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Wholesale Observations: Getting a real education in the family business
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

I had many interesting encounters with a variety of folks, during my long tenure with the family wholesale business. Some were customers, others were staff, salesmen and “house” personnel. It was a real education beyond my “white-bread city-boy” experience up until then.

I learned a great deal from them.

One such person was our long-time VP-General Manager, “Mr. S,” who ran the place. We all thought he’d been there since the Civil War, but of course he hadn’t. He was a big man, bald-headed and blustery, gruff, but dedicated to the business. Most people were afraid of him, because of his gruffness, but he really wasn’t a bad sort – just gruff.

My first summer there, as a “green-as-grass” 16-year-old kid, trying to learn the inventory (what we had, where it went, etc., in this 50,000 square-foot warehouse -- as big as a Kroger), sometimes the head stock clerk who was training me would get called away to show one of the order clerks where he’d had to move an item to, to make room for a new shipment coming in.

This happened often.

When it did, he would tell me to “sit right there, and I will be back in a minute.”

So I would do as I was told. It just so happened that summer, that when I did that, that “Mr. S” would come through the warehouse to check on something. When he’d see me sitting down, not doing anything, he’d bark at me: “By God, boy! Get up and go to work! I’m not paying you to sit on your butt and do nothing!”

Of course I’d stammer and try to tell him, Mr.

Simmons told me to sit down and wait until he got back from wherever he’d gone; but that never made any difference! I was scared of him too. So I’d go grab a broom and sweep a floor that had nothing on it.

Another summer, I was an order clerk, putting together customers’ orders for shipment. The warehouse was built in 1957, before air conditioning had been invented, so of course we had none. All we had was one huge fan built into a back wall in one corner, a series of truck bays on the south side of the building, and another set of warehouse doors on the opposite north end, where the railroad siding was.

In the summers, both sets of doors were opened in the morning and closed in the afternoon. And all you could hope for during the day was for a bit of a cross-breeze to blow through to cool things down a bit. Otherwise, it was just plain HOT.

One afternoon, it must have been 120F in the shade, when Mr. S came walking through on his afternoon perambulation.

I happened to be in his vicinity, so I screwed up my courage and asked him (this was 1969 or thereabouts, so AC has becoming more common by then) – “Mr. S, when are you going to put air conditioning out here? By golly, it’s hot!”

He didn’t miss a beat.

“By God, boy, you come back in January, you’ll get all the air conditioning you want!”

And you know what? I did come back, about two years later, over my winter break in college, and he was exactly right! It was plenty air-conditioned then! He was a trip.

So was the warehouse superintendent, another old bald-headed man who was also both loud and gruff.

His bark was so loud, you could hear him anywhere in that entire warehouse.

He ran the warehouse as a tight ship, and you didn’t want to get on his bad side.

He would quickly let you know if he was unhappy.

I later found out that his father had been a country doctor in Effingham County, during the Depression of 1929 – 1939, and when his dad died unexpectedly, he’d had to quit school (sixth grade) to go to work to help support his mom and siblings. So he never had much of an education, but he was a smart fellow, nonetheless, and knew how to read people. He didn’t put up with much. You either stayed on his good side, or you found another job. (Most people stayed.)

He later became a county commissioner (two terms), was in charge of the Effingham County Fall Fair for many years, and delivered Meals on Wheels for many years after that, after he and his wife -- a long-time school teacher – had both retired.

I was very glad I got to know him, and very glad our business had him on our payroll for many years. He was a key employee.

Rafe Semmes is a Savannah native and UGA graduate. He lives in Midway with his wife and some cats.

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