Over the next year, we're celebrating the Countdown to our 100th Anniversary by sharing stories from our past. The history of our founder, Titus B. Schmid, and all those that impacted him, play a vital role in the creation of Crescent Electric Supply Company. Join us as we take a stroll down memory lane in preparation for our Centennial celebration in April, 2019!
Story 4: Crescent Grows Through the Years: The Titus Years
As we celebrate Crescent Electric Supply Company’s 100 years of operation, we can look back with admiration at the passion Titus had for growing the business. In the book Titus self-published on the history of Crescent Electric Supply Company, 1919 to 1964, he shared many stories of the opportunities and challenges he faced. This vignette attempts to capture the first fifty years of the Company history as told by Titus in his book, along with news clippings saved by Titus and his wife, Doden, and stories shared by his children.
In 2006 we asked Mary, the oldest daughter of Titus and Doden, to tell us about her Dad, Titus. She sums it up in one word…
With Mary and Bill’s descriptions of their father setting the scene, we can now go back in time to review some of the memorable moments in the growth of Crescent over its first fifty years - what we can refer to as the “Titus Years.” In a previous vignette, we described the years leading up to Titus forming the Company. After securing some commitments from vendors, it was now time for Titus to open his doors for business.
The first order of business was to name the Company. Over the years there have been many different stories told about the Company name. What every story collaborated was that Titus did not want to name the company by his surname. While proud of his German heritage, in the advent of World War 1 and the years that followed, many German newspapers, churches and places of business throughout the United States changed their names to sound more “American.” Titus describes the naming of the business in his own words:
With Crescent Electric Supply Company now the name on the door, the rented space at 785 Iowa Street opened on April 15, 1919. Titus speaks to the success of the first few years:
So despite all of the naysayers who said Titus could not succeed and the challenges Titus faced in securing merchandise, Titus was able to prove even in the first few years that an electrical distributor could be successful in conducting business in a smaller market.
His early experiences in the Canadian land venture taught Titus the importance of strong business relationships. Titus used that knowledge throughout his years running this business. Titus continuously built relationships with the bankers in each town Crescent operated to allow himself the best chance of securing cash when he needed it. He speaks directly to this:
While Titus certainly was the driver of the business, he did not succeed in this business alone. Titus hired Tom Kelley, the first employee of Crescent, from the Central Electric Company in Chicago. Ironically, this was the same company that failed to send the order to Titus on time and, therefore, the reason for Titus to set up his own distribution company. Tom Kelley was the salesman who called on Titus at the Schmid-Lowe Electric Company and Titus always was impressed with him. Initially, Tom Kelley was hesitant to make the job switch because, similar to many others in the industry, he wasn’t sure a distributor could be successful based in a town as small as Dubuque, Iowa. But eventually, Titus persuaded Tom to join him, and Tom agreed to come on board as Crescent’s first salesman.
For the first year or so, Titus handled the books and did all of the receiving and packing and Tom did the selling. Tom brought many of the customers that he had at Central Electric with him, which was a big help in getting started. Eventually Titus recognized he needed help managing the books, so he sought out his acquaintance, Leo Butt. Titus describes Leo and his appreciation for Leo’s contribution to the company:
The next major employee hire for Titus was Arthur Kies. Titus provides a humorous account of Art’s early days as a salesman for Crescent:
Art Kies hit the ground running and learned the business from the bottom up. It was Art who found the first opportunity for Crescent to expand. Titus describes the purchase of branch number two:
With Madison up and running, Titus began to think about setting up “houses” in other towns. Less than a year later, in 1924, Titus and Tom Kelley learned a retail electrical merchandise store in Davenport, Iowa was shutting down due to financial problems. After a series of meetings with creditors and the support of his bankers, Titus secured a purchase agreement to take over the debts of this company in exchange for ownership. Under these terms, Titus opened a third branch of Crescent Electric Supply Company in Davenport, Iowa. Tom Kelley, who had lived in Davenport before agreeing to work with Titus in Dubuque, returned to Davenport to manage this branch.
By 1924, after only five years of operating the business, Crescent Electric Supply Company was now a successful three-branch operations. Titus speaks to the importance of the branch house concept:
Also, at this same time, after six years of marriage, Titus and Doden were busy at home with their growing family. This is a photo in 1924 of Doden with their four children; Tom, Mary, John and Jim.
