Modern technologies like the Internet have revolutionized the way many of us do business, and have opened up many opportunities for new enterprise. And yet, all of these innovations pale in comparison with the "old-fashioned" values of hard work, fair business, and sheer strength personality. The Nathan Kimmel Company, started by Nathan Kimmel in 1956, is an prime example of how one family's hard work, lead by a memorable man with an unwavering philosophy of how to do business, laid the foundation for a company that continues to thrive a half century later. From the garage of the family home, with a bundle of surplus parachutes purchased from Douglas Aircraft to one of the largest women owned companies in southern California, Nathan's daughter Carol Kimmel Schary, now president of the company, recalls how it all began. "This little mom and pop industry started out of our garage.
He bought a 'lot' (a sealed container) of surplus military parachutes, and he decided he was going to take the webbing from them and resell it. We would come home from school and we'd take out the webbing, and my parents would go to the Laundromat at night and wash it, and then he'd sell it. He could make a huge profit from it since he did all the labor himself." Part of Nathan's success was his ingenuity. Carol remembers when Barrington Plaza in Los Angeles was undergoing renovation. Fireproofing and plastering debris was coating the area, including all cars parked nearby.
Someone asked Nathan if he had a solution, so he started making tarps out of his surplus parachutes. "All the buildings were covered in camouflage!" "Initially, he started selling surplus. The second or third time he bought one of these ´lots´, there was hose in it. It was bulletproof hose.
He didn't know what it was, so he researched it, and he found a plasterer that said `this is great!´ and asked him if he could get more. So he'd go buy a ´lot´ that had this hose in it, and it would have other items, and so on." The surplus selling business was, in every sense of the word, a family business. "There were 4 kids at home, and since we ran the business out of our house, whenever the phone would ring, we would have to freeze and turn the television off and no one could talk. Now when the phone rings, I think I still freeze!" "Everybody loved my father.
He worked out of his station wagon, and they loved his personality and his pricing and the quality of service. They would ask him `Can you get me this? Can you get me that?´ He moved into a warehouse, and from there moved into this business. Whatever he could find, he would sell.
That was about 1952. In 1956, he incorporated." In the nearly fifty years that have followed, the Nathan Kimmel Co. has continued to serve the niches that got the company off the ground- and out of the garage. Today, the building trades still represent the company's biggest lines.
"Since he had started with the plastering industry, that became one of his main niches, and from there he moved into sandblasting, and the drywall industry, and the moving industry. We opened a retail store and started selling to the pest control industry. That's our second big line." In those early years, Nathan didn't limit himself.
Buying surplus lots means buying blind, and sometimes what he wound up with had absolutely nothing to do with the construction industry. It made no difference, however. Whatever Nathan came home with was packaged and sold in the family's cottage industry. "One time, he got thousands and thousands of Purple Heart and Stars and Stripes medals. We put an ad in Popular Mechanics and we would sell 10 for a dollar. After school we would package them in plastic bags.
The big excitement every day was when the mail came- deciding who would get to take the dollar bills out of the envelopes! To this day, when the mail comes, I get excited. It's a throwback to that time, I'm sure." When Nathan died in 1993, the family convened to discuss the future of the business their father and mother had worked so hard to develop. No one felt prepared to shoulder the responsibilities of standing at the helm. After a great deal of thought, Carol decided that, with her mother's blessing, she would take on the challenge.
She bought out her siblings, and now runs the Nathan Kimmel Company out of a rapidly expanding warehouse space in Los Angeles. Under Carol's guidance, the company has extended its reach, both in the bricks-and-mortar world and in cyberspace. They've augmented their physical growth with a growing Internet presence.
Their initial brochure site has expanded to fit their focus on a variety of niches. As with many e-commerce sites, search engine ranking is a crucial part of their strategy. Although Carol champions her fathers "old school" business techniques and sales philosophies, she believes that Internet technology will only help her business to grow. Her father, she concedes, might not have agreed. "When you get to a certain age, you are so happy that you've accomplished your goals that you don't want to move to the next step.
The older people were afraid of computers and felt that we were already doing very well. They were not able to step outside of the box, which I've been fortunate to be able to do." And stepping out of the box has meant that her sales now reach much farther than the Los Angeles environs. 60% of her sales are out-of-state.
She feels that out-of-state companies may find it more cost effective to order all of their items from them online, rather than sit on the phone and order from many other stores. "From our first web site we decided to create smaller niche sites, so that if people put `fireproofing´ or `tarps´ or `plastering´ in a search engine, they could find us." We asked Carol what role she believed the Internet would play in her business in the years to come. "I think it will be an integral part. If you had asked me that question five years ago, I would have said `No, no one will use it.
´ A lot of these people were the older owners of the companies, and now younger people are coming in, and they're Internet-proficient." "To be able to buy online offers convenience. People are very busy. They need to be able to have a 24-7 source from which to buy." Nathan Kimmel sold everything from hoses to Purple Hearts.
Carol has continued in his footsteps by embracing diversity in her product line. "Nobody has a store online that will have everything. I wanted to be the first person in this big niche industry to do this.
There isn't anyone I know in the wall and ceiling industry that is a full-service company that also allows you to buy online." But while Carol has embraced new technology with open arms, she knows she'll never lose sight of the values instilled in her by her father. She knows how vastly important it is, no matter how big a business grows, to maintain a personal touch. "I don't care how big we get, there will always be a human being answering the phone!" When we initially published their story in our newsletter, they were early Internet pioneers in their industry, in any industry for that matter. In addition to having their story published on our web site, where it receives consistent traffic from Web searches every day, they were used as an example of " best practices" in the book we published in 2003 and whose content we recently made available on our web site at no charge. Now, we are looking for another group of business owners whose story to tell.
We are asking them some of the same questions we asked Carol, how are they leveraging their long term success online? We are looking for others to help us continue to tell the stories of Main Street companies developing strategies for continued success in the 21st Century. The new profiles will also be posted on our web site and some of them will be selected as part of the content in one of the two books we have in process. There is a page entitled "Submit a Profile on every pay each of our web site. If you or someone you respect is interested in knowing more about the process, they will find the information they need there.
Wayne Messick wants to interview business owners positioning themselves for success in the 21st Century. Click here for cuttingedge leadership strategies for your business.