those changes. And, like most small business owners, he did not ask for help. Now, it was too late.
Without a way to make a living for his family, the courage to face his employees and tell them the store would not reopen or the forgiveness in his heart to face his brother, Frank felt he was out of options. Worse than that, he was out of hope. He had let so many people down, including his father and grandfather who had entrusted Bradley Hardware to him and depended on him to continue its tradition of success. He thought, "It just might be better if I ..."
The next thing he knew, he was being dragged by his coat collar back onto the pavement.
He heard a breathless voice. "What are you doing, man? Here, let me help you up."
Frank got to his feet and found himself looking into the face of a young man.
"Here, get in," the young man said as he helped Frank to the car. "Let's get off this bridge."
30 minutes later, sitting in a small restaurant on the edge of a neighboring town, Frank faced the young man whose name was Wes. Wes was an instructor in his first year at the community college. A former business owner, Wes taught classes in management and marketing part of the time and spent the rest of the time working with area businesses to help them resolve their problems. He listened intently as Frank related not only what had happened this year, but also the years preceding when, in retrospect, he had seen Bradley Hardware's solid foundation begin to crack.
"I just refused to accept it," Frank said. "The store had always been so successful when my dad and granddad ran it, and I just blindly assumed it would always be that way, regardless of me or anyone else. I guess I thought we were invincible."
He took another sip of coffee.
"Or maybe I wanted it to eventually fail," Frank said, almost to himself. "I never wanted to be there in the first place."
"Where did you want to be?" Wes asked.
"Not here," Frank chuckled. "Anywhere but here. I had always thought when I got out of high school that I would buy a motorcycle and wherever the road took me. I wasn't sure what I wanted, but I knew I didn't want to be tied down to anything. And that's precisely what happened."
"What do you think would have happened to the store if you hadn't agreed to stay and help your dad?" Wes asked as the waitress poured a warm-up for his coffee.
"Oh, it probably would have been all right," Frank said. "I think we all panicked a bit when Phil got hurt. I mean, after his rehab, he could have taken things back over I guess. He wasn't able to manage the delivery truck, but other than that ..."
"What do you mean he's been gone nearly six hours?" Frank asked his brother. "All he had to do was run that cabinet out to the new school."
"I don't know where he went," Phil said. "Frank, I can't keep track of everyone. He said he'd be right back."
"Well, he's nearly 75 years old," Frank muttered as he headed for the delivery truck. "I'm going after him. Matt is out with my pick-up, so I'm taking the store truck ..."
25 minutes later, Frank stood talking to the foreman at the construction site.
"Yeah, your dad was here, Frank," he said. "We talked for a while, but then he headed back to town."
Now Frank was retracing the route back to town but saw no sign of his dad. He was about 10 minutes east of town when something caught his eye in the late afternoon light.
He backed up the huge truck and peered off the road where he saw the blinking of a brake light through the trees.
30 minutes later, as the firefighters worked to pull his father from the wreckage of the pick-up, Frank finally had the presence of mind to call his brother.
"I don't know what happened," he said. "He must have had a stroke or something. He just ran clean off the road, and the truck tipped. He was pretty much hanging from his seatbelt. I managed to pull the truck over using the winch on the store truck, and at least get it far enough out of the ditch that the firefighters could reach him. He's in and out of consciousness, so I'll let you know."
"So he recovered?" Wes asked.
"Yes, he did," Frank said. "They told us that another few minutes of him hanging there in that truck might have ended it all for him. It was lucky I came along when I did, I guess."
"So how much longer was he able to work?"
"Another three years, actually," Frank said. "Then one day he got up, ate breakfast and started his walk to the store, and the neighbors two blocks over found him on the sidewalk. He just dropped. Guess it was a blessing he went like that ..."
"I'm real sorry about your dad, Frank," said Jerry as he shook Frank's hand at the funeral home. "He was a great guy. I had just talked to him last week about my son, Richard, who has moved back to the area. He's looking for work. Your dad had said to come see him."
