By Greg Thompson
Expanded version of Feature published by Chattanooga CityScope in the magazine’s Winter 2017 edition.
Success that has been forged from the fire of meeting life’s challenges is as resilient as the steel foundation within a high-rise building. The ability to withstand the heat of a given situation and become stronger because of that experience is one of the truest tests of leadership. During their careers, Sally and Susan Moses, Roger and Cindy Pickett, Blake Poole, Skip and Jim Ireland, Debbie Ledford Melton and Peter Hurley refused to retreat from the toughest of challenges while forging inspirational paths to success.
Sally and Susan Moses, 212 Market Restaurant
The conversation that Sally Moses heard in passing while serving as a maitre’d at a prominent Chattanooga restaurant in 1991 had a familiar tone to it. One of the patrons while discussing development projects downtown questioned the wisdom of establishing a restaurant near the Tennessee Aquarium, which was still under construction at the time. The patron had no idea that Sally and her mother, Maggie, were the ones seeking to be the pioneers to open 212 Market and stand at the forefront of the downtown revitalization movement. The mother-daughter duo had encountered significant resistance from banks unwilling to finance what was viewed at the time as a high-risk venture with only a few months shelf life.
“Everyone thought we were nuts. The Aquarium had not opened yet and there wasn’t much happening in that part of downtown,” recalls Sally, who now leads the restaurant along with her sister, Susan, the head chef. “But my Mom believed in me. She had served as a dietician in the military during World War II. The way we were raised, we were taught to do things the best you can. You don’t back down and you don’t give up.”
Sally’s determination led to a meeting with a ninth bank, and Terry Todd, with Sovereign Bank at the time, shared the Moses’ enthusiasm for the potential 212 Market. As construction began on the restaurant, more hurdles had to be crossed. The location had previously been the home of a car dealership and both a fuel tank and asbestos had to be removed from the construction site before work could move forward.
Despite all the challenges the Moses family encountered, 212 Market opened in 1992 on February 12th (2-12, in part as a tribute to its name), receiving glowing reviews and strong public acceptance. And while Sally’s initial projections called for 170 people to be served a night as 212 waited for the Tennessee Aquarium’s opening that May, she smiles when recalling that the restaurant welcomed upwards of 300 people per night in those opening months. Evolving through the years in what is now a quarter-century run, 212 remains a cornerstone of the downtown renaissance.
“The keys to our success have been consistency, hard work, local food sourcing, hard work again and a great staff,” explains Sally, who led 212’s sustainability effort to become the first green certified restaurant in the state of Tennessee. “It’s great to be a part of the creative liveliness of what Chattanooga is today. We are so happy that people wanted to celebrate the river and connect the parts to make it all work. This city is so beautiful here.”
Roger & Cindy Pickett, Murmaid Mattress
Despite operating one of the most successful locally-based factory-to-showroom mattress companies in the country, Roger Pickett quickly realized it would require more than the products Murmaid Mattress produced to provide a soft landing from the steep sales fall caused by the economic collapse of 2008.
Roger, leading the Cleveland-based company founded by his parents, correctly anticipated that the wide-spread financial losses and fast rise in unemployment would prompt consumers to delay purchases of mattresses as well as many other items. As a business leader whose employees and their families depended upon MurMaid, Roger knew he needed to find some out-of-the-box-spring approaches to utilizing his factory workers. High inventory levels and low demand, as MurMaid experienced during the Great Recession, typically spelled job losses for most factory-based businesses, but Roger used the economic downturn and his team at the factory to address some overdue projects for the company.
“In 2009, our sales were 60 percent of what they were in 2007, and 2007 had been a record year for us,” recalls Roger, who owns the store with his wife, Cindy. “In 2008 and in 2009, we lost so much money that, to this day, I still wonder how we are still here. But here’s what saved us. At that time, we had over $1 million in inventory and 100 percent was paid for. We’ve always operated debt free – other than buildings. We don’t borrow money to stay in business.
