Last Modified December 31st, 2016.
Harry Eberlin, Employee Number #0001 Stories
The man, the legend, the creator of Super Shops.
|You know, it is pretty tempting to judge something by how it ended.
That really isn't so fair. I know a lot of people who were touched in
some profound way by Super Shops existing as it did, when it did, and it
is sad to see so many bad things now being said online about the entity,
about the people, and ultimately about Harry. Isn't that a little bit
like bitching and moaning about your ex-wife, instead of remembering how
great things were and how in love you were when you first got married? I know that everybody is
entitled to say what they will, and I understand how important that
right to free speech is in our world. But I'm just saying.
Personally, I think that what Harry created, grew, and ultimately lost was nothing short of amazing, in the truest sense of the word. And to me, the way it ended, although unfortunate and awful, does not define my Super Shops experience.
Nothing about how it ended will ever cancel out the good times I had, what I learned, how I was shaped, the valuable place in my life that Super Shops held. Nothing will ever cancel out how incredible the organization was and how well Harry communicated his message to the crew. Nothing will ever reverse my opinion of what a juggernaut the company was in its heyday.
Don't you think that's fair?
|Here is a letter I sent to Harry recently. I thought it would be appropriate to share it here.|
Ah, the miracle of the Internet! I spoke with Jeff Highland today while I was fixing up his PC and he gave me your email address – I hope it is OK for me to send you a note.
I just wanted to thank you. For Super Shops, for Mallory, for Erson, for changing my life, for transforming me personally through your place and your message and your people. I’m sure that many of the people whose lives you have touched have thanked you before now, but I feel the need to do so today.
Super Shops was a magical place – not just because of the speed parts. It was magic because you found a way to motivate people close to you, and those people believed in you and believed in your goals and aspirations in a most powerful way. Those people then did an amazing job of reaching out across the country and creating the same magic for those they hired – during a time when methods of communication were much more primitive. I am sure that somebody like me has a very different perspective than some of the old timers, because I came up as a labor man in one of the far reaching outposts of the empire, and that was a totally different pathway as an employee. Somehow, that fact made me feel more special. It made me want to work even harder to prove myself to the old guard, to the guys from the first 20 or 30 stores, and to you.
So much of how I behave and what I know about life I learned through Super Shops. And when I say that, I mean that your people brought me your message – all the way from the new employee indoctrination to the story of Super Shops to the sales and business skills they taught me (or helped me discover within myself) and these skills persisted throughout my life. I am aware that life is what you make it and that I get to take some credit for who I am and how I turned out, but I also firmly believe that there are pivotal key events, key moments in time, key people, and those things profoundly affect somebody’s path through life.
I know it to be true. And Super Shops was such a prime example. You, and eventually I, changed a lot of lives over the years. Besides all the fun and all the technical knowledge, I treasure the emotions and the feelings that came from accomplishing a sale, to winning a contest, to being treated a certain way as a manager and an upper manager. Being taught to do so many different things and feeling loyal to a company and a man is a powerful thing. I always felt like what I was doing was important – that I was helping employees become better people, helping customers find happiness in their pursuits, helping the company be a great place, helping you prosper and continue to grow and do all the good things you did out of the kindness of your heart and out of your desire to be great and to be successful. Harry, that is powerful stuff, to feel like your work has meaning.
I took away many rewards. My work ethic, my moral compass, my selling personality, my technical bend, my love for cars, my love for competition, and oh so many stories. So many good times.
I hope, sir, that you are proud of yourself. You should be.
Thanks. And thanks can’t even begin to cover the debt of gratitude I have for you and what you have accomplished in your life. And having lost it all just makes you human, a mere mortal. You are a person worthy of admiration. And I know there are a great many people out there who truly admire you and are grateful for how you touched their lives. Count me as one of them. I sincerely hope that you have found peace and happiness in your life now, and that you swell with pride from knowing what you did was something truly out of this world.
RT Software Systems, Inc.
|I recently received an email from Jason Hallman about Harry, and I thought I would share it here (with his permission.)|
Not sure that you and I ever met…but I found your page Googling around on break. I was the AM at #156 under Chad Miller and I started out as the Part Timer at #164 under Eric Coleman. I later became the floating manager in the region and left about 6-months before the end. I attended a manager's meeting in the fall of 1996 in Reno and that was when I got to meet so many face to face. I even got to meet Harry one time when he "popped" into a store I was "fixing" in Cincinnati. That was pretty cool. He was surprised that I recognized him, so was I. I probably would not have if not for Gary being at his side.
