April 24, 2014
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Bandwidth of Brothers

Gray Loon celebrates 20 years as website pioneers
Jon Ruthenburg and Tom Lewis

Companies make choices all the time — some big, some small. Jon Ruthenburg and Tom Lewis made a big choice one year after opening Gray Loon Marketing Group in May 1994. They embraced the Internet.

“It was the smartest business decision we ever made,” says Lewis.

As a result, the Evansville firm that began with four employees is celebrating its 20th anniversary this spring with a staff of 24 and an eclectic array of more than 60 clients ranging from Mead Johnson Nutrition to Duck Commander — yes, the same Duck Commander made famous by the Robertson family of ‘Duck Dynasty’ fame.

Gray Loon’s employees also are celebrating their 20th with new awards for their second floor offices at 300 S.E. Riverside Drive. They earned the Platinum Winner award at the 2013 Marcom Awards for a design the agency created for the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana. The competition, administered by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals, is one of the world’s most prestigious marketing contests.
Earlier this year, Gray Loon brought home four gold, two silver, and two bronze Addys from the Advertising Club of Evansville awards ceremony, and earned the ACE Best of Show award for an integrated marketing campaign it created for Deer Creek Lodge.

Credit “this www thing” for much of Gray Loon’s creative success.

“In 1995, the Web was not yet an established marketing vehicle,” Ruthenburg points out. “Clients would call us and say, ‘We need a Web page on this www thing.’ We would ask questions about what they wanted to accomplish, and why they wanted to go on the Web, and they’d say ‘Well, we need a home page, whatever that is.’ It’s amazing that in 20 years, websites have gone from ‘whatever that is’ to the No. 1 marketing communication vehicle for business. And we were one of the first agencies in the region to embrace Web development.”

Gray Loon is a full-service digital marketing agency that specializes in website development, web usability, hosting, e-commerce, social media integration, and a range of other custom digital solutions.

Clients include many locally recognized names, including the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana, and Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald & Hahn, along with international companies such as Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana, Accuride, Alcoa, and Mead Johnson Nutrition.

Since its early days, one of Gray Loon’s niches has been the outdoor industry. Clients such as Benelli USA (firearms), Realtree (camouflage patterns), and Hoyt Archery (archery and bowhunting) are the result of Lewis being an avid outdoorsman and Ruthenburg being a former executive at Escalade Sports (Indian Industries).

It was Gray Loon’s connection to Benelli and Realtree that attracted Duck Commander in 2004, long before the world became familiar with Si, Phil, Jase, Willie, and the rest of the Robertson clan. Gray Loon first developed Duck Commander’s website 10 years ago.

“After their ‘Duck Dynasty’ fame, they saw the need to really expand their online presence,” explains Ruthenburg. “In 2013, our staff developed a new website and e-commerce platform to sell their products for both Duck Commander and Buck Commander. They liked our work, and that’s a reflection of our excellent team.

Lewis adds, “Not long ago, websites were being built by programmers. They were bland and sterile. They weren’t very user friendly, and they weren’t very attractive. And they were extremely weak in terms of marketing message and strategy. We always pride ourselves on taking the marketing side and marrying it with the programming/technical side.

“Either you were a marketing firm, or you were building websites. We were able to merge those two, with the combination of outstanding creative people and outstanding customer service,” says Lewis.

Gray Loon’s longest client relationship is with Columbus, Ga., based Realtree, dating back to 1995.

“Gray Loon built our first website to promote our (camouflage) patterns and videos, and now our website has grown into one of the largest in the industry,” says Scott Hughes, director of electronic media at Realtree.

“The staff at Gray Loon are pretty much an extension of our marketing department. They know as much about our business as we do. Plus, they keep us up to date on new technology, and train us. I can’t say enough about their commitment to us. I communicate as much with their staff as I do many of the people internally here in Georgia,” says Hughes. “They have certainly had an impact on our growth. I feel like they are co-employees with us.”

So what’s ahead for Gray Loon? Lewis and Ruthenburg are more technically savvy than many of their contemporaries, but smart enough to count on their younger team members to blaze the newest trails.