“Having that inventory gave us the ability to slow down our purchases and stay in business,” he adds. “When you have as many stores as we did at the time, we had a lot of work that was available to do. In addition to painting around the factory, we were able to send our guys out to the stores to clean windows and lay new carpet. They also painted the inside and outside of the stores. It was work that we had put off because we were busy. But, at that time, we had the luxury of time to do the odd jobs.”
The strategy paid off and Murmaid not only stayed in business, but rebounded with a staff that helped to lead them to another record year in 2011.
“This was 100 percent a team effort. I’ve got a tremendous partner in my wife, a terrific plant manager and great employees,” says Roger. “We’ve had to adapt, but we are like a family here, especially the core group that has been here forever.”
Blake Poole, Chattanooga Airport Authority
Like anyone who’s just landed a dream job that pulls from a long career of experience, Blake Poole could not wait to begin his work as the Vice President of Economic Development for the Chattanooga Airport Authority. Blake, who had a long tenure with Delta Air Lines prior to serving with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development for seven years, started his new position in November of 2015.
During his first week on the job, Blake kept a doctor’s appointment that resulted in news powerful enough to zap all the excitement he felt about the next chapter in his career – turning that same energy into a crushing anxiety about his health. During his physical, Blake reported some swelling in his neck that his doctor found significant enough to merit further testing. When Blake learned the results revealed the source of the mass in his neck was an early stage squamous cell carcinoma centered under his tongue, a number of concerns began running through his mind.
“It was a dream job for me. But when this thing hits, you start thinking about all the worst things: Is it treatable? Are they going to be able to get rid of it? Do I have enough insurance? Is my family going to be ok? Have I done enough to provide for my family? I couldn’t help but think that they might feel they hired some damaged goods,” recalls Blake.
Chattanooga Airport Authority President Terry Hart refused to see anything other than an employee in need. Terry and his team were quick to reassure Blake that he had one assignment – to focus on his health and his recovery.
“Terry was more concerned about me than the job,” explains Blake, who underwent seven weeks of radiation treatment and three rounds of chemotherapy. “I could feel the positive vibes coming from everyone here and that helped me. It was real comforting to know how they were supporting me. I was fortunate to have caught it early and get rid of it.”
Over the summer, Blake began his return to the office, working half days as he built up his strength. He was even able to be a part of the effort that secured non-stop service to New York from Chattanooga.
“I appreciate my family and my co-workers more,” says Blake. “It was a perfect storm for good results. It makes you want to give more and be the best employee you can be.”
Peter Hurley, American Bicycle Group
Having established his career as a successful investment banker in the Northeast, Peter Hurley knew he needed to place his life on a different track following a heart attack and subsequent quadruple bypass surgery 14 years ago. As part of his recovery, Peter got serious about exercise eventually finding a passion for cycling. In 2006, when a former merger-and-acquisition colleague was seeking a buyer for the American Bicycle Group, Peter found the vehicle for a life-changing opportunity. Joined in the venture by private equity investors, Peter bought the company and moved to Chattanooga in 2007.
“The company at that time was an absolute mess. It was hemorrhaging a lot of money and I was hesitant to invest because I knew the stress level would have been off the charts,” recalls Peter. “The only reason I did it was that a private equity group came in with me and they put a fair amount of money up to go along side of me. So, that reduced my overall risk.”
While the timing of his investment was perfect for allowing him to begin to explore the world of triathlon competition, Peter faced an ultimate business challenge when the Great Recession arrived in 2008 and his private equity partners withdrew from the company. To move forward, Peter drew on his experience as part the triathlon community.
“Once you enter into the world of triathlon, you learn on a daily basis how you can achieve your goals and working through your fear of failure. For instance, when you find yourself in the middle of the Tennessee River and you’re gasping for breath, you settle down and continue to stroke,” explains Peter. “Through triathlon, you enter into is this world of people who have overcome great calamity. All of the sudden you begin to understand that your problems are insignificant compared to the obstacles that these people have overcome. Negotiating the recession was much like a triathlon. You have to adapt and meet the challenges.”
