One of the most striking and inspiring things about the Independent retail industry is the fact that, for all of you who operate in this space and live and breathe retail, your stories and paths through retail are uniquely your own. Sure, you can learn a lot from one another, share best practices and commiserate on the challenges of the day-to-day grind in your businesses. But the route you took to get to where you are — as an owner of a community-driven, independently run retail store — was very much your doing.
Selfishly, that means we get to help share some incredible stories.
Take Larry Wright, for instance. When Larry joined the team at C&C Audio, Video and Appliances in 1999, he was just a kid looking to make a few bucks to help get himself through college. Roger LeBlanc, the owner of the store at the time, added Wright to his delivery team and put him to work. Over the next few years, while working towards a teaching degree, Larry worked on the delivery team and eventually got into the service side of things, helping as a tech in the appliance service department.
Ultimately, though, Larry knew the day was coming when he would leave C&C to pursue a career in the field he’d studied.
“About six months after graduating, I went and did what I went to college for,” he says. “I taught middle school for the GED program in the state prison. It was a job that I really, really, really like and was really, really good at. But not long after I started, we elected a new governor here in Louisiana who didn’t want to spend money on those types of programs. So, before I knew it, I was out of job. The program just went away.”
Wright, who was not only recently unemployed but recently married as well, turned to an old friend in Roger LeBlanc to see if he could help get him back on his feet.
“He was like, ‘the only position we have is in sales,’” Wright remembers. He and his wife, who worked as the bookkeeper for C&C, agreed that it would be best to just get back on the payroll while they figured out what their next steps would be. So, Larry took the position with the idea that he and his wife — both in their early 20s — would soon be looking to make their next career moves.
Offer of a Lifetime
It was around 2004 when Larry and his wife approached Roger to inform him that they were going to start looking to get out of the business and pursue other careers.
“Roger had been wonderful to us. He had worked us both through college. He was the nicest guy on earth; he and his wife both just took great care of us,” Wright says. “And so, we went to him, and we said, ‘Look, we’re going to start looking for other jobs.’ And we explained why, and he understood. The reason we did it, was so he would hire replacements and we could train them and when we left, he was fine. He was solid, not in a bind at all, because I mean, we owed him that.”
It turned out, though, that Roger had a different plan in mind. After getting their informal, long-term resignation, Roger invited Larry and his wife over to his house for dinner — something that he never did.
“Right away we could tell it was a big deal,” Wright says. “When we got there for dinner that night, he just right out asked us: ‘Do you want to buy the business?’ And I remember my first response was, ‘You know what I make, I don’t have any money.’”
Roger had a plan, though. He would work out a payment structure that was spread out over 20 years that would allow Larry and his wife to acquire the business. During that time, Roger would continue to work, essentially as a consultant and to help train Larry, during the first 10 years, and he would be fully retired for the remaining 10 years.
“It’s kind of a complicated way to do it, but it worked out really well for both of us,” says Larry. “He worked 10 of the years and then he retired, and I got 10 years’ worth of training from somebody who was exceptional at what he did.”
Owning a retail store was never supposed to be in the cards for Larry, but all of a sudden, there was a viable path laid out in front of him and his wife, and it was an offer they simply couldn’t refuse. They both knew the business inside and out, and Larry had effectively worked in every area of it — which is, he thinks, what ultimately lead Roger to consider asking him to buy C&C.
“Until Roger said it, I hadn’t even considered it, because I wasn’t family. Neither me or my wife were related to him, and he has children, both of whom are very successful, and they have careers of their own,” Wright says. “It never occurred to me. And that’s a big thing. When we talk about succession planning, I think with a lot of dealers, if their children are not interested in it, I bet a bunch of them have a person currently working for them who could do it. And there’s ways to make it work. Roger proved that to me.”
Three years into the plan, though, Roger received a cancer diagnosis that put him on the shelf and really accelerated the training process for Larry.
“I mean, it was a terrible experience for him to be sick and have to go through that. But it was an accelerated training for sure,” he remembers. “For about six months he never came into the store. He was in the hospital that entire time. And he whipped the cancer, and we had a good bit of time to get trained after that too. But I always say, getting thrown in the deep end isn’t the most pleasant way to learn how to swim, but it’s effective.”
Putting His Stamp on C&C
C&C has been a Lake Charles, Louisiana, staple since 1975. It started in the back of an old bookstore that occupied roughly 3,000 square feet. It’s grown into a business that fills over 30,000 square feet of retail and warehouse space. That success is due greatly to what Roger and his father, Chic LeBlanc, were able to accomplish over the years.
Larry continues to lean into what made the business a success — promoting quality products, competitive pricing and top-notch service. But he also enjoys getting to put his imprint on the business.
“We advertised a ton when he was there, and it worked. He was recognizable. I mean, he was in the spots, and he did a really good job. But we didn’t do very much digital,” he says. “Now digital is, if it’s not the biggest part of our advertising budget right now, it’s certainly up there.”
C&C also refocused its messaging as well, addressing that elephant in the room head on.
“If you ask anybody, anybody if they’d rather buy local or buy from a box store, nobody says the box store,” says Wright. “So, when we asked why they go there, what we heard back was, “price.” And so, we just addressed it. The ads switched to saying, ‘If you’re not coming for price, we’ll fix that. That’s easy. We can do that all day.’ And, truthfully, we were already doing it. We just weren’t saying it. And then, on top of that, we started stressing the things Independents do better: We deliver faster, the salesmen are more knowledgeable, you’re able to get help. For us, we have our own service department.”
That messaging has resulted in an uptick in traffic and sales for the C&C, so much so that Larry was able to open a second location. In addition, C&C is in the process of adding a functioning e-commerce platform to their website on top of other digital upgrades.
Plans to Pay it Forward
Now 17 years into his 20-year plan, Wright is closing in on sole ownership of the business. Roger, who passed in 2017, still resonates in so many ways in how Wright runs the business and carries the C&C torch. And he could help lay the groundwork for Wright’s own succession plan when the time comes.
“I still have a long way to go. But I will say, I don’t have any children, so there’s no kiddos in my life to leave the business to,” says Wright. “I will probably be in a similar situation as him. And look, I would love to be able to change somebody’s life like he changed mine. I think that’s required of me. He took where I was at and moved me to a whole different place that I never even saw coming or wouldn’t have dreamed I’d be able to get to. And so, yeah, I mean, you got to do that. I don’t see any other way I could do it.”