Super Shops left an indelible mark on my life. So many friends (to this day) came from those days. So much of what I have become was a direct result of the "Kool-Aid" that was so freely passed around those days. But you wanna know what? I would not take a second back from any of it! It made me who I am today. I still have the binder that was given to me at the Manager's meeting and one of my most cherished personal belongings is the "Top 500" sales paper the time I made the front page (printed on my 20th birthday in 1993).
When I started my own business (Cycle Stop USA) I modeled so much of it after the shops. I only hope to touch as many as Harry did and while I know that there were so many that felt slighted…I never did. Everywhere I go in the auto industry (and now the motorcycle industry) I run into people that knew of the shops or even worked there. I bet that near the top of every big parts chain is a Super Shops employee that remembers rule number 5, (Saying "hi").
The saddest part for me also is that Harry has been vilified at all. Honestly, the man is nothing short of a genius! I wish so badly that I could talk to him…college professors should teach classes on him alone and his view of business. There is so much that can be modeled after his ways. There was zero "right place/right time" to do with the success of that company. Its death is on the change of business due to Summit, Jegs and the internet. Harry literally is the last bastion of individual success (in his industry) and a model of capitalism that really makes this country great. He deserves to be heralded as such.
He never put himself in front of anyone…not even on the way out the door…he lead that way too. If a man is smart enough to build an empire the size of SSI…he is smart enough to read the writing on the wall when there is nowhere left to go. Look at the change in business in the last 18 years alone! If Harry believed in one thing, it was that brick and mortar shops were the only correct way to purchase (and sell) anything correctly. The internet removes any hope of an interpersonal relationship in that industry. I had ownership of my customer's success…you don’t get that online, or if you do it is rare.
Sorry I am blathering on but if there is any opportunity that you ever share with Harry please send him my sincerest regards. His company made me the businessman, father and auto shop teacher I am today. I am forever grateful to him and forever in his debt. His story drove (and still drives me) to succeed in every aspect of my life and it should be told so that young entrepreneurs are giving wisdom and hope for many years to come.
Well, I just wanted to chime in…hope you are
|A customer from Stockton asked me in an email to explain to him what I thought the reason was for Super Shops closing. Here is the reply I sent to him.|
Ed, why do you think SS ran into financial trouble and closed? I have always thought it was because of the Mallory and Erson purchases. If I recall, he bought those out of the Mr. Gasket bankruptcy. Or it was that house in Newport that he was pumping millions into?
Then the internet came about and Jegs and Summit were positioned to explode. But I loved going to SS and buying stuff there. I remember driving to the SS in Stockton shortly after it was closed and I could not believe it had closed. It always appeared to be ran like a clock and was immaculate and clean and it always had a line of customers waiting. I was shocked it had closed.
Everybody has an opinion on the downfall – I believe that I was close enough to see things develop and collapse from a management role but certainly not from a back-office/corporate office/ownership role. From my perspective, and from what Harry directly told me in a Thanksgiving phone conversation we had a few years ago, it was a perfect storm that did SSI in. It would be unwise and off-point to blame one, two, or even three particular things as the sole reason for the failure.
There was a backdrop of change in society-at-large (beyond the control of SSI) that greatly affected the outcome of what SSI was doing and could actually control. The timing of it all was unfortunate.
1. The Computerization and Emission Control “Black-Boxing” of new vehicles
From maybe 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 and then forever more, the Automakers quickly changed vehicles from being very easy to modify, to “black box” closed systems. This, in response to intense regulation and pressure from foreign automaker competition. Since it happened so quickly, the novice enthusiasts pushed back and waited (did nothing to modify their new car), while the vendors of aftermarket parts refused to believe it would last or that they would need to “innovate or die.” Arrogance by those who were previously doing well has been the downfall of many other industries, and aftermarket parts manufacturers became no exception. Just ask the buggy-whip people, the pay phone people, the pager people, the Palm Pilot people, the Sony Walkman people, and hundreds of other examples. This led every speed shop on the planet to keep focusing on older hotrods (owned by far fewer people than the street beaters) and carry one little section of computer chips and air cleaner elements. This dried up the market (and the revenue) a great deal, and it happened quickly. People used to come in with, let’s say a 79 Camaro or an 81 Chevy Pickup truck, and we could sell them wheels, tires, exhaust, engine chrome, cam, intake, carb, fuel system and more, on the spot, off the shelf. In 1990, when a dude came in with a 1989 Camaro, what could we sell him without wrecking the fuel injection and the computer ignition and exhaust? Plenty of things now, almost nothing in 1990.
