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The Grismer Story

As appeared in the Dayton Daily News and the Journal Herald - Sunday January 25, 1987.

Charles L. Marshall, octogenarian tire seller, one time entomologist and talent scout, climbs into his car every day and goes to work. Marshall travels, meets customers and sells with a salesman's ready smile. He's been pushing himself and his products since World War I ended. He was going on 18 then. He's 86 now.

"Charlie" Marshall, President of the Grismer Tire Co., is one of Dayton's most successful and certainly most senior entrepreneurs. A few contemporaries are still on the job here and there, but precious few. His memory, still crisp, holds a treasure of stories about how hard work, sense and plenty of luck can produce prosperity – even in the Great Depression.

He and his sons, Charles II, or "Rusty," and John, own seven retail auto supply stores and commercial outlets. His sales people cover much of Ohio selling new and recapped auto and truck tires. All of this produces revenues of About $9 million annually.

Employees praise Marshall and competitors respect him. His record as an energetic star salesman stems from his ability to communicate a true interest in his customers, one associate explained.

"Charlie is generous to a fault," said Jack Summers, a former Grismer employee who now has his own tire stores. "When I first interviewed for a job, I was dressed in my wedding suit. He took me to lunch, and it started snowing. Charlie kept insisting that I wear his top coat. He really impressed me that he would be so concerned about my welfare over his own.

"Charlie always has had that personal touch," Summers said.

Marshall's winning personality enabled him to buy his business during the dark days of the Great Depression with only a signature loan from a bank in rural Indiana.

Marshall had been a premier salesman for Firestone. His brother was a manager with the tire company. At his urging, young Charlie set his college training aside to become a tire hawker.

Marshall's success in sales earned him promotion to manager of a Firestone store in Marion, Ind. A short time later, in 1932, he and Daytonian Adam Grismerworked out a deal for Marshall to buy Grismer's small tire business in Dayton.

Marshall needed big money. He had been working for six months as manager of the Marion store and had developed a reputation for honesty and hard work.

He persuaded the local banker to lend him $13,000 with no collateral. "The greatest salesman who ever existed was me," said Marshall with a laugh.

When Marshall got to Dayton, he had no money to run his new company. Using his good will and connections at Firestone, he persuaded the company to do something it had never done. Firestone gave Marshall a tire inventory on consignment.

He paid for the tires after they were sold.

"That was after Roosevelt had closed the banks," said his son, Charles "Rusty" Marshall II. "All sales had to be for cash."

The elder Marshall said when time came for the first payroll for his two employees he didn't have the money.

So he went to a nearby bread baking company and convinced the truck supervisor that he needed replacement tires.

"He finally said, 'Okay I'll take four,' Marshall recalled. "I said, 'I don't have that particular size in stock right now but I'll get them. But in the meantime could you pay me now?'"

Marshall, the tireless salesman, got his money and met the payroll.

But before that, when Marshall was still a rising young salesman with Firestone, he learned a lot about opera.

Marshall knew what he liked and he knew what sold. He had a sales district in rural northern Kentucky, and he came to realize that his customers didn't like opera music. It was something most people in those parts didn't care about. Grand Ole Opry, yes. Metropolitan Opera, no. But for some reason the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. was a big supporter of high-brow music.

Throughout his career in the tire business, Marshall has been a Firestone dealer. The tire maker sponsored a weekly radio program, The Voice of Firestone, devoted entirely to grand opera. It ran for decades on radio and even a short time on early television. Marshall said he couldn't understand why his company spent money on a program his customers didn't like.

Harvey Firestone, the company's founder and a pal of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, attended a sales meeting and dinner at the old Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati in the late 1920s.

Marshall took the opportunity to ask the founder why he put on a program that didn't help him sell tires.

"Do they think it's a high class program?" Firestone asked Marshall.

"Yes, they sure do," Marshall Replied.

"Good. That's what I want," said the aging tire magnate. "I want high-class music because we sell high-class tires."

Marshall said the answer was good enough for him. He was a firm believer in Firestone's 11 Points for operating a successful business. Point No. 7 was the most important, he said: "Be interested in what interests the boss."

That doesn't mean be an apple polisher, Marshall explained. "It means that if the boss is interested in something, it must be important."

So while Marshall never became a fan of grand opera, he said he understood its meaning for Mr. Firestone.

Later, he learned that Mrs. Firestone was also a great supporter of the fine arts and had written the theme song for The Voice of Firestone. Marshall's endurance surprises even himself.

