Chapter 14: Pioneer Spirit

Rise Above Chapter 14

I tried being reasonable. I didn’t like it. - Clint Eastwood

I believe within every heart a pioneering spirit can be found: a desire to break new ground and plant seeds where there were none, to discover new things and venture forward to places we’ve never been, to take risks and stick our heads out of our caves—even if we get burned once in a while or run over. If it weren’t so, we would never have invented fire or the wheel.

In my case, without a pioneering spirit, I would have accepted my prognosis and never left the house. I certainly never would have created my business and then continued to build it over the years. The bottom line was that no matter how big we were getting, I still loved to cut a deal, create something out of nothing, and get the most out of what I had. I still do. You see, I don’t smoke or drink, play golf or tennis, or engage in a lot of other hobbies. My hobby is starting and running businesses. I love the art and science of it, and no matter how much I grow any business, I’m always looking for something else.

I inherited the entrepreneurial bug from my parents, and I’m happy to say I’ve passed it on to my five children. Like any parent, I never miss an opportunity to brag about my kids, so here goes: Cherie, my oldest, is trained as a travel agent but has taken on the hardest career path there is—soccer mom. Next is Todd, who, as I mentioned before, started a successful NASCAR racing team. My middle child, Brent, runs a company that manufactures seats for buses. Drew, the artistic one, channels his creative talents into a custom glass countertop and glass art business. Melissa, my youngest, is following a more unorthodox path. A mother of four, she still finds time to run an alpaca breeding farm. On a typical day, you’ll find her giving shots or scooping poo, all while planning a restaurant and gift shop at the farm. Like me, they’re always up for a new challenge.

I was looking for a new challenge myself back in the mid-1970s, and the answer came in the form of fiberglass. Here’s the story. One day, I was looking through a magazine when I saw an ambulance with a fiberglass top for sale. We were converting a lot of vans at that time and putting 24-inch camper tops on some of them because, from floor to ceiling, there wasn’t enough room for some people to go in and out unless they had extra space above their heads. When I saw the ambulance top, which was only 12 inches high, it seemed like a good thing to try on our vans. For one thing, it would be smaller and more attractive. For another, because of its smaller size, it would be much more practical in lowering the wind resistance and also decreasing the material costs.

I called the ambulance company and said, “I want to buy one of your tops.”

“We don’t sell tops,” he said. “You have to buy a whole ambulance.”

“I don’t need a whole ambulance,” I said. “I’m in a wheelchair, and I need an extension for my van so I don’t have to duck my head when I go in and out.”

He said, “We don’t sell parts unless it’s for an ambulance that's been wrecked.”

“OK,” I said. “What if I did have an ambulance that had been in a wreck? And then that ambulance needed a new top. How much would it cost?”

“That would be $300,” he said. “But you understand, I …”

“How about if I call my van an ambulance?” I asked. “Can I buy one then?”

“I don’t know …” he said, hesitantly. I sensed he was wavering.

“Let’s try this,” I offered. “How about I send you a check for $300, and we’ll figure out how I can come get one. How does that sound?”

He considered this for a minute, and I waited. Finally, he said, “You send me the check, and when it clears the bank, I’ll call you and tell you to send somebody to pick it up. Since I don’t want to get in trouble for selling you the top, I’ll meet you on Sunday evening, and you can pick it up.”

The following week, I sent one of my guys with a truck to pick it up. When he returned and we unloaded it on the shop floor, I said to my guys, “This is just what we need for our customers.” Instinctively, I knew it was going to work.

I had some experience with fiberglass because a few years earlier I had begun making fiberglass shells to dress up our Tri-Wheelers. At this point, I had only this one fiberglass top, and I knew I needed more of them. How was I going to buy them?

I found someone in Rochester, Indiana, who was making fiberglass showers and bathtubs for the recreational vehicle (RV) industry. His name was Bill Adams, and I asked him to come look at my fiberglass top and see whether he had any ideas. Bill said he could make a mold and parts for me for less than it cost me to buy the ambulance top. On the spot, I placed an order for a half-dozen, plus the mold, which would enable him to continually make more.

