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Wholesale Observations: Business is about people, all kinds of people
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

As I mentioned in an earlier column, when I first went to work in the family wholesale hardware business, things were still being done mainly by hand: orders were hand-written by our territory salesman, on three-part carbonized order pads; invoices were manually priced out and “extended” (totaled) when the completed orders came in to the office the day after they were shipped; and then hand-typed by a typing pool, who occasionally made eye-catching mistakes, sometimes quite humorous. 

Our annual inventory count was taken by hand, the last week of December, when orders were slow; and one summer I had the specialized job of checking our foot-thick catalog, page by page, line by line, to make sure that everything we listed was still in our warehouse. That was a major job – and prepared me well for the task of overseeing our annual inventory count, several years later, when I was home from college on my Christmas Break. (I did that for three years.)

That also turned into a major blessing, about a dozen years later, when I had to close the company, and made a package deal to sell our entire inventory to a larger company in North Carolina, and knew exactly how to do it. One of my two greatest accomplishments, at that time: When they sent a crew down to check our count and load up our inventory into their fleet of trucks, they stopped double-checking our inventory count after one day, having found not one error in our count so far! That saved them a week, with related hotel and food costs for their crew.

So they were happy for that. But I was immensely pleased that they accepted the rest of our count without question. That was an enormous vote of confidence.

Because all our salesmen’s orders were hand-written, it became very important to be able to read their writing. I will never forget the summer we hired a very nice fellow from Allendale, SC, a small town about an hour across the river, who had the nicest hand-writing I had ever seen. I was impressed from the very start. On the other hand, we had a long-time salesman from Augusta whose handwriting was the worst, even though he was a good salesman and his customers loved him. One day, he happened to come to town for some reason, and came through the warehouse as I was trying to decipher his handwriting on one item, and just couldn’t figure it out! I went up to him, perplexed, and showed him the line on his order I just could not decipher. “Mr. Pat! What in the world is this?” He looked at it, studied it, and looked at it some more. Finally, he handed his order back to me with a grin, and said, “Hell, son, I don’t know! Just mark it ‘out of stock!’ The customer will order it again next week!”

So that’s what I did. That was Mr. Pat.

Mr. Pat worked the Augusta territory for us for probably 50 years, and his son Andy worked the Statesboro territory for 30 – both top salesmen. I went to both their funerals, later on. Good Catholics, both; their churches were full.

And I was so very glad to have had the chance to get to know them the little bit that I did. Mr. Pat’s son, Andy, had a different issue. He often got quantity issues mixed up on his orders. In hardware, some items were sold by the each, but others were by the dozen, gross, foot, pound, roll, thousands, bundle, case, etc. You had to learn which items got ordered by which quantity.

We in the warehouse had many a laugh when Andy would write up an order for shotgun shells, for example, which were sold by the case or the thousands (500 to a case), by the foot.

The warehouse superintendent stuck one of Andy’s orders under his nose when he showed up one day, listing “10 feet” of a certain type of shotgun shell, and asked with a smirk, “Was that supposed to be cases laid end-to-end, or sideto- side?” They both knew quite well, of course, that he’d meant to order “10 cases,” not ten feet. I can’t repeat the reply the salesman gave; but it was all in good humor. This was obviously a conversation that had been had before.

Definitions! They will often get one in trouble.

Lots of fun, working in that warehouse! You never knew what was going to happen each day. And many chances to have a good laugh.

More later! 

Rafe Semmes is a Savannah native and UGA grad.

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