He had a bet with himself that he would outlast his last car, a 1975 Cadillac, Rusty said. The boys were urging him to get a fancy new model befitting hisaccomplishments and position. But Marshall didn't want to spend the money.

He won his bet. The old Cadillac seized up and died about a month ago. Now the frugal salesman drives a Plymouth on his daily rounds. "He loves it," Rusty says.

Marshall, of course, could buy another Cadillac. With his income from the business and his other investments, he could afford 20. "But he just doesn't want to spend the money on himself," Charlie II says.

Old Charlie learned about frugality at an early age. "He put himself through Ohio State University, paid all his expenses and sent money home," Rusty said.

Marshall came from a Cincinnati family of seven children and modest means. His father sold insurance. Charlie attended Woodward High School, which had a work-study program. Students studied two weeks and worked two.

"I worked at the Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. I was supposed to be an engineer," Marshall said as he reminisced in his small office in the Grismer headquarters store at 900 South Perry St. After high school he attended the University of Cincinnati for a year.

The summer of his freshman year, Marshall and some other students worked for a printing company. Their boss sent them on an extended sales trip to Chicago with a counselor and a large batch of Chicago city maps. There in the backyard of map-making giant Rand McNally they were told to sell street maps.

Marshall's father cautioned him against the trip, fearing that if it flopped, young Marshall might be forever discouraged against a life in business.

The sales effort did not go well. After a few weeks the other students and the counselor gave up and returned to Cincinnati. Marshall also was running low on funds. He had enough money left for either a train ticket home or a very good dinner.

He pondered his dilemma and then had a big meal. He couldn't call home and ask for money. Dad didn't have any to spare, he said.

Marshall had a few things in his favor- determination and legs strengthened by cross-country running.

His plan was to run up the stairways to the top floor of office buildings and work his way down, knocking on every door. Once inside he told the receptionist that he wanted to see the boss "about a matter pertaining to the streets of Chicago." It worked.

Marshall sold over $800.00 worth of maps.

The next summer he went to work in the wheat fields of Oklahoma, where he developed an interest in agriculture and the creatures that destroy crops. That propelled Marshall to Ohio State, where he obtained a degree in entomology-the science of insects.

While at Ohio State, young Marshall found a rooming house where he could live for free in exchange for cleaning the house. With money earned from waiting on tables, washing dishes, working in a department store and selling brushes door to door, he earned enough to send money home.

He joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), "and those uniforms provided me with my clothes," he recalled.

After earning a degree in entomology, Marshall went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was given what seemed like a choice assignment-go to Japan to study the Japanese Beetle.

But Marshall didn't want to go. Japan in the 1920's was not overly friendly to the United States, he said.

Instead, Marshall got a job selling pesticides to orchard growers in New England. The going was tough for his Model T Ford in those days of few good roads.

Sometimes he had to drive up dry creek beds to get to his backwoods destination.

Marshall's family wasn't happy with him selling arsenic of lead and other bug killers in the wilds of Maine. That's when his brother, Temple Marshall, a district manager for Firestone, persuaded him to give tires a try.

In 1938, Marshall married Dayton attorney Gertrude Bucher. Mrs. Marshall, now in a nursing home, was educated as a chemical engineer and lawyer. She handled legal work for the company and many of its employees. She also was one of the first women to run for the Dayton City Commission, making three unsuccessful tries in the 1930's.

Marshall said he has been fortunate to have good employees, many of whom who have remained with Grismer for decades.

Over the years, Marshall was an innovator. He was one of the first to sell television sets and other appliances in a tire store. He was a leader in offering other services, including tire recapping and front end alignment.

And Marshall was an early and successful user of television. He sponsored a popular program called the Grismer Swap Shop. Airing in the early 1950's, it was hosted by Ted Ryan who also gave the weather report "from high atop the Shell weather tower." Marshall said the show was enormously popular, mainly because people got to appear on TV and offer to swap some piece of used merchandise - a bike, lawn mower, etc. - for something else.

Ryan said the popularity of the program caused some problems. Merchandise would pile up at the wrong place.

"People used to come in to the old store at Fourth and Patterson and drop off things for the show," Ryan recalled. Charlie didn't like having that second hand stuff in his showroom.

"Can't you get it through to them to bring those things to the TV station?" Marshall would plead, said Ryan with a chuckle.

The veteran TV personality said Marshall liked to joke half seriously that he was a better judge of talent than the manager at WHIO TV.

Marshall had hired a then new singing trio from Miamisburg for the grand opening of a new Grismer store.

The performers had applied for work at WHIO but were turned down.

The station executives said they had no place for an act called the McGuire Sisters.

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