Bill started making fiberglass tops for my vans, which I called “Wheelchair Traveler,” and they sold like crazy. I trusted my gut, and it proved to be right. The tops were just what we needed, but they also paved the way for future advances in engineering and product design.

However, my tops were about to hit bottom, because trouble was on its way in the form of an oil embargo, which was hitting the RV industry hard. Today, Elkhart, Indiana, is all over the news because a lot of RVs are built there, and with the country in a current economic decline, Elkhart has had it rough. In the 1970s, the embargo did the same thing, because fiberglass resin is made out of oil. Consequently, sales of RV's plummeted, and with it went demand for showers, tubs, and other items Bill was making out of fiberglass. Bill, like other fiberglass makers, had reached a certain allocation of fiberglass resin to make his products, but without enough demand, much of that allocation was going unused, and he was losing a lot of money.

Bill’s business partner was on the verge of shutting down the business, and Bill came to let me know. He didn’t have the wherewithal to buy his partner out, so that looked like the end of the line for him and the fiberglass business. This was going to cause a real problem for me, because he was making van tops and Tri-Wheeler shells every day for me, and I could not lose my supplier.

To solve my problem, I bought the business from Bill and his partner, including their equipment and, most important, their allocation of oil-based resin. I then hired Bill to build my fiberglass tops and shells in a building I owned in Winamac that had been, at various points, a water ski factory and a chicken hatchery. Now I had my supply, but I was up against the same issue Bill and his partner had faced: too much allocation for too little demand. Because I was using only 5 percent of my newfound allocation, I began to look for new ways I could make up the remaining 95 percent.

Enter “Big John,” my portable fiberglass toilet business.

Believe me, I’ve heard all the jokes about how making portable toilets was a “waste” of my money and a “stinky” business to be in. However, my thinking had some logic to it, and the business actually turned out to be quite successful.

Bill’s former fiberglass partner had also owned a road construction business. Because his crews often worked in areas with no bathroom facilities, he provided them with portable toilets on the job sites. To save money by not always having to rent the toilets, Bill made him a mold so he could build his own. We still had the mold, so Bill and I decided to see whether we could put it to use.

We built two portable toilets and called them Big Johns. Bill put them in the back of his pickup truck and drove to some construction sites to see whether he could sell them. We quickly realized our “go-to-market strategy” was flawed because the people on the construction sites did not want to have to deal with cleaning and storing our Big Johns.

To improve our strategy, we joined an association of “honey dippers,” an ironic nickname for people who clean out septic tanks for farmers. Their real name was the Portable Sanitation Association, and when we took our Big Johns to their San Diego convention, we swept the market.

Many competitors were making their portable toilets out of wood. In addition to being too heavy, let’s just say splinters were a problem. The unquestioned market leader, however, was a company called Virginia Fiberglass, but its product could not stand up to ours because it was much smaller and was not made as well as ours. This soon became apparent during Virginia Fiberglass’s product demonstration, when the booth attendant used his cowboy boots to kick the portable toilet he was promoting to show how strong it was and put his foot through the side. He tried to talk his way out of it and even attempted to cover up the hole with some paper and tape, but the damage was done.

Our Big Johns were indestructible. They were 7½ feet tall and 4 feet by 4 feet, weighed 175 pounds, and were cream-colored, with one exception—during the country’s bicentennial celebration, we painted some of our Big Johns red, white, and blue.

By the end of the San Diego convention, we sold 600 Big Johns at $375 each. Within a month, we were shipping tractor-trailers filled with 22 Big Johns each week to customers all over the country. Another month later, we were shipping a tractor-trailer filled with Big Johns every single day. We supplied all of the portable toilets for the building of Disney’s new Epcot theme park and also for the Pope’s visits to Chicago and Minneapolis. Soon, I had to put up more buildings just to keep up with demand.