“Our success has been built on our great, young staff that has really made it happen, in terms of knowledge, intelligence, and their desire to learn new things,” says Ruthenburg. “It takes that environment of a team of people who want to continue to learn new technologies, because it’s changing every day. It takes a strong staff of people who are driven in that way.

“But I also believe that our core will never change. That begins with our marketing foundation — our ability to develop relationships with clients focused around what their strategic marketing visions are. Then it’s customer service — being focused on responding to customer needs. And third, we’ve always prided ourselves on our creative abilities. We have a highly talented creative staff. Combine them with our programming capabilities, and we’re able to generate effective sites and digital communications that are both visually appealing and user friendly. That’s what it’s all about.”

A member of the staff since 2006, Account Executive/Marketing Strategist Brita Lewis (no relation to Tom) is one of those thinking constantly about the company’s future.

“We don’t know what will change in a year or two, and that’s challenging, but those challenges also make the job exciting because we need to always be ready for change,” she says. “For example, over the past couple of years, the percentage of people accessing websites with mobile devices went from 20 to almost 60 percent. And we see the trend in using portable devices continuing to expand. Regardless, you know that whatever does change, we will be on top of it. We won’t be the last company in the industry to adapt. We’ll be one of the first.”

For more information on Gray Loon Marketing Group, Inc., call 812-422-9999 or visit grayloon.com.

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Lessons Learned

I have just returned from a lengthy 25th anniversary cruise, encompassing almost two weeks out of the country. The majority of it was spent sailing through an archipelago off the coast of Grenada. A few “coincidences” to share regarding my anniversary date is that it falls on April Fools’ Day and everyone has forgotten to tell my wife what a “lucky woman” she is. Must be an oversight. So I made some mental notes (obviously brief ones) about what I learned along the way.

So here they are, like everything in my brain... in random order.

•  A sailing vessel of 236 feet is a ship, not a boat. Sorry, Captain Bernard. Of course after making that mistake numerous times to antagonize our good-natured (had to be) captain, when asked how everything was, I replied, it was “Boat shape, Captain.” Well... it was funny then.

•  Enter the water carefully when wearing snorkeling gear.

•  No one looks cool walking in fins.

•  West Indian hot sauces are really spicy. Really.

•  Don’t prejudge. We had an authentic motorcycle gang member/entrepreneur on board. He could not have been any nicer.

•  See above, I would want said motorcycle gang rider on my side in a bar fight.

•  When the West Indian bartender replies that he won’t tell you what is in his “special” rum drink, perhaps you should ask again.

•  Island time is not a misnomer. Slow down... your beverage will eventually get to you.

•  In tiny island populations, the natives will treat you every bit as politely as you treat them.

•  I’m pretty sure the Pizza Hut on the island of Bequia is not part of the international chain.

•  If you truly want to see a little bit of everything, then spend a 9.5-hour layover at the Miami International Airport.

•  I am fairly sure that “Motion,” the launch driver who dispensed medical advice, is not a real medical doctor.

•  On Grenada, our stretch of beach was being worked by “Wheelin’ Dealin’.” I’m pretty sure he could and would negotiate any world crisis — for a fee, of course.

•  We witnessed and heard a very long Pentecostal baptism on the beach. I watched and heard the wonderful gospel music from my beach chair.

•  My buddy Larry doesn’t sound any better singing and playing the guitar in the open air on a ship than he does here, even with the free rum swizzles.

•  The rum drink “Painkiller” is accurately named.

•  No Wi-Fi is awesome.

By now, no doubt, I have inspired you to learn to... turn the page.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you. I will get back to you on island time. 

Todd A. Tucker
Publisher

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Downtown Dream

Long anticipated Hilton DoubleTree breaks ground
December/January 2014 Evansville Business feature on the Downtown hotel.

Nearly three years after the Executive Inn Evansville was torn down to make way for the Ford Center, a few hundred people gathered to watch as Evansville officials broke ground March 10 for a new 10-story, 257-room Hilton DoubleTree hotel.

