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May 9, 2009

 

Ed Steele’s Super Shops Experience – January 13th, 1986 to October 22nd, 1994

 

Preface:

 

Super Shops was something of a religious experience for many. I’m not saying that in any disrespectful way – what I mean by that is that what Super Shops represented was so unique, so rare, so difficult to find for the people who were in and around it. The people who worked at Super Shops were people that you wanted to be like. The customers who shopped at Super Shops (some of them, anyway) were people you wanted to be like. Make no mistakes about it – Super Shops stores were cool, they were packed full of stuff you wanted to own, and they were the talk of the town. When you got a job at Super Shops, those managers and employees were going to let you in on something. It was big. Somehow, you knew it was big, and you wanted to be a part of it. After many years of being away from it, it is now even easier to look back and to remember that at the time, somehow, some way, you knew that you were part of something that was once in a lifetime, special, never to be experienced before or since. As I launched myself into orbit there, this is exactly what I found out.. that this place was like no other place.

 

I’m going to try to tell my story as briefly as I can, and then later on, have a section of the memories and tidbits – like all of us blowing $2100 at Kenny Leacock’s Birthday Party at “Who-Song and Larry’s” in Lauderdale, or flying to Louisville in the middle of the night because the store burned down, or throwing conch fritters at the pedestrians from the rooftop bar at Dirty Ernie’s in Lauderdale with Jeff Stake, or the other thousands of adventures that happened along the way. Some of the stuff that happened and the people it happened with have blurred with age, so forgive me, and correct me if you can. I want the facts of the case to be accurate!

 

I don’t remember his name, but one of the employees I hired and trained in St. Petersburg used to say “I have been around the world twice on a donkey and I have been to two County Fairs, and I have never seen something like this.” I still chuckle, remembering how often he would say it about anything and everything, and how it ended up that his little saying stuck in my craw 20 years later as one of the symbols of Super Shops itself. 

 

Section 1 - The Early Years

 

My Super Shops experience probably started out like many others – yet it was so very different from the experiences of the guys who started out in California. I was 18 years old, just out of High School at Chaminade in Hollywood Florida, working part time for a fast food restaurant named “Char Hut” in North Miami. I had been there for four years or so, and right down the street from me was some old Kinney’s Shoe store that someone was remodeling. I paid no attention to it. Later, I would learn that is was Super Shops Store 74.

 

Every day around lunch time I worked the grill, which was the spot you stood in line and ordered. These two dudes would come in every day, dressed “California Cool” or in a Polo Tee Shirt with Super Shops embroidered on it. They would order the exact same thing every day – If I remember correctly it was two Char-Cheese’s on Italian Rolls with two fries and a Coke. Their names were Allen Chase and Steen Godskesen. We got to talking from time to time, and the subject of what they were doing would come up. They told me that they worked for Super Shops Automotive Performance Centers and that Allen was the Store Manager and Steen was the Assistant Manager of the new North Miami Store that had not yet opened.

 

They told me all about Harry Eberlin, and how the company got started with him saving $2200 from his Air Force stint, and what it is that they did. We talked about it here and there. In the naïveté’ of my youth, I did not realize that what they were doing was planting the seeds to recruit me.

 

After a month or so, they finally made their pitch to me. They told me I should quit my cushy, $6 an hour Part Time Night Manager job of four years, with all my fancy benefits like free food and unlimited soda (hah!), if I could just start busting tires for them as a shop guy for $3.35 an hour. They explained how if I would only come and learn the “Super Shops Way” that I would make infinitely more money and have a heck of a career because SSI hired from within (turns out, there were absolutely correct – I had the career of a lifetime. More on that as we go.)

 

I think I actually laughed out loud when they first proposed this idea to me. Me, with my “Giant 6th Grade Brain” as Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies would say, thought it was insane, that there was no way it could be true. They kept working on me. Something clicked, and in the end I could not stay away. I will always remember my first day on the job – it was January 13th, 1986. There are other vivid memories of this time – in the morning, just before lunch on January 28th, the Shuttle fell from the sky, and exactly what I was doing, exactly where I was standing, exactly what it sounded like when I heard it announced on the hard rock station that was playing in the showroom, will always be in my head. I guess it was the “John F. Kennedy” moment of my generation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Challenger_disaster  and it was crushing. But it did burn an indelible mark on my memories.

 

North Miami, Florida, Store 74. This is where it all began for me.

