March 1921 photo of Dixie Sales Company at the 109 S. Davie St. location. Pictured left to right, starting with the second person from the left, are as follows: Jack Starmer; his wife Mabel Snyder Starmer; Henry Emmett Snyder, brother of Mabel; and Ellis B. Snyder, brother of Mabel and Emmett.
By Jim Starmer
On March 2, 2014, Servantage Dixie Sales (Dixie Sales Company), an independent, full-service, value-added distributor headquartered just outside of Greensboro, N.C., celebrated a milestone very few businesses ever attain: reaching its 100th year in business.
In a recent Servantage Dixie Sales customer survey coordinated by a national marketing company, our customers across the United States and Canada expressed in their own words why they value their business relationship with Servantage Dixie Sales. Summarizing their survey responses, the marketing company found five attributes that our customers consistently used to describe their special relationship with us:
“Servantage Dixie Sales is responsive to our needs. Servantage Dixie Sales is dependable, consistently. Servantage Dixie Sales is knowledgeable; they always get us the answer even when they don’t have it. Servantage Dixie Sales is passionate about making us successful and treating us like a customer. And Servantage Dixie Sales sees itself as an extension of us, always helping us enhance our customers’ experience with products and service.”
“Responsive, dependable, knowledgeable, passionate and an extension of us.” We are honored and proud of how our customers described their relationship with us. They recognize that our company has an extraordinary culture, based on extraordinary values, exemplified by extraordinary people providing extraordinary service.
Business guru and author Jim Collins once said, “The challenge is not just to build a company that can endure, but to build one that is worthy of enduring.” We know that over the past 100 years, from 1914 through 2014, Dixie Sales Company and now Servantage Dixie Sales has earned our customers’ loyalty and business by creating a business worthy of enduring. We’ve successfully reached a milestone few other businesses have.
The seeds of our strong service culture were sown 100 years ago by Frank E. Snyder and L.H. (Jack) Starmer. The story began in February 1914, when Jack Starmer (my grandfather) and his father-in-law, Frank Snyder, arrived in Greensboro from Akron, Ohio, and bought Dixie Sales Company, an auto tire repair and vulcanizing shop, from Joseph Leahy, who was originally from Canada and then New York. Leahy learned the tire business by working for John Dunlap, the inventor of the air-filled pneumatic tire.
Jack Starmer and Frank Snyder reopened Dixie Sales Company for business on Monday, March 2, 1914. March business for Dixie Sales Company totaled $236.70. Services included repairing or patching tires and tubes; installing valves in tubes or tubes in tires; selling new tires; and repairing baby carriage tires or their tubes, rubber ice bags and hot water bottles. The original ledger book they used in 1914 still exists today.
As these two entrepreneurs started their business in Greensboro, you might be interested in what else was going on in 1914. On January 5, Henry Ford announced that henceforth, Ford Motor Company would have an eight-hour workday and pay a minimum wage of $5 for a day’s labor. A first-class stamp cost 2 cents. On June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, marking the beginnings of World War I. On July 11, Babe Ruth made his major league debut with the Red Sox. On August 15, the SS Ancon became the first ship to pass through the Panama Canal. And Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States.
It didn’t take very long for the citizens of Greensboro to determine that the business approach of Jack Starmer and Frank Snyder could be trusted because they always put the customer first and strived to satisfy their every need.
In a January 1920 Greensboro newspaper article, it was announced the business was moving to a larger location because of continued growth. Starmer and Snyder continued to refer to their service philosophy that made them so trusted with the citizens of the town and local area in that article: “We have prepared to render the motorist a service unexcelled. We are not attempting to create the idea that by service we mean giving something for nothing. Our conception of service is doing a good job at a fair profit, selling reliable goods at a fair price, giving good advice to customers. We believe in the square deal policy. We believe it makes us customers and makes us friends to treat our patrons squarely, to advise them frankly, and we believe you are willing to pay a fair profit to us for this kind of service.” Treating customers fairly and exceeding their expectations were family attributes that easily transferred to the family business and into its culture that continues today.