By the time the article to the left was written in 1928, Crescent already had 31 employees. In the article Titus talks about the growing uses for electricity and the need for distributors in small markets.
Early in the company’s history, Titus was invited to join the Iowa Electrical Distributors Association where he met many of his peers in the industry. It was at these meetings that he developed a strong business relationship with George Seabury, a former industrial salesman for General Electric, who was a partner in the Midwest Electric Company based out of Des Moines, Iowa. It was George Seabury who introduced Titus to executives of the General Electric Company in 1925.
This fateful meeting was the beginning of a longstanding distribution relationship with General Electric.
At this same time, Titus remained focused on expansion. This required a significant investment and so Titus was always looking for ways to finance the business. Titus describes an opportunity to provide wire on consignment:
It was through Walter Raridan that Titus found his fourth branch. Walter Raridan encouraged Titus to expand to Burlington, Iowa. Eventually Titus and Tom Kelley went to meet with members of the Chamber of Commerce in Burlington. That meeting was successful and in October of 1928 the Burlington branch opened with branch manager, CA McMullen, a young talented salesman who moved from the Madison branch. Titus was thrilled to offer this promotion to “Mac” who made the branch profitable from day one.
As you can see, Titus always focused on having excellent people and never failed to recognize his employee’s contribution to the company’s success. It appears that the employees also shared an affection for Titus. The First Annual Picnic for Crescent employees was June 9, 1928. The program for the picnic includes a list of activities and, most interestingly, a bit of a roasting of each other and their boss, Titus.
The Company operated out of Burlington, Dubuque, Davenport and Madison until 1930 when Titus added his fifth branch out of Quincy, Illinois. Titus describes the decision:
Titus exhibited great confidence in buying this business; it was during the Great Depression and the building he purchased was in very poor physical shape. He arranged a loan from Mercantile Trust and Savings Bank of Quincy.
The terms of the loan required a monthly $500 payment and it took Titus three years to complete the payments. This high cost of financing prevented Titus from moving or renovating the facilities until 1933 when the branch finally moved to 217 North Third Street, Quincy.
Titus must have been quite relieved to move out of the original space as he saved the newspaper clipping which announced the move.
The Great Depression was a challenge for all businesses, and distributors were no exception.
This situation created some opportunities for Titus to continue to expand as described here:
But don’t be fooled, obtaining necessary financing, fighting for sales and struggling to continue to operate the business during the 1930’s was a big challenge for Titus as well. Over the years of operating Crescent Electric, Titus constantly focused on securing financing and building a strong business network. Titus describes his financing arrangement with General Electric during this difficult time:
In addition to the funds provided by The General Electric Company, Art Gies encouraged Titus to arrange financing with larger banks in New York or Chicago. While the small banks in Dubuque, Davenport and Madison always were willing to work with Titus, they did not have the capacity to meet Crescent’s growing business needs. It was at this point that Titus established a banking relationship with Northern Trust out of Chicago.
Yet it wasn’t just all work and no play for Titus and his management team. While the Depression certainly negatively impacted business and created a lot of stress on the Crescent team, Titus recognized the importance of keeping their spirits up. Titus describes a spur of the moment decision to take his team to Miami, Florida for a one week vacation!
Titus and Doden were also very busy on the homefront during this time. This is a photo of their children taken in 1931!
Titus was recognized as a leader in the industry by Electrical Wholesaling Magazine in January 1934, fifteen years after opening the doors of Crescent Electric Supply Company. During those fifteen years he opened five branches (Dubuque, Madison, Davenport, Burlington and Quincy) and secured financing that allowed him to survive and grow during the Great Depression. Those actions earned him a spot in the list of “Men You Should Know”:
Titus was always thinking of ways to increase sales and grow the business. The article below, kept by Titus in his archives, forecasts widening electricity use. No doubt this forecast was all the encouragement Titus needed to continue to expand.
On January 1st, 1935 Crescent opened up a sixth branch, this time in Waterloo, Iowa. In keeping with Titus’ goal of hiring great people and providing opportunities for advancement, he promoted Joe Bertsch who was a Crescent salesman working out of Fort Dodge, to manage the new Waterloo branch.
On January 1, 1937 Crescent opened up its seventh branch in Mason City, Iowa. Titus met with the President of the People’s Gas and Electric Company of Mason City to conduct some due diligence before establishing this branch. Titus found a great new friend and customer in Mr.Charles Strickland, who almost singlehandedly ensured that Crescent would succeed in this city.