Now a veteran competitor in 40 triathlons across the world, Peter and the American Bicycle Group are much stronger today. His company, with its Quintana Roo triathlon bike, is an Ironman partner and has helped in bringing the Ironman series to Chattanooga.
“I would say that triathlons made me a better businessperson, a better boss and a better husband.”
Debbie Ledford Melton, Don Ledford Auto Dealership
The letter that Debbie Ledford Melton received from the corporate offices of General Motors in the spring of 2009 served as a death sentence for the car dealership that her father, Don Ledford, had launched in 1981. General Motors, as part of the company’s restructuring in the wake of the Great Recession and government bailout, had identified dealerships throughout the country for closure. As the general manager of the dealership that featured Buick, Cadillac and GMC brands at the time, Debbie refused to accept the corporate edict and, instead, focused on finding a strategy that could save a business that had become an institution in Cleveland, Tenn.
Initially, Debbie wrestled the approach to take. Fittingly, she found the answer in a letter written by a Cleveland-area resident who wanted to thank the dealership for providing a vehicle she could use to take her mother to Nashville for cancer treatments.
“She was very grateful for everything that we had done, and that letter really touched me. Her letter inspired me to go public with our fight,” recalls Debbie. “We couldn’t let our customers down. We’ve got to be more vocal about this. We needed to be able to come together as a community and have General Motors take notice.”
Debbie and her staff – with assistance from community leaders in Cleveland – organized a rally that brought out 2,000 people who for an event that lobbied GM with letters, emails and YouTube videos. Meanwhile, in a move that was unrelated to the public rally, Debbie was one of 20 GM dealers in the region that was asked to submit a business plan to GM for keeping the business. With less than two weeks to prepare the business plan, Debbie persevered and worked through all the details. She made the deadline and the Ledford dealership was eventually chosen as one of the few franchises in the country allowed to keep all its brands.
“I look back at that time and I just look at the people God put in our lives, because it was a miracle. We tore down mountains that had been put before us,” says Debbie. “One of my talents is rallying people together, but this took a team. It took a community to make this happen. The only time got emotional is when my Dad was at a Chamber meeting, and I started talking about it in front of him because this was his life and it was being taken away.”
Skip & Jim Ireland, COS
Skip and Jim Ireland understand the powerful force of change. As third-generation owners Chattanooga Office Supply (COS), Skip and Jim have seen the market landscape undergo a radical transformation in the 33 years they have led the company. COS is the lone Chattanooga survivor of the market tsunami that saw the rise of big-box retailers and online services wipe out more than 10,000 office supply companies nationwide over the past 30 years.
Rather than fight the rising tide facing them by attempting to compete with the national chains, Skip, Jim and their team looked inwardly to identify specialized solutions COS could provide to their customers in an effort to forge lasting relationships with them.
“We knew the landscape was going to be changed forever, but we knew there was a place for us. We knew that we had to complete differently,” notes Skip. “We identified that our number one asset is our flexibility – the ability to say yes when our competitors won’t or can’t. That has served us very well. We also embraced technology, but we wanted to make sure that we controlled our technology – and that our technology didn’t control us.”
Skip recently saw statistics showing that less than one percent of family businesses survive the third generation. “My brothers and I made it our mantra that wasn’t going to be us. Change has become a critical component of our DNA. The willingness to change became a differentiator for us. We developed a culture where we said it doesn’t matter what we did yesterday. Is it the right thing to do tomorrow?”
Today, between 75 to 85 percent of the orders placed to COS arrive via the company’s website. As part of its service for a small group of national accounts, COS sends daily shipments of products out to locations in 48 states. Due in large part to maintaining its focus on finding effective solutions, COS enjoys a customer retention rate of more than 90 percent.
“A good thing about being around this long is that we know where we have to be,” explains Skip. “We found the right place for us and we worked hard. We continued to adapt along the way. We stayed laser-focused on being the best at the things that we needed to do to help our customers. I’d have to say the key to our survival and success is the company’s acceptance of change.”