With shovels in hand, Mayor Lloyd Winnecke and several Evansville City Council members turned dirt at the construction site at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Walnut Street.

“The groundbreaking is yet another important milestone for this project and our local workforce is eager to begin construction,” says Winnecke. “The 257-room hotel will put our city back on the map for convention business, as well as spur additional downtown development.”

Construction on the $71.4 million development is expected to take 18 months and is projected to open in the fall of 2015.

HCW LLC, an Indiana corporation headquartered in Branson, Mo., is developing the project. The company is contributing $40 million to the project.

The hotel plan moved forward last year after several weeks of debate mostly surrounding its level of public financing. The City Council’s majority chose to cap the public subsidy at $20 million. A group of investors, led by Old National Bank, came forward to fund up to $14 million, which made the project possible.

An “objection to a hotel licensing application” filed by Dunn Hospitality Group could cause a delay in the final approval of private financing. Dunn Hospitality states the hotel would pull business from three existing Hilton properties in the Evansville area.

The project includes a hotel, a 6,000-square-foot conference center, residential apartments, and parking garage, which are all connected with above ground skywalks.

For more information on the Downtown hotel and convention center, check out the December/January 2014 issue of Evansville Business or visit hcwdevelopment.com.

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On Top of Evansville

Attorney Neil Chapman has an office with a view
Attorney Neil Chapman

Whatever else might be said about attorney Neil Chapman’s office, it is the only one of its kind in Evansville. Located on the 17th floor of the 420 Main Building (formerly Old National Bank), no office space in the city can boast of the same elevation.

“This is the highest office in town, with apologies to the mayor,” Chapman jokes. “But I also tell people it is lonely at the top, because it is the only 17th floor in Evansville, and we are the only ones up here.”

Part of the 17th floor and the entire 18th floor once made up the famed Petroleum Club. The private dining club moved to the top of the Old National Bank Building in 1970 and closed in 2006. The club is now vacant and in need of major repairs.

Chapman moved into his current office four years ago. After spending a decade working for Danks & Danks, he started his own firm and took space on the 420 Main Building’s ninth floor. Once his practice was successful enough, he moved up as far as he could go.

“I shouldn’t tell people how affordable the rent is, but it is,” says Chapman. “This building is a classic example of mid-century modern architecture. And it has aged well. And in fact, mid-century modern design has become very trendy.”

That design includes a few nods to the 1960s, including furniture that would look right at home of the set of the television show “Mad Men.” There even are a few bottles of liquor — for display, mind you — to top off the retro motif.

Chapman’s office features some personal memorabilia, including the team photo of his undefeated 1982 Castle High School football team and family photos. He has items from his time in the military, including his marine officer sword. A painting from his wife, Sandra Thomas, in the style of Jackson Pollock, hangs in the meeting room. And he brought in his father’s old LP stereo system that he’s played with since childhood.

“For an attorney, I think I’m pretty clean,” he says. “We scan and then shred. If we used the old files, I’d need another office this size just to store everything. And those books are my textbooks from law school. It’s all on the Internet now. Books in law firms are now just decorations.”

Chapman, 49, has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a law degree from Notre Dame Law School. He moved back to his native Newburgh, Ind., when he began practicing law in Evansville.

Today, Chapman is a big advocate for both the 420 Main Building and all of Downtown Evansville. He says he can’t imagine having his office anywhere else.

For more about Neil Chapman’s law practice, visit chapmaninjurylaw.com. For more about the 420 Main Building, visit officespaceevansville.com.

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Not So Mini

A portable storage company moves in
The Go Mini’s Moving and Portable Storage team of Justin Kline, Ben Gallant, Melissa MacIsaac, and Brad Leath.

Turn on the television and chances are you’ll come across a bidding war for someone’s forgotten personal belongings at a storage company. Rather than risk losing personal items to the highest bidder, Tri-State residents can now store their items at home. Go Mini’s is a personal storage unit company that brings the storage space to you.

The 12-foot, 16-foot, or 20-foot units have padded wheels that won’t damage your driveway and insulation that resists mold and heat to protect your valuables and more.