On November 15, 1940 Crescent opened its 8th branch in Sioux City, Iowa. In describing how this came about, Titus is realistic about the challenges that came with this “opportunity.”
Titus honored his commitment to open a branch in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The branch opened its doors January 1, 1941 in spite of the talk in the United States regarding a potential war.
In 1940, Titus arranged a speaker for the Knife and Fork club. This speaker was predicting many great changes that will be necessary in construction infrastructure to support an increased use in travel by airplane. Titus clearly was interested in this topic and again, had saved the newspaper article in his archives. It must have been this speaker that convinced Titus to volunteer on the Airport Commission…
While Titus was well aware of the opportunities air flight could offer, it is obvious from the timing of this article that the United States was at this time focused on the war effort. Titus speaks to the challenges of operating Crescent Electric Supply Company during World War II:
After the war, Crescent went through a period of significant growth. Over the next decade, Titus focused on adding more branches and increasing sales. New branches included Spencer, Iowa on July 3, 1948; Ottumwa, Iowa on September 1, 1949; and Peoria, Illinois on October 1, 1949.
On January 1, 1951 Crescent opened a branch in Huron, South Dakota; on June 1, 1951 a branch in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; on July 1, 1951 a branch in Sterling, Illinois; and on July 1, 1953 a branch in Rapid City, South Dakota.
On March 1, 1957 Crescent opened a branch in Des Moines, Iowa.
On July 1, 1957 Crescent opened a branch in DeKalb, Illinois. Then on October 1, 1959 Crescent opened another branch in Rochester, Minnesota.
However, the story of Crescent’s growth would not be complete if we did not acknowledge that there were failures along the way too. Titus was willing to take risks and was quick to exit when necessary. For example, there was a three-year period when Crescent entered the hardware business that quickly failed.
Of course, not all of the new branches succeeded either. A branch purchased in Decorah, Iowa quickly proved to be a challenge. Titus explains the decision to open, and then within 4 years, close this location.
Crescent also made an investment in manufacturing. Manufacturing turned out to be quite challenging as the introduction of these two products attest:
Clearly, Titus had more successes than failures. The company celebrated its 40th Anniversary with a celebration in Chicago hosted by General Electric on May 26th, 1959.
Then ten years later, Crescent reached the 50th year milestone celebrating with a party at the annual sales meeting in Chicago.
This brochure, distributed to customers and manufacturers for the 50th anniversary, shows the face of Crescent in 1969. The pictures and descriptions of products has certainly changed since then, but the commitment to its employees, customers, and suppliers remains the same.
Throughout the years, the focus on the employees remains a constant of doing business as Crescent Electric Supply Company.
In honor of Crescent’s 50 year relationship with General Electric, the two companies had a joint celebration. General Electric presented Titus with a gift of a bronze bust to commemorate his 50 years of service.
Titus also had a write-up in the local paper for the 50th celebration. Fifty years of business was a great milestone!
As you have read, Titus B. Schmid drove the growth the first 50 years of Crescent Electric Supply Company. Hopefully, you have gained a better understanding of the history of the Company from this vignette. While 50 years for any one person to be involved in a business is a very long time, Titus was not yet ready to retire. He was honored to have his sons join him in the business in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Titus slowly began to take a backseat in the management of the business, becoming Chairman of the Board and turning over the President role to his oldest son, Tom. In the next vignette we will focus on Tom Schmid and his brothers, John, Jim and Bill, as they began to influence and eventually run the business.
About the Project as explained by the Author:
Author Mary Schmid Daugherty is a third generation Schmid family member. Content for this Project, a historical narrative, was selected from the personal archives of many members of the Schmid family. A special thanks to the Tom Schmid family for their voluminous archives of materials of the early years of the Schmid family beginning in 1856. The narrative itself required the author to cull and categorize hundreds of pieces of information (old newspaper articles, photos, interviews, movies and physical memorabilia). She then fit the pieces together to share this story of the Schmid family and Crescent Electric over the past 100 years. The resulting Project is a series of vignettes, of which this is one. She hopes you enjoy reading and watching these vignettes.
To learn more about the Author’s professional qualifications visit her website: https://www.stthomas.edu/business/faculty/directory/daugherty-mary.html
© Mary Schmid Daugherty May 2018
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