Crab Orchard couple have built 'niche' business in locker sales

March 01, 2004|JOHN T. DAVIS

Webster's defines "niche" as "a place, employment, or activity for which a person or thing is best fitted" and that pretty much explains why Bill and Patti Jennings of Crab Orchard have been able to build their successful small business, Locker Specialties.

"We're not well known, but we've got a little niche," said Jennings of the business he started six years ago after leaving his job as a manager at Sanymetal, a Somerset company that manufactures toilet partitions.

But Jennings is a modest man. The company may not be "well known" by the average person on the street, but it has made a name for itself among the architects and contractors that do some of the region's largest projects.

Locker Specialties has put lockers, bathroom fixtures, and other items in Applebee's Park in Lexington, Louisville Slugger Field in Louisville, the University of Tennessee Recreation Center in Knoxville, and the University of Cincinnati Pavilion as well as countless schools and colleges in Kentucky and adjoining states.


Although installing lockers in schools and athletic complexes may be the company's biggest business, Locker Specialties sells and installs a mind-boggling array of products including flag poles, TV brackets, VCR racks, fire extinguishers, floor grates, projector screens, basketball goals, architectural signage, plaques, fire extinguisher cabinets, toilet partitions, grab bars, hand dryers, mirrors, soap dispensers, gym partitions ... in other words, a lot of the things we're surrounded by but never think about.

Jennings said the competition comes from a "couple of big outfits," but Locker Specialties has managed to survive and thrive by stressing quality installation.

"We install all of these products while the others only sell them," Jenning said. "We just got busier and busier, and the people who we do work for call us back."

In addition to Bill and Patti Jennings, the business has three full-time employees who spend most of their time on job sites doing installations.

Part-time workers are used to assemble lockers and other items at the Crab Orchard office.

Patti Jennings, who manages the office and enjoys keeping the books for the business, was busy Monday afternoon assembling lockers for a project at Pineville Middle School with the help of part-time worker Teresa Spurgeon. The lockers are assembled in sections, and the installers put the sections together on the job site.

Its Crab Orchard location was once city hall

Locker Specialties also sells some used lockers from the Crab Orchard location - a building on Main Street that once was city hall and still includes an old jail cell,

"When we take lockers out of schools, if they're in half decent shape, we'll fix them up and sell them as used," Jennings. "We've had people drive down from Lexington to get them."

"One woman said, 'My son wants one of these for his room,'" Patti said.

In the past, Bill Jennings has spent most of his time on job sites, making sure the installations, which can be pretty demanding mechanically, are done properly the first time.

"If you travel to southern Indiana for a one-day job and make any small mistake, then you have to waste a whole day going back to fix it," Jennings said. "We have to do it right the first time.

"We built the business on me going and doing it. We have a good foreman right now and experienced guys, but I still oversee the field work myself. That's the way we built this business, on quality work."

As far as future growth, Jennings said he is looking to expand sales of products that the company doesn't have to install.

"We grew from me having to go on every installation to where I just have stay on top of things," Jennings said. "I can sell more products that way."

She enjoys the flexibility of being her own boss

Patti, who worked at Crab Orchard Elementary for three years before joining the business full-time, said she enjoys the flexibility of being her own boss.

"You can close the doors at noon on Friday," she said, although she admitted that the couple are seldom able to do that.

"When we find something important, we can close for it," Bill Jennings said, adding that the couple could do enough business to "work around the clock" if they wanted to.

One thing "important" the couple did was take a three-week mission trip to Africa a few years ago.

The couple are active in Crab Orchard Baptist Church (where Patti also keeps the books) and are proud of the free community dinners the church offers Tuesday night.

Jennings said he had long been interested in starting his own company when he started the business six years ago.

"I went back to college after I came back from the service and I thought I would get a degree and make the American dream come true. But I realized I could take better care of myself than someone else could. I went back to my building roots," said Jennings, who had construction experience before going to work for Sanymetals. "The Lord led us to where we wanted to be."

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