2. The arrival of affordable personal computing for business and the increased availability of the Internet
The Internet coming into place when it did also forever changed the standard of pricing for every speed shop. The large catalog houses had already put downward pressure on price for the speed shop, but only a narrow group of people knew about it, saw catalogs from them, and would be willing to wait and deal with the hassle of buying and waiting for stuff. Add the Internet, and now many more people could see and research parts, then eventually more could order parts online, and the catalog houses quickly took advantage of the technology to actually bolster their catalog sales. “Go to www.jegs.com and look at this picture”, etc. etc. Remember – the Internet was not just the Internet – it was the computerization of mass mailing, the improvement of customer databases, the development of efficient inventory control and trendspotting, and more. All very powerful weapons in the hands of those who chose to embrace it.
3. Jobs Economy, Work Ethic, Career Loyalty
The work ethic and economy of the country dramatically changed from what it was in the 70’s and mid 80’s, to what it was in the late 80’s and 90’s. This reduced the quality of the work person looking for work, reduced loyalty from employees, and reduced the amount of time a person would spend at a job like a counter parts job. It was incredibly apparent to me with my eyeballs in the store, and also in one odd indicator – each employee had a unique employee number. I recall being shocked at how high the employee numbers were getting and how quickly they were increasing – suddenly, people would not care as much about keeping their job, not care about doing a good job and not care in general about the quality of their own work. I realize this is not true across the board – but the bad stuff seemed to sharply increase in the late 80’s, early 90’s.
4. Michelin – and the foreign ownership
You may or may not realize that one of the largest reasons that Super Shops was able to grow and expand from 30-40 stores in the 70’s to 165 stores by the 90’s was the relationship Harry had with B.F. Goodrich. Harry would look you in the eye and strike his deal with you, and then that word was like gold. All on a handshake. This was “old school”, and was how people like Mickey Thompson, Vic Edelbrock and other legends of the past would sell their stuff to Harry. BF Goodrich, for many years, would agree to deliver a huge order of tires (millions of dollars) in the fall to SSI and then would permit Harry to pay those invoices 3-4 months after he received the tires. This had the favorable effect of allowing Harry to use the proceeds from the sale of the tires he had not yet paid for to do things like pay rent and meet payroll in the lean times. This was just as effective as a bank line of credit for SSI. Since Speed Shops were not “traditional”, the banking industry and Harry were never friends. Banks want to give you an umbrella when the sun is shining – and the minute it starts to rain they don’t want to help you through it. Worse, they often take the umbrella back when it starts to rain. Sad, but true. “It takes money to make money” is one of the dumbest paradigms in the world, but it is true - financial institutions want you to have money before they will consider loaning you any. We all know this.
Anyway – Against the backdrop of declining potential customers (due to cars being less-modifiable), the increasing presence of Catalog options for buyers (from Jeg’s, Summit, improved computing, Internet), the decline of training, skill and loyalty in the workforce, and a general shift away from the “Car Culture” for the average car owner (Foreign Cars, lowered quality of American Cars, closed emissions systems, etc.), Michelin bought B.F. Goodrich in 1988.
After the acquisition deal was done where Michelin bought B.F. Goodrich, the geniuses at Michelin Headquarters in France took one look at the spreadsheet showing Super Shops owing millions of dollars in unpaid invoices and immediately flew to see Harry and asked him to pony up and pay the debt. They paid no credence to the years-long gentleman’s agreement that BF Goodrich and Super Shops had, and utterly failed to understand that SSI made BF Goodrich what it was that day, and that BF Goodrich made SSI what it was that day. A perfect example of Symbiosis, a perfect example of what a vendor and a retailer can accomplish if they get creative and work together for long term gain. Part of the reason they missed this point with Harry was that BFG had recently been acquired by a New York Investment Banker when Uniroyal had acquired BFG. Any time a giant corporation buys another giant corporation and “Investors” get involved, things like “Gentlemen’s Agreements” go south, and fast. Then, Michelin bought that resulting super-giant Uniroyal/BFG corporation.
