How a Texas department store’s vision could change the service contracting industry.

Every now and again it’s good to consider what we’re in business for. Surely we’re not in it just for the money. Is it possible to build a profitable business while making a contribution to the society that enables us to have a business in the first place? This month, let’s take a peek outside the trenches and consider how one family made a huge impact in its town - Fort Worth, Texas, my home turf.

In 1918, brothers John Marvin Leonard and Green Thomas Leonard opened a small grocery and salvaged merchandise store in a downtown Fort Worth storefront (soon after, another brother, Obadiah, took G.T.’s place in the partnership). The booming economy of the 1920s provided an opportunity for the Leonard brothers to expand their product lines to include meat, produce, auto parts, hardware and garden supplies.

Their slogan, “More merchandise for less money,” was the driver of their early success. However, they began construction on their own building just in time for the stock market crash in 1929. The economy struggled but the Leonards managed to adapt. This is where their story starts getting interesting.

Innovation And Creative Marketing

The Leonards made money during the Great Depression. Literally.

Fort Worth, like most U.S. cities, struggled during the Depression. The Leonards adapted by offering check-cashing services and further cemented relationships with their customers by offering a select group of products, bread in particular, at the lowest prices in town. To put this into perspective, by the end of the decade, they were selling 7,000 loaves of bread per day! It’s hard to guess how many households this represented.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a bank holiday - all banks were closed until each one was vetted by the Treasury Department. With banks closed, workers couldn’t cash paychecks. No paychecks meant they couldn’t buy merchandise.

To remedy the problem, the Leonard brothers created their own money by cashing checks with scrip, which could be used in their store. The economic impact of this bold step reverberated throughout the local economy because Leonard’s scrip was soon accepted as cash at other local retailers, sustaining commerce during the banking holiday. Leonard’s patrons continued to be loyal for years because of this magnanimous gesture.

Leonard’s Department Store expanded as the economy overcame the Depression. It continued to add product lines and improve its management style and facilities. The product lines stretched from baked goods to sporting goods, sewing machines to ready-to-wear.

As product variety expanded, the company’s management style adapted. The Leonards treated department heads as if they were in charge of independent businesses with only minimal rules from “the top.” Managers’ salaries were low but they earned sales bonuses, which helped keep them focused on productivity.

As the store grew, an annex was built across the street, using tunnels to connect the buildings. To help customers negotiate multiple floors, the town’s first escalators were built. Escalator builders had a backlog due to the nationwide building boom, so the brothers hired their own engineer to design and build one from scratch, with Marvin Leonard personally supervising construction.

Eventually, parking became a significant problem in the downtown location. The innovative Leonards built a huge off-site parking lot and connected it to the store with the M&O Subway. For many of us, this was a highlight of every shopping trip. True to form, the subway served the public as well as customers. Visitors to downtown Fort Worth took advantage of the free parking and free subway, regardless of whether they actually bought anything at Leonard’s.

What We Can Learn From The Leonards

The above highlights are only the tip of the Leonard brothers’ iceberg. The bigger picture, and the reason this story is relevant to you as a service contractor, comes to light as we consider the Leonard Brothers’ Creed. As their business matured, so did their mission. The Leonard Brothers’ Creed spelled out an amazing vision, one that I think could change the image of our industry:
    “To build a business that will never know completion, but that will progress continually to meet advancing conditions.

    “To evince a knowledge of merchandise that will be authoritative to a notable degree.

    “To create a personality that will be known for its strength and friendliness.

    “To arrange and coordinate activities to the end of winning confidence by meriting it.

    “To strive always to secure and maintain the satisfaction of every patron.”

There isn’t room in this column to cite all the innovative ways the Leonard brothers applied this creed, but let’s expand on a few points as it relates to your business. What does it mean to build a business that will never be finished? We often hear about “exit strategies,” but what about legacy strategies? Although it’s been decades since the Leonards turned their department store over to someone else, their legacy continues to influence the entire North Texas region.

If you’re a golf enthusiast, perhaps you’ve heard of the golf course Marvin built because he wanted to play on Bentgrass greens instead of Bermuda grass. In order to preserve the legacy of his creation, he sold it, at cost, to his club members, creating The Colonial Country Club, as seen on the PGA Tour.

What about notable knowledge of merchandise? The Leonard brothers competed in a game where nearly everything they sold was available somewhere else. One point of differentiation was to simply understand their products better than anyone else. Knowledge is one of the amazing resources of our own industry and I know many truly savvy practitioners.

Yet in spite of all the expertise required in our line of work, it’s not very difficult to rise above the pack by simply knowing our craft. Knowledge is available to all of us but it’s rare to find contractors who actually invest in training.

Leonard’s plank of “personality known for strength and friendliness” was epitomized in the historic flood of 1949. Disasters often set the stage for heroic acts and the Leonard family stepped up in ways no one else could. Leonard’s employees took boats and motors from the sports department and began rescuing stranded citizens. After the waters subsided, the heroism continued as the appliance department offered free appliance repairs to flood victims.

In a similar act of heroism, one of my favorite plumbing contractors voluntarily pumped basements after a flood in his town. Is your company capable and equipped to help out your community in a time of need?

For brevity, I’ll lump the last two planks of their creed together by simply saying that the Leonard brothers’ goal was to earn customer loyalty. Competition was all around them yet Leonard’s rose to become the most prominent retailer in town by earning the hearts of its customers. As service contractors, we get extra points just for showing up and bonus points for showing up on time. Beyond that, do we actually try to earn customer loyalty? Shoppers remained loyal to Leonard’s because Leonard’s was loyal to them and their community.

I’ve mentioned only a sliver of the remarkable achievements of the Leonard brothers. They had a vision for a business that far exceeded the role of merchant. Perhaps that’s what’s missing in your company. Perhaps you’ve left out the “magic ingredient” that makes your company “real” in the community.

If you would like to know more about the Leonard legacy, send me an e-mail and I’ll send you more links to the inspiring heritage of these Texas heroes.