On January 13th, I showed up for work and bought an Orange Erson Cams Shirt for $4.99 and put it on. It was a Monday – and I was about to be indoctrinated. They gave me my paperwork to fill out and they read me the Story of Super Shops from a photocopied flier (something I would go on to do hundreds of times over the next nine years, when I indoctrinated a new hire.) They also showed me the back room (wow! I was allowed to be in the back room of a real live Speed Shop!) and taught me all about what it is that I was expected to do now. They called San Bernardino and got me in the system, and they assigned me my Employee Number. I was now officially known as Employee Number 2696. They also told me that there were about 1300 active employees in the company, and that there were over 90 stores open, with one store opening almost every week right then. This was all very amazing and shiny to me.

 

Inside shot of Store 74, 1986.

I knew one thing – I liked it. I was watching people come in and buy stuff for their cars – wheels and tires, speed equipment, chrome, just everything. I had messed with cars and I enjoyed it, but this was going to propel me into a whole new world. They taught me how to change tires. And they tell me I did it well. I remember the Labor Ticket like it was last week – and I had developed a pretty nice little system. After a few weeks I would actually pound both beads of the new tire at just the right angle over a steel wheel to mount it – I would make the fur fly in the shop. People would stand in the glass and watch me do two cars at once with the radio blaring and half of a greasy cheeseburger on the tire balancer – I would refuse to stop to eat. I remember dirty fingerprints on my burger bun more than once.

 

Stuart Mowery and Scott Abramson in Store 74 - 1987

I’m not sure how they did it, but they turned me into a machine – some kind of well oiled freak show with single-minded determination, like a Marine or a Seal or something, but not quite. What was weird about it was that all they had to do was kind of “turn me and point me” in the direction of “salesman”, and all of a sudden that same dogged determination from the shop had me selling the wheels and tires, and getting onto the Top 25, the Top 50, the Top 100 as the contests grew in size. Me, and everybody else around me, were shining examples of leading by example. Every time some newly hired weakling would moan about how backed up he was or how he could not do the tire install right, I would leap out of the showroom and ka-slam the four tires onto the car in order to save the sale from a refund – shocking both the customer and the tire guy. (I hope somebody who was there as a customer or a fellow employee will independently verify this!!) This story repeated itself day in and day out.

 

Dude. I had some sort of big shoe affliction. 1987, in front of North Miami.

Well, with this sort of wide-open-throttle attitude, I started winning. Placing 1st, 2nd, 3rd every contest. Cranking out 20-liners, sometimes more than one 20-liner in one day. Selling the store out of tires and wheels. Kicking all kinds of butt. This got me noticed, and within six months I went from Tire Buster to Assistant Manager at Store 74. During this six month run, lots of other Super Shops stories were happening around me – stuff involving Allen, Steen, Paul Montes, Richard Giesey, Ken Leacock and lots of other good men that hired into 74, 78, 93 in South Florida. I was clueless to it then, but I’ll tell you all about it as a sidebar later.

I still have a few of these Top 50, 100, 150 printouts.

 

Do you remember these letters? I am not sure for how long they were sent out.

Jeff Highland was the man that was in charge of South Florida when I first got hired, and Jeff Stake was the man that was running the show by the time I was AM. I am not exactly sure exactly how long it was before Allen left to go back to California, but I think it was about 3 months after I was promoted to AM. When Allen left, he sat me down and gave me some inspirational words. I remember the office being cold and dark, and I remember that what he said made me realize that what I had accomplished was big, and that what I was about to take on was going to be something huge. I was about to take over Store 74 and it was going to be my job to hire, train and lead the crew. WOW. I was 19, had been there only nine months, and they promoted me to Manager!

 

Allen and Steen put me on a path and pointed me in a direction of greatness. I will never forget what they did for me and how they placed their confidence and trust in me. I can’t take all of the credit for my success at SSI. There are people along the way that do certain things, sometimes just little things, and they alter the course of your life. These two guys did that, and they were only the first two. You will hear more about the rest of the leadership people who shaped me and motivated me. I was pretty proud of myself at 19 years of age as the manager of a speed shop. I had a lot to learn, I’ll tell you that.

From Left to Right: Ed Steele, Richard Giesey, [Rick? I forget his name], Kirk Sarmento, [Scott? I forget his name], Roy Johnson (Orange shirt), [don't remember], Stuart Mowery. Taken at Store 74 in 1988.

