C&H Wholesale - the Secrets of Longevity in a Small Town Small Business
What makes a small business successful? Profit margins? Growth? In a small town like Rutherfordton, I think that there are two keys to business success that may often be overlooked. For C&H Wholesale Co, resilience and relationships have ensured the small business’s prosperity and longevity over the last 73 years.
When George Callahan and Jethro Hodge started supplying goods to general stores and logging camps in 1946, they only carried three lines of products: candy, gum, and cigars. They had two trucks that were stocked with all of their merchandise, and they would travel from place to place supplying retailers with their goods. They kept a warehouse on Taylor Street, but had no store or office. All sales were made right from their trucks, and paperwork was done from home.
Today, methods of distribution have changed and product lines have been added, but the essence of the business is the same. Greg Hodge, the son of Jethro Hodge, is at the helm of the N. Washington Street business, and his sons, Ryan Hodge and Chuck Walker, have joined him. They supply restaurants, stores, businesses, medical offices, schools, and governmental buildings with paper products, supplies, and other wholesale items – but maintain the original product line of candy, gum, and cigars. They deliver the goods to the customers that need them, and travel all over the county and region to get their customers’ orders filled. “We really found our niche,” Greg mused, as he told me about the unique position they hold in the local business community.
Over the years, many changes have taken place in the business, and it has evolved to keep up with trends and challenges. Until 2008, their ordering and invoicing system was still done by hand – there were no computers in the office. They modernized their system after cigarette companies changed their reporting requirements. It turned out to be a good investment for the business in the long run, but at the time it was a huge expense and dramatic change for the business. They chose to eliminate the sale of cigarettes altogether a few years ago, a decision influenced by the challenging tobacco market and shifting consumer preferences.
The vending portion of their business has come and gone. At one time, they maintained cigarette vending machines throughout the county, and even had a vending cafe in Chimney Rock in the 1960's and 1970's, with snack machines, sandwich machines, and ice cream machines. In recent years, the business that once shied away from signage or advertisements has put out a new sign and added social media marketing to their mix of business strategies. C&H has been in an almost constant state of evaluation, as it eliminates what doesn’t work and tries things that will, proving their resilience through the challenges and changes.
The loss of the mills, the economic downturn, the cycle of businesses coming and going, and the changes in consumer preferences have made for some lean years for C&H Wholesale. But they persisted through the tough times. After the worst of the recession, they picked up new customers, like the Rutherford County Jail and other county departments. Things slowly started to improve, and when one customer was lost, another customer came on board to take their place. Additionally, many local business owners have realized the importance of shopping local. “There’s been a full circle effect,” Ryan said, “as folks realized it was just as costly and even more time consuming to travel to Costco or Sam’s to get their supplies. If they shop with us, they save time, and that turns out to be a bigger value.” Customers like Shelly Gref of The Copper Penny Grill, and Dave Linder of Forest City Fish Camp, have been extremely supportive and loyal to C&H, and they encourage other local businesses to follow suit in the “shop local” ethic. But supporting local businesses is about more than just the bottom line. “The relationships we make in here are so important,” Ryan said, “these aren’t just our customers, they’re our friends.” “We’ve had some of the same customers for over 40 years,” Greg added.
As the business looks toward the future, the resilience and relationships that have ensured C&H’s long term success will continue to allow them to prosper. Ryan has introduced new ideas to the business and he also serves on the Rutherford Town Revitalization board – a way to give back to the community and support other businesses in the downtown. Ryan says that he would like for the business to continue for as long as possible. Based on the longevity, determination, and community investment that C&H has demonstrated – there’s no end in sight.