The Nuts and Bolts of a Family Business

All I've ever known is working with my dad." says Mike Jones of Mike's Merchandise in Guntersville, Alabama. For the past years, he and his dad have worked together, first in the family machine shop business, and in the surplus store that became a travel destination for savvy shoppers from all across the South. "The '80's were the hard years for business people," Mike's father Ray states with a sad shake of his head. "Mom and Pop hardware business and machine shops and all sorts of other businesses were going under, right and left." The economy that hurt so many people was the catalyst that started the enterprise that today has become one of Guntersville's most well shopped and well-known businesses. When the Monsanto plant near Guntersville closed in the early 80', the loss of their business put a huge dent in Ray Jones' small machine shop business. He and his son Mike, who Ray was training in the business, decided to reduce their inventory and see if they could continue to struggle by until the economy got better.  Ray contacted an auction company and set the date for an inventory reduction auction. By the time the auction was over, Ray and the auction company's owner had become good friends, and Ray expressed an interest in attending other auctions in the area. Always one with an eye out for a bargain, Ray started picking up bits and pieces of machinery and tools at the auctions he attended, and turned a portion of their machine shop into a retail store. Before long, machinists from all over started calling Ray to keep his eyes open for this tool, or that piece of machinery and without much fanfare or planning a new business "Mike's Merchandise" was born. They decided that Mike would continue with the retail portion of the store, while Ray continued to keep the machine shop running as long as possible. Sometime items other than nuts and bolts and tools came along with an auction lot. Sharing floor space with the machine shop became an obviously poor choice when one material turned out to be dresses and ladies underwear from a Saks that was folding under the pressure of the bad economy. "It's funny to look back on now," said Mike with a grin. "There were all these ladies rummaging through these expensive pieces of clothing that we had set a price of $2 or $3 a piece and had piled on tables in the machine shop. Dresses and bras and panties and slips on tables right next to greasy machines and tools. But those ladies didn't seem to mind the ambiance. They bought us out clean as a whistle in no time." That bizarre dress sale set the stage for the Joneses to begin branching out into areas other than tools and machinery. Along with that decision came the one to close the machine shop and focus on selling auction and surplus materials. Their 2,000-square-foot building was beginning to get a little cramped with all the boxes and barrels and pallets of merchandise, so Mike's Merchandise began looking for a new home. They ended up in the 14,000-square-foot building that had previously housed Guntersville's Ford dealership. Within a few short years, they had outgrown even that location. In 1998 they moved into the old Comptronix factory building (which had housed the original spinning mill decades earlier) where they had enough room to stretch out their wings a little better, with over 100,000 square feet. Looking at the aisles and aisles of bargains, from Bubba Gump glasses to tiny bolts and from hair barrettes to office desks, you have to wonder if even that is going to be enough space for the bargains they continued to find! Asked if working together had strengthened or weakened the relationship with his dad, Mike smiled and said "I just can't imagine not working with him. And I'm proud to say he's always set a good example for me. I know I'll never have to worry about someone complaining to me that he's cheated them, or wasn't fair in any business dealings." Ray's just as quick to give Mike credit, describing the hours of work he puts in every day, and the miles they've traveled together to attend an auction that they're interested in. Mike even admitted with a blush that the only trips he and his new wife had made, instead of a honeymoon, were to auctions. The biggest mistake they made was buying sixty 55-gallon drums filled with nuts and bolts scraped off the floor of a manufacturer's warehouse after a stack of pallets collapsed and dumping dozens of different sized nuts and bolts all over the floor. "It took Daddy and a buddy of his about six months to sort all those nuts and bolts," Mike says, with a grin at his father. The funniest purchase Ray ever made was a few hundred pairs of ladies shoes. They had 1 been packaged in their original shoe boxes, and if Ray had been in a truck, it wouldn't have been a problem." The fact that he was traveling in a sedan that day, and the shoes were all loose and unmatched didn't deter Ray the Mighty Bargain Hunter. He drove back to Guntersville in a packed to the roof with shoes, leaving him barely enough room to sit and steer the car. From then on, he drove a truck even when he didn't think he'd be buying. (And all the shoes did eventually pair up, and quickly sold out.) Another of Rays purchases that created an unusual sight for the people of Guntersville came after a florist in Decatur folded. Ray bought a truckload of live orchids. Anyone who's ever tried to grow orchids knows what temperamental plants they can be. But these seemed to thrive on the smell of grease and oil among the machine shop parts, and they stayed healthy until they all found new homes. Ray and Mike don't always know what's in some of the boxes they bid on at auction. Unknowingly, ended up with parts to F-16 fighter jets that they had to get special permission from the Pentagon to be able to sell. As you might guess there's not that big a market for ~aircraft parts in the small lakeside village of Guntersville, but Ray and Mike eventually managed to find buyers for almost all the parts. Shoppers planning an excursion to Mike's should plan on spending at least a half a day to be able to see everything. And even then you '11 spot bargains you missed earlier on your way back to the front of the store. One of the biggest draws to the store is the book shipments. Everything from old high school annuals to a month's best-sellers can be found dumped on long tables near the back of the store. Although no one's ever counted the books, it's a safe bet that Mike's has sold more books than any other bookstore in Marshall County, maybe in North Alabama. Because they never know what they'll be buying next, shoppers never kriow what they will find. And sometimes, even after they've found it they are not sure what it is. It's not unusual to see signs saying "Whatever it is, they're 50 cents each" and you : can often hear shoppers saying "I'll bet that would come in handy, if you just knew what it was for." When our interview was drawing to a close, I asked Mike if he had anything he'd like to add. "Just be sure and give my dad a lot of credit in this article." Mike said "I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him."