In the July 1920 issue of the national trade publication Motor World Magazine, a two-page article titled “Selling Satisfaction is (the) New Merchandising — How the Square Deal for Every Patron Has Built Up Dixie Sales Company,” highlighted once again that the culture and foundation of the company today was established nearly 100 years ago. “The Dixie people started in Greensboro in 1914. Messrs. Starmer and Snyder came there from Akron, Ohio, and established a vulcanizing business. Business wasn’t very good then, and they had to get down to fundamentals. They did the best work possible and charged reasonable prices. They took a personal interest in the tires of their customers. They have worked out these propositions: ‘Try to give better service than the other fellows give. Meet our customers with a smile and make them feel they are among friends when they drop in to talk about tires. Gain the confidence of our customers by giving them the very best advice that we can, the kind of advice that we would appreciate if we were in their shoes. If we make a promise that we cannot fulfill, we will make good on it, even if it costs us money to do so.'”
In 1924, a new building was built where the company remained until 1939, just before the start of World War II. This location and one just across the street served Dixie Sales Company’s customers well until the early 1950s. These two locations provided the ability to seek and promote drive-in automotive service, as well as the rebuilding/remanufacturing of detached alternators and generators. The company was soon selling headlights, horns, tires, Briggs & Stratton locks and keys, and car radios, as well as installing and repairing them.
The years just preceding and following the 1929 Great Depression were times of struggle for the business and personally for the Snyder and Starmer families. Customers did not have money to spend on tire and automotive repairs, and if they did, it most likely went first to put food on the table. But the company and its founding families persevered by continuing to focus on providing exceptional personal customer service, and by the late 1930s, business once again was strong and growing.
Dixie Sales Company was located in nine different downtown Greensboro locations over the years, focused on providing outstanding drive-in automotive service, as well as on selling automotive parts to car dealers and independent auto repair shops. The company continued to be owned and managed by the Snyder and Starmer families.
Ordinary men coming from humble beginnings, Frank Snyder and Jack Starmer would not have been aware of Charles Darwin’s statement regarding evolution when Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species nor the most intelligent that survives, but the one most responsive to change.” Today, I believe Darwin’s statement equally applies to the survival of businesses and is perhaps one of the strongest and likeliest reasons that Dixie Sales Company, now Servantage Dixie Sales, survived for 100 years and will continue to do so for many more years.
Staying responsive to change is how Dixie Sales Company survived. The company faced the Great Depression and the personal and business lean times that came before and afterward, as well as the economic and personal effects of World War I and II. The Snyder and Starmer families changed the focus of the company to automotive parts and accessories and drive-in general automotive service from the tire business in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. They operated through challenging oil and gas crises and rampant inflation with interest rates over 20 percent in the 1970s. They refocused the business on outdoor power equipment parts and accessories in the early 1970s and quickly reached the pinnacle of national reputation, success and customer trust in the outdoor power equipment industry, beginning in the early 1990s and continuing today.
How did a family-owned automotive service and parts business located in Greensboro become one of the most admired and largest outdoor power equipment and parts distributors in North America? I’d like to share four reasons with you that I believe explain how the focus of the company changed from automotive service and parts to outdoor power equipment and parts distribution. It’s a story worth telling because it provides you with insight into the beginnings of the outdoor power equipment industry.
There was a large hardware wholesaler in Greensboro called Odell Hardware, which was established in 1884 and very active throughout most of the 20th century. The company originally sold to consumers and later directly to independent hardware stores across the southeastern United States. Odell Hardware asked Dixie Sales Company to carry repair parts for Moto-Mower lawn mowers (manufactured in Richmond, Ind.), which it was wholesaling in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Soon, Dixie Sales Company added repair parts for Pincor, Reo and Continental lawn mowers, as well as Briggs & Stratton air-cooled engines. Dixie Sales Company became known as a place you could buy mower repair and engine parts in Greensboro.
The second reason was to be found in the automotive industry. Automotive locks and keys were manufactured by Briggs & Stratton and were distributed by very large automotive warehouse distributors, which in turn sold them to automotive parts jobbers (similar to service distributors), which in turn sold them to consumers, small independent garages and car dealerships. Dixie Sales Company listed Briggs & Stratton locks and keys on its line card as early as the 1920s. Most automotive parts jobbers had a retail sales counter, sometimes drive-in automotive service, or more likely an automotive machine shop, as well as a person who delivered items directly to local customers and often a route auto parts salesmen. (Dixie Sales had two route auto parts salespeople who traveled a four-county area and called on independent garages and car dealers on a regular, often weekly, basis.)