 

Section 2 – Let’s Break Some Records

Name Tags from two annual managers' meetings, probably 1991 and 1988

 

There is always something very rewarding about breaking a record. Super Shops gave me plenty of opportunities to do that. My first month as manager of 74 was the best month that 74 ever had, and so were the next 7 months in a row. After that kind of run, Jeff Stake asked me to go run Fort Lauderdale, store 78. Compared to 74, Lauderdale was a palace. A weird, oddly shaped palace. It was about a half a city block long, but only about 25 feet deep, and it had four service bays that dumped onto the side street, and it had five (count’m five!) parking spaces with 13 employees.

 

The mythical place - Store 78, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, Earth

I took one look at it and asked myself how the hell anybody even buys anything from it! But the fact was, people would park a block away and walk over to buy stuff. It was legendary – like a star shining in the dark night when you drove past it. It was on the main drag and with yellow and white pegboard and chrome and tires and wheels, people would regularly slam on the brakes and circle back to press their face in the glass. I would know this, because after work I would often sit on the rooftop bar across the street – Ernie’s Bar and Grill. I wish you could really visualize what I am trying to say – this store was shoehorned into a tiny, oddly shaped spot, between hotels and bars and marine shops on a four lane almost-causeway like divided highway with NO PARKING. It was something else.

 

It was doing OK and would regularly beat 74 in its first year, but it was about to turn into something altogether different once I showed up. The manager before me (I don’t remember his name, shaggy haired and from Oklahoma or California I think), was a little less than friendly with customers, so when I went in there I had some work to do. We needed to hire and I needed to fix the low attitude that was going on when I first got there. By the time I was promoted to Regional Manager, we had maintained a crew of 12 people for 13 months straight, without anybody quitting or being fired. This was unheard of  in retail, and this is truly one of my finest achievements. That crew of 13 turned out something like 10 or 11 Store Managers (and one prisoner, sadly) – people like Roy Johnson, Rick DuHammel, Tracy Black, and I’ll put more names here as I remember them.

 

Gary Forsythe, Harry Eberlin, Ed Steele, Jeff Highland. 1987 or 1988.

What happened at 78 was the kind of stuff people from Texas (Gary Forsythe and Jeff Highland) and California (Jimmy Patterson, Tim, Harry) would fly out to come and see. With Bruce Banker and Jeff Stake, we would just pick something to sell and then break the record for the entire chain. Things like Comp 9000 distributors, Mallory Fuel Filters, Mr. Gasket heat treated header lockwashers, Mallory Pro Wire, just anything. We would just kill the record. We would do something like 10 or 15 cars worth of wheels and tires on one Saturday. We would drag so much money to the bank on Monday morning that it would take the bank teller at the window something like 20 minutes to count it and strap it, and then I would have to fill out a federal form. All the time. It was insane. Somehow, with some help and encouragement, I had created an environment of positive learning, of competition, of hard work and team spirit. We started breaking records that had the long standing sales records from California in danger. Stores that had been open for 10 years were getting their asses kicked by us, a store that had been open for 18 months or so.

 

This made Bruce Banker and Jeff Stake very happy, because they mercilessly persecuted the other Divisional, Regional, General Managers about it. Knowing this just made me and the crew work even harder to top our own records. By the time about six months had gone by with me in Lauderdale, they had to send more than one 48 foot semi per week to stock us. We had completely turned the chain on its ear because of what we were doing, and we had everybody talking about it. This is the kind of thing that feeds on itself – it made everybody on the crew proud, strong, confident. We all wanted to destroy the records, to be recognized, to be talked about. All I can say is that it was fun. Big fun. I had not yet reached my 20th birthday at the time.

 

 

Section 3 – Work Hard, Play Harder

 

There was something else very important that I learned at Super Shops. I learned that if you worked very hard and you were very good at what you did, you were allowed to play very hard as a reward. It really did not matter too much what your title or position in the company was. It wasn’t anything formal, or anything ever spoken about. It just kind of happened. And if you think about it, it seems incredibly fair to me. Management would sometimes look the other way, sometimes participate, sometimes lecture – but if you worked hard for them you were going to be ok unless you were an actual criminal. The company had no room for crooks or criminals, and this stance suited me fine. The company promoted vigilant security and that became a part of my life’s work as well. I know it sounds weird, that a company could be all these things, even a moral compass. But it is true. Just ask the other employees who came up in the company.

 

There are so many misadventures that I look back on and laugh about, even to this day. Whenever Kenny Leacock would come to town as a floating manager, he would take me or other managers out in the rental car and we would go to a grocery store parking lot and hit shopping carts at full speed – so fast that the cart would go airborne. We laughed so hard we pissed our pants sometimes, it seemed. I can only guess how much cash the company paid to fix rental cars.