“It’s kind of the new way of moving,” says president Brad Leath. “The old way of moving was renting a truck, taking two or three days to load it all up, go up and down a ramp and you have to drive it yourself. Our unit, you load it once taking your time then we move or store it for you.”

Go Mini’s is the largest portable storage company in North America with 220 locations. Franchises exist in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and since 2008, Evansville.

“When the economy got really hard, I moved my family up here to the most northern part of my territory because it was untapped,” Leath says. “My way of getting out of the recession was to grow out of it.”

Leath and his business partner Michael Lohman in Simi Valley, Calif., created an investment group of 28 people and purchased 80 percent of the company from its founder. As a corporate owner, Leath spends 95 percent of his time running the corporate part of the business with his team but operates locally in Newburgh, Ind.

The first thing Leath wanted to do with the company was rebrand it. Currently, the 65 Go Mini’s units in Evansville have the old branding, but that soon will change. Two Evansville design companies, VisualRush and Regent Promotions, came together to create a new logo and a local sign company redesigned the company’s signs.

Leath previously worked as part of a college ministry in Memphis, Tenn. When he felt like his mentoring skills outgrew that crowd, his calling sent him into the Go Mini’s business world in Memphis.

Leath believes that the three most stressful events in someone’s life are death, divorce, and moving, and people use Go Mini’s during all three of those events.

“Do I dream about portable storage? Is it my passion? Not really, but my passion is helping people. This is an easy way to help people.”

For more information on Go Mini’s, call 812-471-4292 or visit gominis.com/dealers/Evansville.

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Smiling Faces

Boys and Girls Club’s website makeover reflects positive youth impact

Whose Site Is It? The Boys and Girls Club of Evansville is responsible for many smiling faces. In January, the Evansville affiliate of the national organization, which provides a variety of services and programs to help create a positive environment for young people, realized its website needed a makeover to reflect its mission.

“Immediately, you notice the color on the website,” says Shanna Scheessele, Resource Development Director. “Before it was just a white slate. We wanted to make it more of a representation of our club and our kids. I felt like it was lacking so much in our previous website. Why not show off their smiling faces?”

Here’s how it works: A slideshow of children representing each of the Boys and Girls Club programs rotate through on the homepage. The top toolbar provides information about the history of the club, program options, events, ways to become involved, and the latest news. The redesigned website includes clear contact information with the club’s two locations, which Scheessele says the previous website lacked. There also are options to donate on nearly every page making it easier to navigate for first-time visitors. “Before we just had an icon on the home page and now virtually on every page, people can immediately donate,” says Scheessele.

Don’t Miss: Current up-to-date information on the Boys and Girls Club’s annual campaign goals are now available on the website. The club currently has raised around $67,000 of its $100,000 goal.

Site Designed By and Maintained By: A Vectren Corp. volunteer through WordPress, and Shanna Scheessele.

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Locally Grown

Hasting Plants owner cares for plants from seed to sale
Owner Nancy Hasting works with flowers, perennials, and annuals in her family-owned greenhouse operation.

A couple of years after Hasting Plants first opened, a newspaper reporter visited the seasonal greenhouse operation near Mount Vernon, Ind., and declared it to be “well worth the drive.”

The compliment transformed into a slogan, which drives Nancy Hasting as she works to grow and produce the best selection of plants for her customers.

Hasting opened 5 acres of U-Pick vegetables in 1982 with a used greenhouse. She slowly moved away from the vegetable fields and now owns four greenhouses and a store.

“I have always attributed my love for plants to my grandmother,” says Hasting, who is helped with maintenance by her husband Mike and by their daughter Diane Hasting Banks. Their son Daniel works in Indianapolis and designed the greenhouse’s website. “She was a great flower and vegetable gardener. We used to pour over seed catalogues together.”

Hasting studied horticulture at Purdue University and later taught horticulture at a vocational school near Paoli, Ind. But Hasting’s dream always was to have her own business.

Hasting begins working in January and is later joined by her six employees in February, who start planting and transplanting seedlings. Hasting says it’s all about playing the “space game.”

