Charles “Bub” Cole owns and operates Cole’s Do it Center in Millington, Tenn.
Loyal Customer Base Boosts Cole
By Brady Buffaloe
Millington, Tenn.—Many small companies in growing suburbs often suffer through or never make it when the “big box” retailers invade their territory. Longtime customers often leave and never come back. Not at Cole’s Do It Center, located here for 60 years and long before a big box hardware store moved across the street.
The leader of the this growing enterprise, 79-year-old C.E. “Bub” Cole can be found most days in his office stashed away in the warehouse.
The particleboard walls are covered in memorabilia in an office no bigger than a closet. There's a handmade wooden clock shaped like North and South Korea that his employees made for him, showing the time he spent in the Korean War. Another wall shows his loyalty to the University of Tennessee Volunteers next to photos of trips to Cuba with W.S. "Babe" Howard, among others.
As a self-described "sawmill boy," the elder Cole started what was then Cole Lumber
The company markets between $9 million and $10 million annually of Softwood lumber.
Co. here in 1960. As the business grew, he moved to the current location in 1989 and changed the name to Cole's Do It Center. With 100,000 square feet under roof and almost nine acres, the operation has room to grow. Cole also owns Cole Lumber Co., along with Cole’s Floor and More in Millington and Cole’s Do It Center in Ripley, Tenn., just a few miles up the road from Millington. The company also has a yard in Drummonds, Tenn., for storage and complete contractor yard.
Until Lowe's moved to the area in 2005, the Cole’s family-owned and operated hardware store had a virtual monopoly in the Millington area for those wanting lumber, nuts, bolts and other items. It was a business built on a person's word and bond. In the earlier years, builders would pick up lumber even when the store was closed. Days later they would settle up their accounts.
"They'd come back Monday and tell us what they got," said Cole's son and the store's manager, Charles "Charlie" Cole. "There's a lot of people who wouldn't be in business today if we hadn't helped them out."
Oftentimes, the loyal customer base extends through two or three generations. Cole’s Do It Center is independent of all other industries and there is never a dull moment. Cole’s motto is “Do unto others as they would want to be treated and if any taking is done, let it be from me and give back to the customer.”
While the elder Cole admitted he's seen a slight drop in business since Lowe's opened, he
Cole stands with one of his longtime employees George Caudle.
added, "I was fortunate. I didn't lose any of my employees and I've maintained about all of my contracting trade."
A self-effacing businessman, Cole said, "I don't begrudge Lowe's being over there. If they're that much smarter than I am, I deserve to go out of business. So far, I'm still able to pay my light bill." Cole admitted that it is the friends he has made over the 60 years that have kept him in business.
“If I hadn’t made any friends by now, it would be too late to start,” he commented.
Cole markets about $9 million to $10 million in lumber annually. The company carries Doug and Hem Fir, SPF, Southern Yellow and Eastern White Pine and Western Red Cedar. Lumber is delivered on truck or rail and comes from area sawmills and from as far away as Canada, Utah and Montana to name a few.
“Our most popular species is Southern Yellow Pine for framing and SPF in 2x4,” Cole stated. “We have a large contractor trade.”
Cole has about 55 employees on payroll at the Millington locations and 33 in Ripley.
Tom Couble has worked for Cole since he began in the lumber industry in 1952.
“It is a family-owned operation from my brothers to my nieces and nephews,” Cole said. “I also have two long-time employees who have been with me since I opened, Tom Couble and George Caudle.”
With annual sales between $15 million to $20 million, Cole can do more than just pay his utilities. Because of his family's success, the Drummonds native has set up seven fully-endowed perpetual scholarship programs to help Tipton Countians who attend either the University of Tennessee at Martin or the main campus in Knoxville. There have been 117 students who have received the scholarships so far.
"It's hard to give too much," the elder Cole explained. "The more you give, the more that comes back to you."
There are 4,100 independently owned hardware and home improvement retailers that are members of Do it Best Corp., the only full-line, full-service buying cooperative in the hardware, lumber and building materials industry. Do it Best Corp. member stores are located in all 50 states and in 45 countries worldwide.
There are 4,100 independently owned hardware and home improvement retailers that are members of Do it Best Corp., the only full-line, full-service buying cooperative in the hardware, lumber and building materials industry.