"Is that right," Frank said absentmindedly. He looked past Jerry at the long line of mourners waiting to express their condolences. "This is going to be a very long night," Frank thought.
"Wonder if he could come see you in a few days," Jerry continued. "I know you have a lot on your mind right now, but Rich has had a really hard time. I thought coming back closer to home might help him. His grandkids are here, and he seems to do better when he's around them."
"Sure, sure," Frank said. "Sure, send him by next week."
Richard had indeed stopped by the store, but Frank was out, and he spoke only to Phil.
"The guy's a nut case," Phil told Frank later. "He's nervous and didn't have a good thing to say about anything or anyone. I don't think we need that around here. You already have enough on your plate with me not being able to do much ..."
Later that week, Frank had run into Jerry at the barber. Frank tried to avoid the topic, but it was unavoidable.
"Just not sure we need anyone right now," Frank said to Jerry. "But I'll keep it in mind."
Jerry nodded. "I understand," he said. "Thing is, he's had some run-ins with the law, and his parole officer told him he needed to find a job to be able to stay in the area. I'll let him know."
"What happened to Richard," Wes asked.
"Oh, I hired him," Frank said. "It's what my dad would have wanted me to do. And, besides, he turned out to be a real good worker. He was cranky a lot of the time, but he got the job done. If I had been through what he had been through, I'd be cranky, too.
"In fact," Frank chuckled a bit, "one of my fondest memories is when Richard and I volunteered to build a new concession building at the high school for the baseball field. Richard's grandson was the shortstop, and the team wasn't doing very well. Justin convinced his grandfather that more people would come to the games if they had a place to sell concessions — soda, nachos, things like that.
"Of course, they didn't have any money for the project, so the store just donated the materials, and Richard and I did the work. Turns out we were better builders than electricians, though, because the first night they used the equipment, every time you turned the pot on to melt the nacho cheese, soda came out of the machine. So you either had cold nacho cheese, or more soda than you could ever drink. We got it fixed the next day, but it was a real comedy of errors that first game. We laughed about that for years ..."
"How did the team do that year?" Wes asked.
"Actually, pretty well. The crowds got bigger, and the team got better. Richard's grandson ended up with a baseball scholarship to the state university in Jackson. Pretty big deal."
"Starting to sound to me like it's been a good thing you were around here," Wes said, "for a lot of people."
"I don't know," Frank said. "I just tried to take care of people, and looks like now I should have taken better care of the store. I was just blindsided by the whole deal. I mean, Phil is my brother and all, but I guess I never had full confidence in him to do the right thing. Turns out, I was right. I mean, the insurance payment ... how could he have let that slide?"
"Phil, I don't know what to say. I promise I'll be good for it — every dime. Just don't let on to Frank. Give me some time to pay it back, and he'll never have to know, OK?"
Darla looked at Phil desperately as he wrote the check.
"No, this is between us," Phil said. "Frank would not want you to lose the house. Then you lose the business, and then we lose you. Frank would not want that. I'm certain of it."
"Hope this doesn't make the store run short of cash," Darla said.
"Oh, I've been doing this a while. I know how to move things around to get stuff covered. Don't you worry about a thing. Just get caught up, and when you do, we'll talk to Frank about a raise."
Days later, Phil explained to Frank what he was doing.
"Of course, you have to help her," Frank said. "I won't let on I know anything, just assure me that we can still cover everything. That's all I want to know."
"We're fine," Phil said. "If we run a bit short, I'll let you know."
"That was 2008," Frank said. "We all know what happened then. No one was buying — or building — anything then. I guess we never fully recovered from that. And then the big guys moved in. That was really the death knell."
"I'm not sure it had to be," Wes offered. "But at any rate, Darla kept her house and the daughter's business?"
"Oh, yeah," Frank said. "They were fine, but it just put us further behind. And I guess rather than let me know how bad things were, Phil just started cutting back, including on insurance payments.
"Then the fire, due to my negligence. So, we're pretty much out of luck now. At least, I am. I messed everything up for a whole lot of people."
