Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A sad ending to a great story

We often hear the phrase, "The American Dream," and while the phrase means different things to different people, whenever I hear it I think of my former boss and still good friend, Rudy Boschwitz (shown here in 1977).

If you grew up in the Twin Cities area in the 1960s, like I did, it was almost impossible not to know who Rudy Boschwitz was, and that he ran something called "Plywood Minnesota." The guy in the plaid shirt was on tv and radio all the time, talking about his chain of home improvement stores, promising low prices where the customer got "our best shot all the time."

(Charles Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts" and a Minnesota native, picked up on the message. There's a strip in which one of the Peanuts characters tells the teacher he is giving it "my best shot" and then explains, "Just a little colloquialism, ma'am." He later signed the original of the strip and gave it to Rudy.)

I didn't know the story behind the stores, and it would be years before I learned about what really made Plywood Minnesota special.

In 1978, Rudy turned his business fame into a U.S. Senate seat, and in 1987 I became his Press Secretary, and during our thousands of hours traveling together, I learned the history of the entire enterprise.

Rudy came to America in the 1930s, his family fleeing Nazi Germany, and it appeared Rudy was destined for corporate law. He was an exceptionally bright kid, who graduated high school at 16, went to Johns Hopkins and graduated college by age 19, then got his law degree from NYU at age 22. By 1956 he was in and out of the U.S. Army, passed the New York bar and was practicing law on Wall Street. His future looked assured.

Except that business law bored him, and he had the soul of an entrepreneur. He moved to Wisconsin, where his brother ran a plywood factory, and then on to Minneapolis, with the dream of selling plywood. He told me how he and Ellen doubled up on their mortgage payments in order to build a little equity and get some cash to start the business.

When he opened in Fridley in the early '60s, it wasn't very fancy. Sheets of plywood stacked against the wall, buckets of nails on the floor. But it quickly developed a reputation for quality and low prices, and fueled by Rudy's on-air persona, the business grew quickly. By the '70s he had 70 stores in 11 states and had made himself a millionaire. It truly was the American Dream in action, and the entire Boschwitz family - Rudy, wife Ellen and the four boys - all worked together in the business.

In the 1990s, Rudy hired me to help with a name change for the stores. "Plywood Minnesota" no longer really represented the kind of upscale remodeling centers the stores had becomes, selling high-end carpets, window treatments, cabinets and such. They came up with the name Home Valu, and have operated under that name since.

Earlier this week the family announced that they were shutting the business down for good after 46 years. The soft economy - and in particular the decimated housing market - took too big a toll on them. The poor credit market made it tougher for homeowners to get equity lines of credit, one of the more common ways of paying for Home Valu's remodeling projects.

Closing the stores means about 130 employees will lose jobs, which I know must trouble Rudy greatly, because he took great pride in treating his employees well. It was always impressive to talk to some of the staff and find out how many years they had spent with the company. News reports said the company waited too long to try to downsize, and I'm certain that was, in part, because it would have been difficult for Rudy to lay off people.

Of course, business start-ups and business failures are part of the free enterprise system that Rudy - and I - believed in so strongly. It's the circle of life, and it would hypocritical of me to say that a business should remain around when the marketplace has said it should vanish, but the headlines in this instance really make me sad. The Boschwitz family is made up of very good people, and Rudy's story remains an inspiration, despite the final chapter.

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