When Briggs & Stratton needed a distribution channel to carry its air-cooled engines and engine service parts and manage a service network, the company turned to its large automotive lock and key warehouse distributors, which in turn asked their auto parts jobber customers like Dixie Sales Company to resell these air-cooled engines and service parts to repair shops and service dealers.
As other air-cooled engine manufacturers like Clinton, Lauson and Kohler looked for distribution channels for their engines and parts, they generally turned to the same large automotive parts distributors that already had a distribution channel established for Briggs & Stratton air-cooled engines and service parts. A local automotive parts jobber like Dixie Sales Company (usually just one in a town) became known as a service distributor for OPE and air-cooled engine parts, selling directly to mower repair shops, OPE service providers and consumers in the same small area they traveled an automotive parts salesman.
From these simple automotive parts distribution roots came what was then called three-step distribution: a central parts and service distributor selling to a service distributor like Dixie Sales Company, which sold to authorized service dealers and consumers. Dixie Sales Company became an authorized service distributor for many engine and mower equipment brands and eventually became a central parts and service distributor for many product lines needing efficient parts distribution and managed service center networks. Many of the small independent auto repair shops we sold became authorized OPE service dealers for various OPE manufacturers, and soon sold and serviced outdoor power equipment.
The third reason was that in the early 1970s, the automotive parts industry’s distribution channels were changing how they sold automotive service parts, who they sold them to, and how they were priced. Companies like Dixie Sales Company, which was still an automotive parts jobber with auto drive-in service facilities, had to decide whether to pursue auto parts volume over auto parts profitability, or maintain the status quo selling smaller amounts of automotive parts profitably, primarily through its auto service department. Our company chose to look to other markets for future growth. The outdoor power equipment and service parts channel beckoned because it was already more successful and exceeding our family’s expectations for sales and profitability growth. So the decision to de-emphasize automotive parts sales was made. And the focus shifted to continuing to grow the outdoor power equipment service parts business by offering exceptional parts availability and focusing on extraordinary customer service.
The fourth reason Dixie Sales Company became involved in outdoor power equipment parts and service was the explosive growth in the 1960s and 1970s of multiple-store retailers, which were just beginning to become a factor in outdoor power equipment sales. They were, and most still are, interested in providing a terrific customer experience with their products after the product sale is made. Several retailers turned to a few companies like Dixie Sales Company that were open (many were not) to helping manage their customers’ after-sale service experience. That experience involved open and exceptional service parts availability, establishing regional (and later national) authorized service center networks, working closely with their outdoor power equipment suppliers, and managing the relationship of all these various pieces to provide consumers with an exceptional after-sales service experience.
In 2014, we are proud that Servantage Dixie Sales is a family of like-minded people focused on providing exceptional customer service and enhancing the end-user experience with consumer products. We are proud that we’ve had and still have employees who rise to each new challenge that change brings us and understand the importance of each customer contact they have. We are proud that we are part of a 100-year heritage that few ever get a chance to participate in.
Want to know more about the history of Dixie Sales Company (Servantage Dixie Sales)? By visiting dixiesalescompanyhistory.blogspot.com, you’ll find more interesting stories about how Dixie Sales Company was often first in bringing new technologies and processes to our industry in order to consistently provide exceptional customer service.
Watch a short entertaining video on YouTube about who we are and our service philosophy at www.youtube.com/watch?v=X00mrJyW72g.
ABOUT SERVANTAGE DIXIE SALES
Servantage Dixie Sales, established in 1914, is an independent, full-service, value-added distributor that enhances end-user experiences with consumer products. The company’s core competencies are customer service, integrated distribution and logistics, and product-support service networks. As a trusted partner and reliable resource, manufacturers and multiple-store retailers depend on Servantage Dixie Sales to create a seamless brand experience for their customers. Headquartered in Browns Summit, N.C., Servantage Dixie Sales currently operates four additional distribution centers in Memphis, Tenn.; Victor, N.Y.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Toronto, Canada. The company also has two contact centers providing customer support in English, French and Spanish. For more about Servantage Dixie Sales, visit the company online at www.servantage.net.