Keeping it Local for over a Century
BY ANGEL KANE
Chances are if you live in any of the areas Wilson Living Magazine is read, from Mt. Juliet to Carthage to Lafayette and everywhere in between, you’ve bought something from D.T. McCall and Sons. Whether it’s appliances, furnishings, televisions or mowers, the McCall family has been bringing quality products to middle Tennessee since the late 1800’s. Albeit, in 1896, when the family business was first established, you were more likely to find horse collars and feed in Albert McCall’s General Store than refrigerators or sectionals. However, the premise on which Albert McCall built his business – to always provide quality, affordable products to his neighbors – remains the same, even a century later.
The first store, located in Flatrock, TN, between Carthage and Lebanon, soon included Albert’s son, D.T., (David Thomas) who worked in the family business and then ventured out on his own, on the road, selling mineral products and milking machines, from the back of a horse drawn wagon. In the mid-1920’s, D.T. took a leap of faith when he leased a portion of a building on the square in Carthage in order to house his growing shipments. A few years later, he would open a showroom in that same location selling hardware, minerals and parts.
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One hundred seventeen years later, the McCalls are still keeping it local serving their neighbors all over Middle Tennessee, the only difference, they’ve traded minerals and milking machines for practically everything else a family might need for their home.
“Pa Dave” as D.T. was known to A.J. McCall, the current CEO of D.T. McCall and Sons, remembers that his
grandfather decided to sell appliances when a local gentleman walked in, right after World War II, looking for a refrigerator. McCall, determined to provide whatever his neighbors might need, sent letters to several manufacturers and Westinghouse was the first to respond. “And just like that, we added refrigerators to our inventory and for over 65 years have continued our partnership with Westinghouse, now known as Frigidaire and Electrolux,” notes A.J.. “My grandfather knew if he didn’t find a way to provide the product to his neighbors then they would travel elsewhere to get it. He was relentless when it came to expanding his inventory, so that there was never a need to shop anywhere but locally.”
D.T. McCall went on to have nine children and three of his children, Albert, John and Dave joined the business. Albert McCall, A.J.’s father, took over as CEO in 1956 after serving as an Army Artillery Officer in the Korean War and completing his Master’s Degree at Tennessee Tech. “Dad was the first to add furniture to the mix. I think my mother may have urged him to do that because she didn’t like driving to Nashville to buy what she needed for our home,” notes A.J. with a laugh. “Dad agreed to add furniture because he knew she was on to something”.
In the late 1970’s, Albert McCall made the decision to advertise on the Ralph Emery Show and their then, two locations, Carthage and Lafayette, immediately saw sales increase significantly. “Overnight, everyone now knew of D.T. McCall and Sons, and since then, we’ve never looked back.”
Albert began doing live commercials on the Emery show on Thursdays and eventually the McCalls had someone on the show every day. At it’s peak the Ralph Emery show, unique for its off the cuff, unplanned format, reached almost 700,000 families. “We could put a refrigerator on that show and sell half a truckload before noon,” remembers A.J. Earl Cullum from Walker and Cullum Chevrolet and Albert became local celebrities for their wild, unrehearsed antics that many people over age 40 still remember.
During that time of huge audiences several top performers launched their careers on the show including The Judds and Lorrie Morgan. The Ralph Emery Show band became statewide celebrities as did singer/songwriter, Tom Grant, who later went to work for the McCalls and still does commercials for the company.
The McCall children, who all grew up in the business, often appeared on the show themselves. They were also put to work early putting mowers and tillers together and making deliveries.
“I was pulled over when I was 11 years old driving a delivery truck because back in those days if you were big enough to push the clutch down and see over the dash, you were driving!” relays A.J. Tom McCall, son of D.T.’s son Frank, established the store in Lafayette in the 1970’s and still runs it today. In 1987, the Cookeville store opened and includes a Thomasville Gallery. “My Uncle Dave’s son, Cris runs the Cookeville location and his brother, Mark, operates the central heat and air department in Carthage. Cris added gun safes to our product mix a few years back and sales are excellent,” notes A.J..
As each McCall has joined the family business, it’s apparent they’ve brought a different perspective which has made itmore diverse and appealing. “We all bring something different to the table and yet, we’re family, so we have a strong desire to honor what our grandfather started here in his hometown,” states A.J.. Interestingly, when A.J was younger, he didn’t have plans to run the business. “I always wanted to be a navy fighter pilot and would have done it if I could have passed the eye test,” notes A.J, who attended Castle Height Military Academy. In his junior year of high school he obtained his pilot license and flew all the way to west Texas, alone, with a map and compass, without autopilot on the plane.