“If you take one tray of seedlings, then you transplant, you might get 10 times this space from one,” she says. “Once you start transplanting, it starts to fill everything up quickly. That’s what we are trying to fight especially this time of year. It is like your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

The greenhouse operation opened for the spring March 17, and will hit its peak season during the last two weeks of April and the first two of May. The company has 70 to 80 percent of its sales during this time, Hasting says.

“Because we are seasonal, we don’t carry anything over and don’t have any stock plants,” Hasting says. “We grow plants locally that will come from all over the U.S. from different suppliers and we buy our seeds through several commercial companies, and the seeds themselves can come from all over the world.”

In addition to caring for the plants, Hasting also handles ordering the plants, accounting, and phone calls, while keeping weekly notes on seeds and each variety of plant with what worked and what didn’t.

“I have different perennials and annuals that you can’t find elsewhere,” she says. “What also brings people is it is locally grown and well cared for. I always say you can get good plants from places like large box stores, but you want to be there the day they come off the truck because they don’t really care for them like we do.”

For more information on Hasting Plants, call 812-838-2164 or visit hastingplants.com.

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Eggs By the Million

Prime Foods of Boonville is a family tradition
The family business opened in 1936 and ships eggs across the country.

Each day of production, the Prime Foods plant just outside of Boonville, Ind., rolls out about 1,000,000 hard-cooked eggs. Most go to bulk customers, who then use them for egg salad or other products.

But soon, you’ll be able to buy the eggs at your local supermarket, convenience store, or big box store. The ready-to-eat eggs will be available in packages of six for home use or in a two-egg snack pack. They’ll be sold under the label of Kramer Farms.

“Hopefully within the next six months to a year, people are going to see our name out there in the retail sector,” says President/CEO Jay Kramer. “They can be for breakfast, a snack, cut up on salads, deviled eggs, egg salad, or whatnot. It has taken about two and a half years to design this and get comfortable with it. And now we are ready to run.”

Kramer emphasizes that hard-cooked eggs provide not only a convenient snack, but also a healthy one. He says the eggs can be a much better on-the-go alternative than candy or chips.

Kramer, a runner who is trying to run marathons in all 50 states, is the third generation of his family to head the company. He’s a 1997 graduate of Boonville High School and says he’s committed to being a part of the community.

The business started as Kramer and Sons in 1936 on the corner of Walnut and Third streets, just south of the Boonville courthouse square. Freeman Kramer and his wife Ruth began processing eggs as well as live chickens and dairy cream. The family business eventually fell to Freeman’s son, Glenn Kramer, who began distribution of meat and eggs to locally owned restaurants and grocery stores.

The name was changed to Prime Foods around 1990, when the company focused on selling liquid eggs and frozen eggs. In 1996, Glenn bought Dutch Valley Foods, which produced hard-cooked eggs, peeled by hand. In 1997, the operation moved to Boonville.

When Jay entered the business in 2001 after college graduation, he wanted to focus most of Prime Foods’ efforts on the hard-cooked eggs. He helped grow and automate that business, and in 2009 oversaw the construction of a new facility just west of Boonville. In 2011, the facility expanded to 90,000 square feet and can process 100,000 eggs per hour.

Inside the facility, eggs are scrubbed, checked for impurities, slowly boiled to make sure the yolk is in the proper location, boiled again, chilled twice, peeled, checked by hand for imperfections, loaded into buckets, placed on pallets, and shipped out. The facility employs about 100 people.

Prime Foods is now entering its busiest season. That’s because hard-cooked eggs are used to produce cold foods like egg salad, potato salad, and macaroni salad — foods popular in the warm months of the year.

“We sell to a lot of restaurant chains,” says Kramer. “We sell nationwide. We sell from east to west coast. Our own fleet of trucks will travel in a 1,000-mile radius.”

Prime Foods owns a little more than 1,000,000 chickens in Ohio and Northern Indiana. Those chickens produce about 95 percent of the company’s eggs. In the future, Kramer would like to add another chicken farm within 35 miles of the Boonville processing center.

