Sunday, December 15, 2013

Abilene, The End of the Chisholm Trail

After driving at speeds as high as 80 mph through Kansas on my way to catch a plane back to New York, I almost got a speeding ticket for going 25 miles per hour in a 15 mph zone at the Wichita International Airport. It’s the airport Terry Loewen allegedly wanted to blow up, for which he was arrested last week. Our run-ins with the authorities were separated by three decades, but the convergence of activity there provides reason to recall travel to Kansas.

A mostly flat state with rolling hills in the eastern portion near Wichita, Kansas was “dry” back then. That meant you couldn’t buy liquor for on-premises consumption in any restaurant. There were no saloons, either. Drinking was a purely social affair, done either in your home or country club. Or, in the case of executives from Duckwall-ALCO, a chain of variety and discount stores based in Abilene, in the friendly confines of the chief executive officer’s office.

I had gone to Abilene to do some off-the-record training, to learn some of the hands-on details of retailing. After visiting with several vice presidents during the day, my last interview was with Bob Soelter, the CEO. Bob was among the nicest gentlemen I ever met during my retail reporting career. In fact, the whole executive team were friendly, good people. Our meeting lasted a little past 5 pm when in walked the rest of the executive team. It was time for their daily “shoot.” One of them opened the door of a cabinet and took out a bottle of whiskey. For the next 30 minutes they casually discussed the day’s events, both internal and external news. 

Abilene, they told me, was once a big-time town. When the railroad came there after the Civil War, it was the destination point for Texas cattle drives. Red River, the 1948 western directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, dramatized the first of those epic endeavors from south Texas along the Chisholm Trail. But Abilene, Kansas, soon lost its attraction to Texas cattlemen. As the railroad pushed deeper into Texas, the ranchers found in their own state a shorter transit point to eastern and northern markets. It was meant as a compliment, but the new railroad junction that stunted the growth of Abilene, Kansas, was named Abilene, as well. 

Abilene, Kansas, has one other historic footnote in our nation’s history. Dwight D. Eisenhower lived in Abilene from the time he was two until he graduated high school in 1909. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene is the burial site of President Eisenhower, his wife, Mamie, and their first-born son, Doud Dwight.

Having had a warm and educational experience during my training exercise, I sent one of my new writers there for retail indoctrination the following year. Charlie Humphrey looked like a gnome. Short, wiry, with a full, bushy, reddish blond beard, Charlie was soft-spoken and at first meeting, quite shy. Another point of interest about Charlie was that he and his then wife, Deirdre, had been featured in a magazine article about couples who were the same size and thus able to share androgynous clothing.

The last thing Charlie wanted was to draw attention to himself, but as he arrived at Duckwall-ALCO’s headquarters he saw that was not going to be possible. Outside the main entrance a huge billboard announced, “Welcome Charlie Humphrey, Chain Store Age.” He gingerly entered the front office, not wanting to call attention to himself, but the excitement of his visit preceded him. As soon as he told the receptionist who he was, she shouted to any and all within earshot that Charlie Humphrey had arrived. That brought out several vice presidents, including the head of personnel who told him matter of factly that the group had already assembled and all they’d need was about 20 minutes of his thoughts on the state of retailing.

Whoa! Charlie had been on staff for all of a week, and though he had previously covered the automotive aftermarket, he hardly considered himself an expert on retailing. He had, after all, traveled to Abilene to learn, not teach. There was, however, no way to get out of this command performance in front of newly promoted assistant store managers from across the chain. 

After he returned to New York Charlie told me he did his best to recall some of the trends he had read in a few of the recent issues of Chain Store Age. He did not embarrass himself, the magazine or our company. Charlie would eventually be named my executive editor and then chief editor of one of our company’s other books before becoming a key executive at Ziff and CMP Media. Unlike many other variety and discount store retailers, Duckwall-ALCO, now known simply as ALCO Stores, continues to operate, with more than 200 stores in 23 states, mostly in the Midwest.