A.J. was later certified as an Air Transport Pilot with a DC-3 type rating and is an instructor in airplanes and helicopters “I worked a few months as a flightinstructor and charter pilot and have come very close, many times, to becoming a career aviator but my Dad always talked me out of it.” After graduating with an Engineering Degree from Vanderbilt, serving in the military as an Army Intelligence Officer and obtaining a Law Degree, he thought he might try his hand at practicing law and did that for a short while in Nashville. “Something always brings us McCalls back home though, and after some persuasion, I joined the company in 1988.” Upon joining, A.J. took over the appliance and electronic division and quickly tripled appliance sales. Over the objections of some of the older partners who said they would never sell, he also added Cub Cadet lawn mowers to the inventory, quickly becoming a top ten Cub Cadet dealer in the United States.
They have done so well we now carry Dixie Chopper, a wildly popular mower brand with an almost cult-like following similar to that of Harley-Davidson bikes. I even added a gun store a few years ago at the Carthage location. This may be the only store where you can buy a Thomasville or Paula Dean bedroom set, a Natuzzi sofa, a freezer, a chain saw and a gun, all at the same place!” laughs A.J..
The partners, who now include A.J., his Uncles John and Tom, and his cousins J.J., Cris and Mark, have now reached over 20 million in annual sales and employ over 100 people in the area. Not too shabby for a business started on a horse drawn wagon.
Beth McCall, A.J.’s wife, a former Registered Nurse and Licensed Interior Decorator, joined the business in 2007 and today insures product inventory stays fresh and updated. Beth relays that “the entire company, its partners and employees all reside here. It’s important to us that our customers have the opportunity to buy locally so that their money and tax revenues stay in Tennessee. And we do the same, always supporting other small businesses whenever we can.”
It’s obvious after meeting the McCalls that the secret to the family’s success lies in their relentless commitment to keeping D.T.’s principles in place. “Integrity and honesty were what my father built this business on,” notes Albert McCall now 84 years old, “and we’ve never wavered in our commitment to real, gimmick-free free delivery and setup with no hidden charges in an environment where other dealers use bait-and-switch and after-sale charges for things like cords, hoses, setup and haul off, which we all know are essential to the product you’ve already purchased.
And while we believe in quality we also believe in affordability, we buy in truckload quantities which allows us to deliver a better price for a better product. We can sell you a better item, deliver it, charge you less, stick with our advertised price and still make a profit because we operate more efficiently without corporate bureaucracy. And unlike chains we own our own buildings at most locations and avoid charging customers more in order to pay for expensive real estate or rent. We also have wide selections, deep warehouses and pay cash for our inventory which means we get discounts that we pass on to our friends and neighbors who’ve shopped with us for decades. My father, D.T., used to say ‘you can’t sell off an empty wagon’, and we still believe that,” notes Albert, a born salesman who certainly hasn’t lost his charisma.
Today, the family remains not only committed to the century old local business but also to the community that has helped it succeed. All the McCalls live locally and participate in various local organizations, from being involved in their children’s schools, to participating in Rotary clubs and serving on the Board of Directors of many local businesses.
“Our customers often know us from our local connections, through my flying,J.J.’s tennis or Mark and Cris’ hunting. Most of our trade comes through word of mouth from satisfied customers. This year, for instance, we are having a record year in bedding after adding the Dutch Craft line which is Amish, hand-crafted in Tennessee. After a customer buys a bed, we sell five more to their friends, just by their telling everyone what great quality it is.” There is certainly no better form of advertising than that.
A. J. welcomes everyone “to come in, sit down, have a cup of coffee and get to know us. We’ve been here for 117 years and don’t have plans on going anywhere. And while we’re obviously proud of our rich history, just like my grandfather before us, we believe in innovation and staying ahead of the times. If there’s a product that you need or want, then we’re going to carry it locally because that keeps our dollars and jobs within our community.
That’s the bottom line, honesty, integrity, and keeping it local…it worked in 1896 and it works now.
D.T. McCall and Sons has locations in Lebanon, Carthage, Lafayette, Franklin and Cookeville. You can see all they have to offer at www.dtmccalls.com.