 

Ken Leacock - the coolest, toughest, nicest, most down to earth guy I have ever known.

After a tough Friday or Saturday, Jeff Stake and myself would go up to the rooftop bar across the street from Store 78 and order beer and conch fritters, then we would get drunk and end up throwing conch fritters at the people walking the street in front of the store. (I know it was mean, and I feel horrible about it now… LOL.) Then we would take off before we got caught and go to any number of bars, clubs, hangouts and the like, and would party until the sun came up. We would drag ass in at 925AM reeking of booze and head pounding, then we would do a $10,000 day on a Saturday. I know, I know – we were young and stupid. But as I said, it was fun. Life changing. Disclaimer: I have NOT thrown a conch fritter at somebody for over 20 years now. I am fully reformed.

 

Dirty Ernie's as it looked in 2005.

In 1987 or 1988, Kenny Leacock was in town and about to have his birthday. Between store 74 and 93 and 78, there were 21 of us that got together to throw him a birthday party. I was in charge of money and I collected $100 from all 21 people. We surprised Kenny and took him to Who-Song and Larry’s, a Tex-Mex style bar that encouraged you to write your name or anything all over every square inch of the building – ceilings and all. Those of you who knew and loved Kenny will know that Ken was not much of a drinker – two beers and he was almost falling down drunk. We knew this. Of course we sauced him up and we ate like kings and queens. After about two hours, Kenny went into the bathroom of this packed restaurant giggling and laughing in his trademark high pitched laugh, and for no reason at all he just ripped the sink off the wall like it was Styrofoam! Water started spraying everywhere and he just ran out giggling and went back to the table. They never figured out it was us. I’m sure they were pissed! We ate and drank until there was nothing left to do, and I guess that in 1987 dollars, we ate a lot. The lady came to give me the bill (by the way she was hot and sweet, and everybody had a blast with her) and it was just over $1600. I guarantee and I assure you that she has never forgotten that night. This was the night that she got a nearly $500 tip. She literally cried and hugged all of our drunk asses as we stumbled out into the night. I wish I knew her name and how to get a hold of her.

 

I really do not know how we made it out of the late 80’s alive. But we did. Better for it, stronger for it, none the worse for wear.

 

Section 4 – Moving on up

 

Well, I guess you can only kick ass at a store for so long before the management wants you to kick ass in a group of stores. For me, it was 1990. Jeff Stake told me that if I wanted to be serious about moving up in the Company, I would need to get rid of my race car and move. (More about my race car later.) He was right. Minutes after I told Stake I had sold my race car, they promoted me to Regional Manager and asked me to move to Tampa, Florida to run Tampa, St. Petersburg and Bradenton. These stores were struggling to do $60,000 a month and Lauderdale was doing $200,000 a month. I was so excited to jump in and lead the managers and crew. I had no idea how I would do, but I was confident and excited. I was ready. I was 21 years old, now the youngest employee ever promoted to Regional Manager in the 27 year history of the company. I packed my bags, and my girlfriend and I moved to Tampa.

 

Harry Eberlin and Ed Steele, 1988. It was rare to meet Harry since I was an East Coast guy.

When I got to Tampa I had some skeptics, but it did not take long for them to figure out that I was the real deal and that I wanted them to succeed with me. I raised the bar to a frenzy level – the intensity was so high. I took them out of their comfort zone, over and over. Almost overnight we started doing 20%, 30%, 40% better month to month, and over the same month the year prior. We were turning out managers and assistant managers, cranking out parts, making the stores look awesome.

 

Division 7 Managers and Jeff Stake - Manager's meeting 1989

After only 7 months, management decided I should go to Atlanta Georgia and take care of six states – Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi. I don’t exactly remember the timing, but I eventually took care of all of these states while living in Atlanta. It was the same drill – I was excited, confident, knowledgeable and it did not take long for the managers and crew to see I was for real. I wasn’t perfect, and not everything was positive, but the bad stuff fades with the years.

 

Labor Ticket from Store 47 - 1993

I was in Atlanta for about two years and then the call came for me to move to Memphis, Tennessee and take care of Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and more. It was around 1992 in Memphis Tennessee that we accomplished something that we never did in Fort Lauderdale. We crushed the all time monthly sales figure for any single store ever – I think it was over $307,000 in one month. And we kept doing it. We posted something like six monthly records. I hope you can appreciate how tough it is to average over $10,000 a DAY in an auto parts store with two bays, one manager, one assistant manager and maybe eight or ten employees total. It was something that nobody had seen, before or since. According to www.dollartimes.com, $10,000 a day in 1992 is like doing $16,000 a day in 2009 dollars.