The portable toilet business could have gone on indefinitely, but once the oil embargo had been lifted and there was plenty of fiberglass to go around, I did not need to have so much capacity. All I really wanted was to ensure my supply for fiberglass tops and Tri-Wheelers. So in the late 1980s, I sold the fiberglass business to Bill, who continued to build my fiberglass tops and Tri-Wheeler shells for many years.

I’d gotten everything I’d wanted out of the fiberglass business: I’d ensured my supply of fiberglass, leveraged my investment to build a business, and then sold it for a fair return.

But back in the ’70s, despite the fact my van and lift business was booming, I was restless. Even though I’d just started in fiberglass, I was looking for another opportunity.

One came in the form of a Snap-On tool truck—not the truck but the man driving it, Jim McDaniels, who was a Snap-On salesman. Jim had been coming around the shop and selling tools to my employees during working hours, but he wasn’t happy in his job and really wanted to try something else. Part of the reason he wasn’t happy was that guys like me were always telling him to get lost when he came around and tried to sell his tools.

After Jim and I had become friends, we were having lunch one day at a drive-in ice cream shop in a nearby town, North Judson. While we ate, I told him I’d always wanted to have a fast-food franchise in Winamac. To my amazement, he said he wanted out of the Snap-On business and a fast-food franchise was one of the things he would consider. We agreed that a Dairy Queen would fit well in our town, and just like that, we went to go look at one in a nearby town. After talking to the manager and getting some contact information for Dairy Queen’s home office in Minneapolis, we drove back to Winamac, where I called and made an appointment for someone to come and talk to us.

A few days later, a representative from Dairy Queen came to my office to discuss the possibilities of opening a franchise. He said he needed to do a survey to see whether Winamac could support one of their restaurants. In other words, he had to determine whether Winamac had the kind of traffic that would enable a Dairy Queen to succeed. Jim and I looked at each other and thought, “We’re going to get turned down now. Oh, well, it was a nice thought.”

The Dairy Queen representative was a young kid and said he would do the survey himself. He would send it to the home office, and then they would contact us to let us know whether the survey came back positive. With that, he drove across the street and parked his car—and waited. He sat there for about half an hour while he counted cars.

Luckily, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon. This meant that my former employer and the other businesses in town were just finishing the first shift, so a steady stream of cars was flowing directly past where this young Dairy Queen representative sat. Finally, he drove away. One week later, we got a call from Minneapolis; for $15,000, we could have our franchise. Jim and I each put up $7,500, and we were in business.

Of course, we needed a building. For that, I called my friend Monty Williams, the man who had been building all of the structures we were constantly growing out of. Monty was somewhat of a renegade, like me, so although he knew nothing about building a Dairy Queen, he was willing to take a shot, provided he could put up the shell—someone else would have to do the interior. Because it was summer, for the interior I got Jerry Jones, a local industrial arts school teacher who had taught my kids and who I knew to be the best craftsman in town. Once Monty and Jerry were through with their work, we had our grand opening.

Our Dairy Queen was a huge success. Everyone in Winamac seemed to eat there, and on hot summer nights, it was the place to go. But it was more than that: my friend Jim was making a good living from it, we were employing high school kids and other people who needed jobs, and it felt good to have my town thought of like other towns. Not only was I moving up in the world but I was helping my town do the same. Today, Jim and I are still the best of friends. We go to NASCAR races in my motor home and fly radio-controlled planes together. Jerry Jones’s son, Tom, works for us at Braun, and Jerry’s wife, Connie, retired from the company a few years ago.

By the end of the 1970s, my pioneering spirit had served me well. What had begun with Tri-Wheelers had grown into a very successful business that also included wheelchair vans and lifts—a market we created. As a result, I told myself that with more hard work, innovation, and preparation, nothing could stop me from building the company of my dreams.

I spoke too soon.

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