“It is tough to find eggs on the open market,” says Kramer. “When you have everything internally, you have a better product, and that’s what you want.”

For more information about Prime Foods, call 812-897-3783 or visit primefoodsinc.com.

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Musical Dreams

Local companies hoping to hit big in the music biz
Todd Hubbard of Hubbard Guitars holds the body of a guitar he made by hand.

There's a lot of mythology in American culture surrounding garage startups. A television commercial running these days compares the origins of the likes of Amazon, Disney, and the Ramones — all of which began in garages. This story has more to do with the Ramones.

The Ramones are a rock band that toured nonstop for 22 years, driving hundreds of miles to play in front of crowds of all sizes. And while not everybody in the music business steps onstage, the prospects for stardom may be just as daunting for three Tri-State entrepreneurs.

Instead of going up against the icons of rock like the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Who, they face equally tough competition from the likes of Fender, Marshall, and Gibson. Three small companies burn the midnight oil and build custom pieces to break into the very tight instrument/music equipment industry. The operative phrase here is “custom.” As a guitarist I couldn’t wait to meet each of them.

Meet Todd Hubbard of Hubbard Guitars and you’ll know he’s an artist. He could be a painter or a sculptor, but he makes guitars. He does it by hand, almost adamantly. Each instrument is crafted and molded with beautiful resolve. Heavy with exotic woods and gorgeous inlays, his acoustic or electric guitars can fetch upward of $7,500, but you can find certain models for about $3,000.  

He’s a man who comes from a very pure line of luthiers, studying with master guitar builder Paul Gudelsky and at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix. In the business since 1992, Hubbard is almost mystical about his upbringing in the craft. He says he wants to keep the tradition he’s been taught from fading away.

“The line must continue to help keep the art alive,” he says. “It should never
be lost.”

How does it feel to be up against the giants, Fender, Gibson, and others, with their sophisticated marketing and organization?

“I can bring more variety, more function and better sound and playability,” says Hubbard. “I knew there had to be more people out there who felt like I did. So there had to be a market. You determine who your clientele is by what you offer. If I have to narrow it down, it is usually someone who has at least 10 years experience. They’ve grounded themselves. They’ve paid their dues and now they want something that says this is me I can really create on this.”

Hubbard knows his is a niche market, and he operates as a one-man band.

“It’s all subjective. I am just a custom builder, I’m going to stick with that for a while,” he says.

His guitars fit into a musician’s hand like they were made for that person alone; they feel substantial. In the details, it’s plain to see how easy it is for him to fit individuals even more with different hardware or finishing touches that reflect the player. He produces seven or eight acoustic or electric instruments each year.

I descended into Volition Amps’ Evansville headquarters (a basement) and entered a wonderland. I was greeted by the affable, but focused, Tony Dorris and his fiancée Amy (just Amy, like Madonna or Cher, she jokes). Neatly scattered about his workshop are classic guitar amps and pedals that had obviously been gutted, remanufactured, or modified into something better, something custom. Where Hubbard is an artisan, Dorris is a mad electrical engineer with the heart of a mechanic and inventor. He speaks like a man who knows what he likes and wears his values on his sleeve.

“Volition basically means freedom of choice, the ability to choose things, freewill,” says Dorris. “I want people to know that we can give them what they want. I found the easiest way to get started was in pedal mods (modification) by changing components to make them better. I’m into old things, antiques, etc. I find something that has tubes in it and I think there’s something I can do with it, make it better or create something new.”

Dorris makes boutique guitar and bass amps that sell for as much as $5,000 apiece.

“I offer such variety and can build things the way a customer wants it, by voicing it how they like, adding tremolo, reverb, whatever,” he says.

“People also bring me the amps they have and I take out the cheap components and make
them better.”

Tony let me plug into his amps and once I found the one that suited me (an 18 watt with a 10-inch speaker), I was hooked. The amp was like milk: creamy and rich. Then I stepped on his “Can” boost pedal and suddenly it was like milk with diamonds popping in and out. Luxurious and touch sensitive. The pedals are beautiful to look at as well. Amy etches amazing creations onto the case and the undercarriage lights up to give a floating appearance. Moore Music in Evansville has all the pedals in stock.