"Sounds like you did your very best for many people, Frank," Wes suggested. "True, you made some errors in judgment, but you did what you did because you wanted to help people. To give back. That's what small businesses tend to do. And small business owners will sacrifice themselves before they will let anything happen to their workers and the people who depend on them. A lot of folks were able to realize their dreams because you put yours on hold. Ever think of it that way?"
"We were just always there for each other, except this one time, I wasn't where I should have been," Matt said. "I had already come home. He went on another deployment. I should have been with him."
"Look, I want you to go, and I want you to — on behalf of all of us — pay respects to him. You need to be there for his wife and kids."
"I know, Frank, but you have had this trip planned for more than a year. I hate for you to miss it. You may not get another chance like this for a while," Matt said.
"Look, I can go another time. It's not nearly as important as what you need to go do."
Matt extended his hand to Frank, and then he started to cry.
The funeral was two days away in a suburb of Philadelphia. As Frank made deliveries that weekend — the weekend that he had planned to start a 10-day vacation — his first in 16 years, which he planned to spend on a rented motorcycle in Colorado — he tried to think of the money he was saving by not going on his long-anticipated trip.
"So Matt was able to lay his buddy to rest," Wes said.
Frank nodded, with tears in his eyes.
Three weeks later, in Wes's office at the community college, Frank, Richard, Matt, Phil, Alice and Darla sat down to think about what to do next.
"We're in this with you, Frank," Matt said. "You've been there for us, and whatever it is you decide to do, we want to be a part of it."
With Wes's careful guidance and solid research, the group developed a plan for a new store in the old location. The group determined that it didn't make sense to go head to head any longer with the giant hardware store. But what they could do was offer something the big guys didn't.
Two years later on Christmas Eve, Frank turned off the lights and locked the front door of Bradley Flooring and Design. As he stood on the sidewalk and looked around the square, he felt as if his story had come full circle. In the two years since the fire, people in the community had been faithful in their efforts to help Frank get his new business open and successful.
The bank had stepped up with a new construction loan, using the commitment of future sales to other local businesses as collateral. Those businesses had come through and purchased new flooring and carpeting for their offices and stores. The area home builders association made a pact to purchase all of their flooring and window treatments from Bradley's. Two area churches planning additions made the purchase of materials from Bradley's a stipulation in their construction contracts. The store decided to offer Alice's design services at no extra charge to the first 20 customers who purchased at least $7,000 in materials after the store reopened. And Matt drafted two other area veterans to learn installation alongside him so any Bradley's project, from design, to purchase, to installation could be done in-house.
Then the community threw a surprise anniversary party on the second anniversary of the devastating fire.
As Frank returned from an evening delivery, he opened the backdoor of the store to be greeted by more than 200 well-wishers toasting with champagne and singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."
"Frank, it's great to see you back in business," one local resident said. "I'll never forget how you helped my folks out with the discount on the materials to repair their basement seven years ago after the big flood."
"Frank, thank you for helping us all these years with the sets for the school play," the high school drama teacher said. "Your donations made it possible for us to produce some very nice shows and make a little money besides."
"Frank, we appreciate what you did for the food pantry years ago," said another. "We really needed those shelves replaced and there just wasn't money in the budget. We'd still be stacking food on the damp floor if it were not for you."
"Frank, thanks for giving Dallas that job when he was with the sheltered workshop," Dallas' father said. "He has his own apartment now and is doing real well at the grocery store. You helped make that possible for him."
One by one, folks thanked Frank for his seemingly endless list of kindnesses. And little by little Frank began to get a picture of the role his store had played in their lives — and many others. And slowly he began to realize just why he HAD to rebuild and had to ensure that one more locally owned small business did not disappear in the shadow of the larger corporations.
Small businesses put their roots down in our communities with a purpose and with passion. They want to make a difference in the life of the community. They give back. They offer personal, caring customer service. And they never forget the people who make their success possible.
As he walked the six blocks home that night, Frank considered for the first time that perhaps he had ended up right where he was supposed to be. And even though the new store was different, Frank found himself remembering Alice's word on that night more than two years ago.
"It really is a wonderful store."
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