Harry told me that he believed they simply had no idea how they were about to pull the plug and watch a nearly 300 million dollar a year retailer with 1300+ families worth of employees collapse, and had even less of a clue that if SSI was not there to buy the BFG tires, what they just bought (BFG Corp) would lose millions of dollars overnight and BFG sales would plunge. They made the arrogant and totally mistaken assumption that consumers would simply go to some other tire store if SSI was not in business, and ask for BFG tires. Harry told me he thought this was an Epic Miscalculation, made by arrogant managers of a foreign corporation who had no idea about the American market dynamic. They had no idea that SSI literally created the BFG sales from Thin Air – that only a tiny percentage of SSI customers who bought BFG tires from us came in looking for BFG tires (or for any tires at all.) We created those sales from thin air, cashing in on our customer loyalty, capitalizing on a quality product, but more than that, cashing in on a sale that otherwise would not have gone to BFG. In a vacuum, our customer would have gone Goodyear or Firestone – they would not go looking for a BFG store and ask for a Radial T/A. Harry told me he was amazed by their ignorance of this fact, or perhaps their unwillingness to accept it as reality.
Michelin utterly failed in their evaluation of what would happen, and they also didn’t like Harry’s style (did they dislike the “Arrogant Americans”? who knows?) Harry was understandably angry and defensive about how BFG no longer looked at SSI the way they did when BFG was growing with us, so I am sure both sides of the table were hot under the collar. Words were exchanged, heated meetings ensued, and ultimately, they demanded that Harry pay the invoices. When it came time to ship the tires for that season, Michelin single-handedly put Super Shops out of business by not shipping any tires and demanding that the old invoices be paid in full before any more tires would be shipped.
Am I saying that Michelin put them out of business? Not exactly. I am saying that, against the backdrop of all the other circumstances, and against the backdrop of other decisions SSI made (good decisions AND bad decisions), when Michelin held that tire shipment, it was the “stake through the heart.” So, technically, Michelin put Super Shops out of business. If one, two, three, or 30 other things were not exactly as they were at the time, Super Shops may have survived it. But no mistaking it – Harry said that the management at Michelin in France dealt the deadly blow and plunged Super Shops into bankruptcy with a conscious decision. They caused SSI to no longer exist and they destroyed the lives of more than a few people. Edelbrock, Mr. Gasket, American Eagle Wheel, Enkei Wheels and many other companies either went bankrupt because Harry went bankrupt, or they struggled for years to recover.
So – do I think Mallory and Erson had one thing to do with the downfall of SSI? Not one bit. Or his killer house in Newport Beach he was building? Not likely. For years, the Mallory and Erson arrangement enriched Harry and SSI and made much of what happened possible, much like BFG did. There are Insiders and Outsiders alike who have all kinds of bad things to say about Harry. Haters will hate. The man was a phenomenal businessman and accomplished great things over a very long period of time, regardless of how it unraveled. Despite his mistakes and despite all the things that were bad or wrong about Super Shops, Mallory, Erson and all the other companies and operations he owned and ran - what he created, nurtured, and ultimately lost was nothing short of awesome. He affected thousands of people in positive ways and he deserves credit for shaping and defining an industry and a certain time in the history of Aftermarket Automotive High Performance. He was an innovator, and I choose to accept him for who he was and what he accomplished, acknowledging that not everything he did was right, or perfect, or good. He was a mere mortal, and made his mistakes. But he was quite a man, and quite a businessman, and he accomplished much in his life. He deserves credit for all the good he did in the world.
That’s my take. Super Shops (and that means Harry) defined my life for ten years, and has remained in my thoughts for 25 more. The experience informed my personal and professional life, and taught me much. I am glad, and count myself as lucky that I worked for the man.
I hope that answers it for you!
Not sure if you can see this from the image - but this is a shrinkwrapped card, done in 1989 at Erson during the Managers' Meeting.
Not sure if you can see this from the image - but this is a shrinkwrapped card, done in 1989 at Mallory during the Managers' Meeting. Quick, I need to TELEX Harry today!