This brings us to Boonville, Ind., and the two-story garage that is Harper Guitars. Jacob Harper is a man on the verge of success, which he may already have. He and his partner Scott Hamrick — who handles the marketing and finances — have clear plans.  Their aim to jump from the 20 guitars they made last year to 50 this year seems plausible when you visit their shop. Everything is in the right place. Brilliantly finished guitars are hanging from the wall and first tries are neatly stacked in a corner.

The guitars have a distinctive yet classic look with a beautiful 3-D headstock. They would fit into any collection. “I want them to stand out, when people see them onstage, mine are different enough people will know they are a Harper,” says Harper. “But more important than that is that they play great.”

They do play great, with the feel of a higher end Fender or G&L. Finding just the right feel hasn’t been easy, he adds.

“Six years I’ve been in the hole making guitars, this is the first year I might get back to zero.” Hamrick chimes in. “We use the same parts that are in a higher end $4,500 to $5,000 guitar and we’re not really sure what’s caused that to be a $5,000 guitar, other than that’s what the
market demands.”

You can get a Harper for $1,850 and customize yourself up to $2,500 quite easily. Harper uses CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines and computer technology. However the results are also painstakingly hand finished. The quality shines.

While each of these local entrepreneurs is still swimming upstream in a very tough and niche-laden industry, each has a distinction. But there is a common thread: all three manufacturers speak to the location of the Tri-State as crucial to their success. Hubbard says Evansville is like the center of a bicycle wheel: “You can spoke out easily to Nashville, Louisville, St. Louis, Chicago, anywhere really.”

And in some ways what they do still is like living a dream. Dorris tells stories about being with Harper in a club and seeing blues musicians Boscoe France and Alonzo Pennington playing their amps and guitars onstage.

“I poked Jacob and said, ‘Look at this, those are ours up there!’” he recalls.

One of the most telling moments during my visits was when Todd Hubbard said to me as an afterthought, “It’s honest work, Brick. Honest work.”

Indeed it is.

For more information on Hubbard Guitars, visit its Facebook page or call 812-455-5658; for Volition Amps visit its Facebook page; for Harper Guitars, visit its Facebook page or jihguitars.com or call 812-204-9371.

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Great Buys, Great Service

Kings Great Buys Plus is an exceptional leader in customer care
Executive Sales Team (Top L-R): Ryan Anthony, Steve Barnhart, Lynne Anthony, Terry Oates, Mark Carmack, and Matt Kellems.

On a Friday afternoon, while driving west on Interstate 70 from Indianapolis, Terry Oates, owner of King’s Great Buys Plus, received a call from a desperate customer.

Expecting a large number of people to arrive at his home the next day for a Christmas party, the customer panicked when his dishwasher broke.

Circumstances called for an emergency favor. Only Terry Oates didn’t consider this a favor; it’s a common occurrence in his business. After making a few calls to his Evansville store, Oates was able to alleviate the customer’s concerns and assure him that his new dishwasher would be on its way and was indeed installed later that afternoon.

It may not be typical for a customer to need an emergency same-day installation, but if that situation should arise, King’s Great Buys Plus customers don’t hesitate to ask. This level of customer care dates back to March 2, 1983, the day King’s opened its doors. Located at 5010 Vogel Road on Evansville’s East Side, Oates says his first store, formerly located next to Washington Square Mall, lived off Sears’ overflow.

“In 1983, Evansville didn’t have the big box appliance and electronics stores, like Best Buy or Lowe’s. We had Sears and at that time Sears was bringing in 30 percent of appliance sales in the country so I knew I needed to set up shop close by,” says Oates, 61, reflecting on his early business decisions made decades ago.

Thirty-one years later, it’s safe to say the tables have turned. In a letter from Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Edward S. Lampert, Sears Holdings Corporation reported the company was forced to close unprofitable stores when it lost $1.37 billion last year, totaling to 27 straight quarters of reported losses.