 

Memphis, TN Store 47 - April 4th, 1993

It was almost as if the customers knew something was up and they wanted to help us succeed. It was surreal. People would show up at 9am on a Saturday, knowing that the parking lot would be full and that they would be there for the entire day waiting for wheels and tires or for speed parts. We had one of those paper take-a-number machines (like at the deli) and there would often be 40 or 50 people holding numbers, sitting on all the stacks of tires in the showroom, listening to hard rock and watching us help the people who were at the counter. It was truly unbelievable. Customers started bringing hot rods to the shop and just parking for the day, like we were having a car show. Every Saturday.

 

Jeff Stake with his best "Trout Look" - one of his favorite lines at the time. Probably at the races in Memphis, Tennessee in 1992 or 1993. Dude. My hair and my moustache were just brutal in the 80's and 90's.

We kept working hard and I kept getting promoted. Management asked me to move to Cleveland Ohio in 1993. I moved (this time my girlfriend was now my wife) to Cleveland and took over Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and some others (forgetting now!!) and started the process all over again.

 

 
Here is something from when I was in Cleveland - nine years into it.

Being up against Summit and Jeg’s mail order in our backyard was a tough life. The successes were smaller, and took longer. We worked very, very hard. Eric, manager of Parma, won a Camaro (or was it a Mustang?) from a Coke can during the time I was stationed there – that was cool.

 

The world was changing, and the company had changed over the nine years I was there. It was 1994, and my time with the company was about to end.

 

Section 5 – I had climbed every mountain.

 

By October 1994, I had experienced what seemed like a lifetime of things at SSI. I had busted tires, sold parts, become assistant manager, become manager, set company records, become Regional Manager, flown on corporate jets, installed Satellite Computer Systems, fixed signs, moved repeatedly, repaired a fire damaged store, become District Manager, Divisional Manager, Area Manager, hired hundreds of people and sold millions of dollars in speed shop parts. It was an incredible run, but some recent developments had caused me to become concerned about the future of Super Shops. (It turns out that in the end, I would be right. They closed up less than two years after I left.) My first son was also born in March 1994, so the level of travel required was tough. (I was lying to myself though – the job I was recruited for and went to in October 1994 was even more travel!)

 

I think the biggest reason I decided to leave was that I felt as though I had reached the pinnacle and that the company had nothing more to offer me in the way of advancement. By then, there were only 13 people in the company with an employee number lower than mine. I was a seasoned area manager in a group of 20 managers or so, and the next position of Vice President was stable (Gary Forsythe, Jimmy Patterson), and the role of President was being held by Gregg Koechlein. Other than those two spots, it was Harry Eberlin as owner, and even though I felt like I was family, I wasn’t *actually* family.

 

I have the benefit of retrospection now. I ended up being sadly, tragically correct about my future prospects and the ultimate fate of the company. I won’t bash the management and ownership there for what went wrong. Later, I might try to write an opinion about what was done wrong, what caused the downfall of the company. It was not one thing. It was a series of missteps and decisions that marched them down a pathway to ruin. I’m pretty sure all the Regional and Area Managers saw it. For now, let’s leave it at that.

 

In August of 1994 or so, I was contacted by a headhunter about starting up a wholesale rapid delivery parts warehouse for a publicly traded company, Big A Auto Parts. The new endeavor was called ISW – Installer’s Service Warehouse. The job would make me a small fish in a big pond, instead of the big fish in a small pond, as I had become at SSI. This was new and exciting for me and I was ready for the challenge. I went for it. It turned out to pay more, and to be a monumental effort involving 22 stores in six states, 150 employees. I did well, due to all the things I had lived and learned at Super Shops.

 

Section 6 – More to Say

 

There are many, many people that I worked for and worked with during my time at Super Shops. This story is version 1.0 – I plan to think through it and modify this story as my thoughts and memories return. Don’t think that I have ignored or forgotten you! I owe a huge debt to those who trained and motivated me, and to those who worked for me and helped me succeed. Without all of you, I would not be who I am today. Tune in soon for more details, and please send me stories so I can add them and remember them and share them. If you have any facts to correct, send them to me!

 

Until then,

 

 

Ed Steele

 

Employee 2696

District Manager

Super Shops Automotive Performance Centers

 

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