“They’re selling off all their assets to keep the store going,” says Oates. “They are closing stores because millennials don’t want to shop that way; they don’t want to walk onto a dirty parking lot, they want the newest technology, and they want to be shown how things work. Simple as that.”

At one time, Sears was the largest retailer in the U.S., and even today Sears is a classified “anchor store” in malls all over the country. But now, Sears seems to be steamrolling toward bankruptcy. Oates says with confidence that sales at King’s will continue to rise because the loyalty he has gained is earned every single day.

“My dad used to tell me that nobody cares what you did yesterday, they care about what you’re going to do today. At King’s, it’s not a ‘do it sometimes’ thing. We want to earn that trust every day because we know that just because we did it right the first time, doesn’t mean we will get credit for it the next day,” says Oates while pointing to a plaque in his office that says “Nobody knows what I do until I don’t do it.”

Oates assures his sales team that this level of customer care is something the big box stores lack. The retail business is dynamic; it’s either growing or dying, it can’t be static. That’s the kind of culture that has been instilled in Oates since the early days after gaining sales experience at his father’s store. His father, Charles Oates, owned Joy Sales and Service, an appliance and electronics store, formerly located on the corner of Riverside Drive and Governor Street near Downtown Evansville. Although his father never quite grasped the concept behind King’s, Terry continued to make his dream a reality.

“My dad wanted to play it safe,” says Oates. “He wanted to do things that most independent businesses do; they reach a certain level of success and they quit. I’ve learned if you don’t step outside your comfort zone, you’re not going to grow.”

Lynne Anthony, Oates’ right hand woman since day one and Internal Controller for King’s, also worked for Oates’ father at the appliance store. When Oates left his father’s business to start up King’s, Anthony followed and joined Oates in his mission to develop a store that puts customers first. They both remember a lot of independent businesses that have come and gone in the past 30 years: Highland Appliance, Silo’s, Tipton’s, Builders Square, and Electric Avenue.

The King’s team knows that most customers are looking for three components when shopping: they demand a selection, a fair price, a pleasant environment, and they want to be taken care of.

“Customer service is what locally owned companies are all about,” says Oates. “The reason why locally owned companies go away is because they want to charge more for service. We can’t do that, not in today’s environment. People think it costs a lot to provide that high level of customer care, but it costs more money not to.”

Steve Barnhart has been with the company for 24 years. Being head of the appliance department, he knows that some of his customers don’t buy appliances very often — typically only when they wear out.

“Technology improves in appliances over time, they are more efficient, they are faster and quieter,” says Barnhart. “So when a customer comes in to buy a front load washer or an induction cook top, all I ask for is a little of their time to demonstrate how they work so I know that appliance will do everything they need it to do.”

Conducting live demonstrations is one way King’s provides a unique shopping experience to its customers. With live washers and dryers, sales associates are able to show customers how to wash and dry a load of laundry in under an hour. Every Saturday, the King’s Evansville location performs live kitchen demos (with free samples) enabling the trained sales team to show customers how their products work.

“Most stores view consumer relationships as very transactional,” says Oates. “We like to dig deeper and find out what the customer plans to use the product for and what their needs are. A lot of people don’t know what they want to buy until they see it work. That’s where we come in.”

All of the King’s sales associates receive top-notch training two to three times a month from top brand manufacturers, who send in representatives to give sales advice and demonstrate how selling a mattress is different from selling a flat screen television.

“We have six steps to selling. It’s our Bible,” says General Manager Mark Carmack, who has been with the company 26 years. “I’ve seen employees keep a notecard in their pocket so they can refer to those six steps after they walk up to a customer. They learn from mistakes and do better next time.”

The store’s holding company, Great Buys Plus, was created 25 years ago to effectively compete with big box companies. Oates owns a share in each of the 56 Great Buys Plus, stores stretching from Minnesota to West Virginia. There are six King’s locations in the Tri-State area: Evansville, Owensboro, Ky., Madisonville, Ky., Princeton, Ky., Lawrenceville, Ill., and Harrisburg, Ill.

To learn more information about King’s Great Buys Plus, call 812-473-KING or visit kingsgreatbuysplus.com.